Federal official tours addition at Chinese Immersion school

Last modified: Friday, September 11, 2015

HADLEY — Lian Duan, a middle school math teacher at the Pioneer Valley Chinese Immersion Charter School, has a large classroom on the fourth floor of the school’s new addition — but it wasn’t always that way.

Her situation when she started teaching for the school six years ago was very different.

“So we started out with no classrooms,” Duan said Thursday at the school. “The first year we started the middle school we actually went outside. They rented a tent for us, so we had classes outside in the field underneath a tent for a few months.”

That situation has changed in a large part due to a $10.6 million loan from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development Community Facility Direct Loan Program, which funded the school’s latest expansion.

The Chinese Immersion School bought its current building in 2009 for $2.35 million, also with the help of a USDA assistance program. In 2013, the school planned its expansion, and construction began in 2014. The addition adds 15 classrooms and 38,000 square feet to the school.

In a visit to the school Thursday, USDA Undersecretary for Rural Development Lisa Mensah toured the facilities, which will be able to accommodate 584 students by the year 2018, according to a statement from the Rural Development office. The school is poised to become the first K-12 Chinese immersion school in the United States when it adds a 12th-grade class in September 2016. Currently the school only serves students through 11th grade.

“I don’t think people would expect that in small-town USA, in small-town rural America, we are at the cutting edge of innovation in the global economy,” Mensah said Thursday.

She said most people don’t think of the USDA as an agency that helps to fund schools — but, $7 billion has gone into the program that benefited the Chinese Immersion school. The money pays for long-term projects that benefit rural areas, she said.

Richard Alcorn, the school’s executive director, was unequivocal about the federal agency’s role in helping the school grow.

“The financing that the USDA has provided us has been a terrifically important resource,” Alcorn said Thursday, adding that the renovation and expansion of the building would not have been possible without the loan.

As a charter school, the Chinese Immersion school is not eligible for Massachusetts School Building Authority money — and, as a new organization, the school’s creditworthiness was poor in the eyes of most financial institutions, Alcorn said.

The USDA Rural Development program helped the school purchase the building at 317 Russell St. in Hadley, renovate it to include new classrooms, and then to expand it to add the new four-story wing. That project is set to come in about $1 million under budget, according to Alcorn.

The building is now just over 68,000 square feet with the 38,000-square-foot expansion. The expansion contains four elevator-accessible floors, each with its own bathrooms. There are 15 full-sized classrooms and four larger rooms of about 1,500 square feet each, for use as a science lab, music room, art room and library.

Room to spread out

Duan said she moved into her current classroom space in February. The extra space, she said, means she is able to better tailor her lessons for students of varying abilities.

She gets students from the Chinese Immersion school elementary program, but also from schools throughout the Pioneer Valley. In addition to their differing levels of language proficiency, each student comes with a different set of math skills, she said.

“Every year I have students who are just really ahead of everybody else; I have students who are in a lot of need of support,” she said. “This classroom really allows me to do some really extreme differentiation.”

Last year, one student read from a college-level discrete math book, while others worked on multiplication and division basics, and a third group worked at the regular level of middle school math, she said.

“In order to accommodate all these students I need a space so they can spread out,” she said, pointing to the different tables arranged in her room.

There are currently 450 students enrolled in the school, according to Alcorn. And that number is growing.

There are long waiting lists for most grades at the school and some of those are taken up by siblings of students already attending the school. The elementary and middle school lists are long, while the high school list is shorter — but school officials expect that will change when all the grades are filled in starting in September 2016.

Principal Kathleen Wang said students come from urban, suburban and rural backgrounds, and she described the student body as ethnically and socioeconomically diverse. Some students come from Franklin County, which is the poorest county in Massachusetts, and from Springfield and Holyoke, which are the poorest cities in western Massachusetts, she said.

Near the end of the undersecretary’s tour, school officials played a YouTube video of kindergarten and eighth-grade students fluently speaking Chinese.

Mensah said she was very impressed.

“You’re all products of immersion,” Wang said. “When you were 5, whoever was talking to you was just talking to you, right? They didn’t just say ‘Here’s the grammar book. Let’s conjugate verbs.’”

Dave Eisenstadter can be reached at deisen@gazettenet.com.


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