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State board rejects Hadley Chinese charter school expansion

  • CAROL LOLLISKathleen Wang, the principal at the Pioneer Valley Chinese Immersion Charter School, stands on a play structure with the new addition to the school in the background. Carol Lollis

  • Richard Alcorn, executive director of the Pioneer Valley Chinese Immersion Charter School, Tuesday in front of the school in Hadley. SARAH CROSBY



Staff Writer
Thursday, March 02, 2017

HADLEY — After hearing testimony that the Pioneer Valley Chinese Immersion Charter School is draining resources from local school districts and not educating a sufficiently diverse student body, the state’s Board of Elementary and Secondary Education on Monday turned down a proposed expansion to nearly double its enrollment.

In a voice vote about four hours into its meeting in Malden, the board denied a 452-student enrollment increase at the charter school recommended by Mitchell D. Chester, the commissioner of elementary and secondary education. Chester called the decade-old school an “exemplar” of what the charter-school movement is about.

But Michael Morris, acting superintendent for the Amherst-Pelham Regional School District, told the board that adding students would be transferring funds from schools where underserved students are educated to one attended by more privileged children. Amherst, Morris said, is already sending $2.24 million from the school and town budgets to the charter school.

Morris also presented statistics showing that the demographics indicate the charter school is not meeting its mission, with PVCICS having fewer low-income students and English language learners than Amherst schools, and special education children often returning to Amherst after being enrolled in the Hadley school.

Barbara Madeloni, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, spoke at the beginning of the meeting, observing that the communities PVCICS serves overwhelmingly voted against the ballot question in November that would have lifted the statewide cap on charter schools.

In addition, Madeloni said the immersion school is “conspicuously” failing to serve all students. Rather than allow the expansion, she said, the board should launch an investigation into whether civil and education rights of the charter school’s students are being violated based on reports of special needs students departing the school.

PVCICS is already authorized to have its enrollment increase to 584 students, meaning 113 slots are currently available.

But Executive Director Richard Alcorn said the proposed increase is driven by the need to finance an expansion. While more than 100 slots are available, the school doesn’t have the space on its Route 9 campus to educate that many more students.

In fact, Alcorn said, the school is losing students because it is near capacity and doesn’t have the classrooms to offer electives, and has insufficient playing fields for those seeking to participate in extracurricular activities and sports.

“Our objective is to have a facility that is desirable for high school students,” Alcorn said.

Any expansion, Alcorn said, would be gradual, making the concerns from neighboring school districts overstated.

PVCICS Principal Kathleen Wang disputed that the school isn’t sufficiently diverse, saying it should be compared to other communities besides Amherst.

Chester said the charter school has strong education and offers a unique educational opportunity, and can’t meet its full potential without being able to “right-size” the high school.

Some commissioners, though, criticized the school as a drain on resources and said any expansion should wait until the Legislature fixes the funding formula. There were also questions about whether the school was sufficiently drawing students from lower-performing districts, such as Springfield and Holyoke, rather than high-performing ones.

The board did approve three new charter schools, including the Hampden Charter School of Science-West, to open in 2018 in Westfield and serve students from Holyoke, Westfield, Agawam and West Springfield.

In advance of the meeting, the board got significant feedback, including letters from the Amherst School Committee and Northampton School Committee and phone calls and emails from concerned parents.

In addition to Morris, also addressing the board were Peter Gunn, an Easthampton School Committee member, and Peter Demling, an Amherst parent who is a candidate for Amherst School Committee.

The Amherst Select Board also sent a letter in which it stated that the proposed expanion would “have a dramatic negative impact on municipal budgets. In addition to pressure on our local regular elementary schools, the programming available for all students at one of the best comprehensive public high schools in Western Massachusetts, Amherst-Pelham Regional Schools continues to be reduced as costs for charter and vocational tuition continue to increase.”

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.