Chinese charter school holds first-ever high school graduation, bars press from ceremony

  • CAROL LOLLIS — Chia-Wen Huang, a Chinese teacher at the Pioneer Valley Chinese Immersion Charter School.

Published: 6/1/2017 5:12:53 PM

HADLEY — The Pioneer Valley Chinese Immersion Charter School is holding its first-ever high school graduation on Friday after opening in 2007.

The Chinese immersion charter school began classes almost a decade ago with kindergarten and first grades, and has grown ever since. There are currently around 470 students at the school, representing some 30 communities in the Pioneer Valley, according to the school's website.

The 11 graduates this year have been accepted to institutions of higher learning across the state, as well as prestigious out-of-state institutions like Yale University, Duke University and Ithaca College.

In a departure from longstanding practice among the region’s public and private high schools, the taxpayer-funded charter school has barred the Gazette and other press from attending the graduation ceremony. When asked why, school Executive Director Richard Alcorn said the event was already “oversubscribed,” and that parents had asked to keep the event private. 

The Gazette made repeated attempts to contact school administrators to get details on the graduation, but those inquiries went unanswered. Contact information for members of the board of trustees is not available on the school’s website.

At the ceremony, Spencer D. McGrath will address his classmates as one of the class speakers. His message, he told the Gazette, will start with the relief  he and his peers feel after finishing the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme, an academically challenging two-year program that all of the high school’s students complete.

“We commiserated together, we celebrated together and we got through it,” McGrath said. His message for his younger peers? “You’ll get through it too.”

The speech will mostly focus on the future, McGrath said, urging his fellow graduates to get outside of their bubbles in college — to "find that weird interest that you really like and meet new people."

McGrath’s fathers adopted him at an early age from China, and he said the school provided him the unique opportunity to learn about one of that country’s languages and cultures while at the same time fostering his growth as an American kid.

Students at the school study in both English and Mandarin Chinese, with many reaching a high level of proficiency in Mandarin. 

“Because I am adopted, I didn’t grow up speaking Chinese and that was really hard for me personally,” McGrath said. “That was something I felt like I was really missing.”

Now, McGrath’s Mandarin skills are at a high level. He worked last summer as an assistant English teacher at a kindergarten in China, and said he was able to effectively navigate his workspace in Mandarin and communicate with his coworkers.

For McGrath’s father, Michael DiPasquale, his child’s graduation will be a proud one as he watches McGrath head off to Vassar College. He said that his family’s seven years at the school have been a blessing.

“The opportunity and the chance to be among so many other Chinese kids and to speak Chinese has just been a godsend for our family,” DiPasquale said of his child’s experience.

McGrath originally attended Hilltown Cooperative Charter Public School, and though he said he learned a lot at the school, he said his brother and he were some of the only children of color at the school. Now, at the Hadley-based Chinese immersion school, he said he's happy to be around more peers of color.

“The mix of parents and students, and just the feel of the school, well, it was something different for us,” McGrath’s father said. “And I think I appreciate the fact that it’s a little different for those reasons.”

Dusty Christensen can be reached at

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