State affirms denial of Hadley charter school’s expansion

  • The Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education listens to testimony at a review of the board’s decision not to expand enrollment at the Pioneer Valley Chinese Immersion Charter School by nearly double, at a board meeting in Malden, Mass. on March 27, 2018. M.J. Tidwell—

  • Pioneer Valley Chinese Immersion Charter School Principal Kathleen Wang and Libby Hernandez, the parent of a PVCICS student, prepare to give testimony at a review of the board of education’s decision not to expand enrollment at the charter school by nearly double, at a board meeting in Malden, Mass. on March 27, 2018. M.J. Tidwell—

  • Pioneer Valley Chinese Immersion Charter School juniors Jayden Addison and Giancarlo Crivelli, of Springfield, sit in the audience after giving testimony at a review of the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education’s decision not to expand enrollment of their charter school by nearly double. Malden, Mass. on March 27, 2018. M.J. Tidwell—

  • The Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education listens to testimony at a review of the board’s decision not to expand enrollment at the Pioneer Valley Chinese Immersion Charter School by nearly double, at a board meeting in Malden, Mass. on March 27, 2018. M.J. Tidwell—

@mjtidwell781
Published: 3/27/2018 9:30:06 PM

MALDEN — A Hadley charter school cannot increase its enrollment by almost 80 percent, the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education ruled Tuesday in denying a review of its earlier decision.

The Pioneer Valley Chinese Immersion Charter School requested the review of acting Commissioner Jeff Wulson’s decision in January not to recommend an increase of the school’s maximum enrollment from 584 to 1,036 students.

“You’ve got to hear this board,” Chairman Paul Sagan said after the board chose not to take action. “We like your school. We like the educational opportunities you provide. But we’re not persuaded that doubling capacity works for the system.”

The charter school submitted a similar expansion request in 2016 that was recommended favorably by then-Commissioner Mitchell Chester, who died in June. But the board denied the request in a 7-2 vote.

Alison Bagg, director of the Office of Charter Schools and School Redesign, explained in a March 2017 letter that the school should delay resubmitting another expansion request until it addressed concerns that it had not yet reached its maximum enrollment, had not demonstrated sufficient waitlist demand, was not enrolling students comparable to sending districts, and had “higher rates of attrition of students with disabilities than other schools within its charter region.”

Wulfson then denied the school’s second request, which it submitted in 2017.

At Tuesday’s meeting, the board said the school had not addressed those four concerns adequately and took no formal action, letting Wulfson’s decision stand.

Wulfson said at the meeting that he, too, likes the school, but said in general the board frowns on charter schools banking a large number of seats in anticipation of future enrollment.

As of October 2017, the school reported an enrollment of 493 students out of the maximum 584.

Testimony

Addressing the concerns of the board, the school’s executive director, Richard Alcorn, testified that there is most demand to enroll in kindergarten, which he said has a long waitlist. When questioned by Sagan, he said there were currently no waitlists for the other school entry points of sixth and ninth grades, which he said is because it’s better for students to start an immersion program early. There are 39 out of 45 spots currently filled in ninth grade, he said.

Alcorn also said that the school has similar attrition rates to those of other Hampshire County schools.

At Tuesday’s meeting, two students and a parent of a student spoke in support of expanding the school’s enrollment.

Jayden Addison, a junior from Springfield who started at the school in sixth grade, said the school is more academically inclined than other schools in Springfield, praising its offering of the international baccalaureate program. He said he would like more people to have the academic opportunities he has had.

He and fellow junior Giancarlo Crivelli, also from Springfield, said they would like more sports to be offered, which they said would help with attrition rates.

First in Mandarin Chinese, then in English, Crivelli said that because of the Chinese immersion school, he is able to understand 2.8 billion people in the world.

Libby Hernandez, a parent of a fifth-grade student, said she is a non-native English speaker from Puerto Rico and a resident of Holyoke living below the poverty line. She said the charter school has been inclusive and has “offered equality and a level playing field” for her daughter as she learns her third language. Hernandez said she supports the expansion so the school can operate as a full high school.

However, Peter Demling of the Amherst-Pelham Regional School Committee supported the board’s decision to deny the expansion because, he said, the school had not addressed the board’s earlier concerns and had not changed the expansion request to address those concerns.

He was joined by Cara Castenson, chairwoman of the Pelham School Committee, who testified that Pelham cannot support the financial cost of sending students to the charter school, which she said equals about $90,000 per student.

“We’ve had to take drastic measures and pinch every penny we can, including shuttering the school completely during the summer,” Castenson said of sending four students from the Pelham district to the Hadley school.

John Provost, superintendent of schools for Northampton, testified that he came in the spirit of advocacy and of inquiry, and said he would like the board to ask the school what it is doing to help students displaced from Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria.

The board said the bar was very high for the review because the request had been submitted multiple times before without compromising or lowering the requested enrollment increase. Members said they decided not to take action because the school had not adequately addressed the four concerns from 2016, including demonstrating enough demand for such a large expansion.

“This is not to say the school shouldn’t grow,” Wulfson said. “This is just a premature request.”

After Tuesday’s meeting, Alcorn said he felt positive about the board’s comments. He explained that the school wants to nearly double the enrollment because the students in each grade are split into two cohorts and the school wants to create two new full cohorts for each grade. One cohort learns in Chinese in the morning, he said, while the other cohort learns in English, and then they switch.

“I actually was optimistic because what I came away with was an understanding that the board is open to having the department negotiate a different enrollment number,” Alcorn said. “While it’s not optimal, it may be something we may be open to.”

M.J. Tidwell can be reached at mjtidwell@gazettenet.com.
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