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Department of Education grants Pioneer Valley Chinese Immersion Charter School permission to expand, add high school

The board voted to allow the Pioneer Valley Chinese Immersion Charter School to expand to 12th grade, and to increase the cap on the number of students from 300 to 584, according to Lauren Green, a program coordinator for the Department of Education. The school currently has 280 students in kindergarten through ninth grade, according to a report issued by Mitchell D. Chester, the commissioner for elementary and secondary education. It had requested permission to increase the cap to 684.

Richard Alcorn, the executive director of the school, said in an email that the school is pleased with the decision and is now accepting applications for the ninth grade.

The school sought the board’s approval to add a high school last year, but the board decided only to allow the school to add a ninth grade for students who had attended earlier grades at the school.

The school, which was founded in 2007, is a publicly funded charter school that draws students from the Valley and surrounding communities. The school offers classes in traditional subjects with a Chinese immersion component. When students begin, approximately 75 percent of their class time is Chinese, and by middle school they are taught in Chinsese for 25 percent of their class time. Students also take courses in Chinese language and culture.

When the school’s charter was re-approved last year, it faced criticism and sanctions from the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education over problems with the governance of the school and disciplinary practices at the school.

In 2011, a special needs student was allegedly kept in a “time-out” room for nearly a full school day. After the student’s parents complained, the Department of Children and Families investigated the incident and entered a finding of neglect against the principal, Kathleen Wang, and a teacher at the school. Alcorn said that the finding of neglect was reversed, but he did not provide confirmation and DCF will not release findings or reversals of findings.

Following the DCF finding, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education also initiated an investigation and found that the school had inadequate disciplinary policies and the board of trustees had failed to provide sufficient oversight.

The Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education re-approved the school’s charter in 2012, but it was unwilling to approve a high school and imposed several conditions on the charter. The conditions largely focused on improving the oversight of the principal and executive director, and educating and expanding the board of trustees.

The commissioner’s office had advised the board that it was particularly important for the school’s administration to have strong oversight because Executive Director Alcorn and Principal Wang are married.

In a report to the board Feb. 15 of this year, Chester said that “the school has substantially met the conditions imposed and is working to comply with all of the elements of its corrective action.” The board approved the expansion without requiring the school to meet any additional conditions, Green said.

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