Chinese charter school chief, under pressure, to end involvement with proposed Boston-area program

Last modified: Wednesday, September 25, 2013

SPRINGFIELD — Trustees of the Pioneer Valley Chinese Immersion Charter School grilled its executive director Thursday night about what the chairwoman called a “troubling” lack of communication when he filed a prospectus with the state to start a similar school in the Cambridge area.

Richard Alcorn, the director of the Hadley school, said the filing was meant to put “political pressure” on the Cambridge school district to get moving on a Chinese language immersion school in eastern Massachusetts. He said the prospectus on which his name appeared was a “cut and paste” job using material from a template.

“This was just to kick-start things to get a prospectus going,” Alcorn said, “then pass the puck on the whole thing, to bring in more people, to participate in this and take care of it.“

In late July, Alcorn and trustee Rosalie Porter, both of Amherst, and Anne Watt of Cambridge submitted a 63-page prospectus to the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education in a bid to open a Chinese immersion school that would serve the Boston area.

Trustees called a special meeting Thursday at Springfield College following an article in the Daily Hampshire Gazette that detailed Alcorn’s relationship with the proposed school, sparking concern among the board about communication and how Alcorn was spending his time.

Trustees said they were aware of Alcorn’s involvement, but noted he had told them at a meeting last week, before the Gazette article appeared, that he was just consulting on the effort.

In the end, not all trustees believed Alcorn’s explanation that the prospectus was never intended to win a charter.

The trustee who chaired the meeting, Hsiu-Jung “Mindy” Chang, said she doesn’t “buy” the point of Alcorn getting involved simply to pressure people in the eastern part of the state.

Alcorn said he may have stayed on the eastern Massachusetts project as a board member, but due to the reaction from the board, he said Thursday he would bow out.

“I don’t plan to be involved at all given the concerns raised here,” Alcorn said. “I’m not going to go forward.”

Alcorn also apologized for the communication gap.

“I regret I didn’t do that and I apologize,” he said. “I didn’t think this would spill over in the local area. I didn’t think it would not be public, I just didn’t think it would be an issue for western Mass.”

Alcorn said he believes he was first approached about the school in January, though he’s unsure of the date. He said he didn’t start putting in any “real” work on the project until July.

Trustee David Braverman said Alcorn “brushed aside” questions about his work with the new school at a board meeting last week and also neglected to mention his involvement in the executive director’s recently submitted self-evaluation.

“You said last week — when we asked about this — you said you were providing some leadership and guidance, but you’re the lead author and a board member, which is a little more than just providing some input,” Braverman said.

Several trustees said they did not understand why Alcorn would keep the extent of his work with the proposed school to himself. Some trustees said the proposed school may have been something the board could have supported.

Several trustees said they are glad Alcorn is being sought to give advice about how to run a successful Chinese immersion program.

“I would be anxious to share this,” said trustee May Lo. “I don’t understand the secrecy about it. The board didn’t know until we read the newspaper.”

Trustees said the board and Alcorn should draw lessons about communication from this experience. Several trustees said if they had known about Alcorn’s involvement, they could have offered guidance in how to proceed.

“Let this be a lesson to all of us that when this thing comes up again, we need the communication — some have expertise in areas other don’t,” said trustee David Scott.

Alcorn said from now on he will make sure to “touch base” with the board about all his actions and highlighted his availability to discuss issues with the board.

“If I’m going to go someplace, I’ll touch base,” he said.


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