Critics challenge Chinese immersion school on special education

  • Donna Thibault-Wong, left, speaks during a meeting of parents voicing their experiences with Pioneer Valley Chinese Immersion Charter School, Friday, May 5, at Mill 180 Park in Easthampton. Another parent, Shoshona King, listens. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Cameron Murrell speaks during a meeting of parents voicing their experiences with Pioneer Valley Chinese Immersion Charter School, Friday, May 5, at Mill 180 Park in Easthampton. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Sonia Lindop speaks during a meeting of parents voicing their experiences with Pioneer Valley Chinese Immersion Charter School, Friday, May 5, at Mill 180 Park in Easthampton. Cameron Murrell listens to her concerns. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Kathleen Lynch, right, speaks during a meeting of parents voicing their experiences with Pioneer Valley Chinese Immersion Charter School, May 5, at Mill 180 Park in Easthampton. Cameron Murrell, from left, Sonia Lindop and Christin Glodek listen to her concerns. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Sonia Lindop, right, speaks during a meeting of parents voicing their experiences with Pioneer Valley Chinese Immersion Charter School, Friday, May 5, at Mill 180 Park in Easthampton. Donna Thibault-Wong, left, Shoshona King and Cameron Murrell listen to her concerns. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Christin Glodek, right, speaks during a meeting of parents voicing their experiences with Pioneer Valley Chinese Immersion Charter School, Friday, May 5, at Mill 180 Park in Easthampton. Cameron Murrell and Sonia Lindop, listen to her concerns. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Christin Glodek, right, speaks during a meeting of parents voicing their experiences with Pioneer Valley Chinese Immersion Charter School, Friday, May 5, at Mill 180 Park in Easthampton. Cameron Murrell and Sonia Lindop, listen to her concerns. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Shoshona King speaks during a meeting of parents voicing their experiences with Pioneer Valley Chinese Immersion Charter School, Friday, May 5, at Mill 180 Park in Easthampton. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Donna Thibault-Wong, left, speaks during a meeting of parents voicing their experiences with Pioneer Valley Chinese Immersion Charter School, May 5, at Mill 180 Park in Easthampton. Another parent, Shoshona King, listens. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

Published: 5/26/2017 10:49:19 PM

HADLEY — Just a month after her son had begun first grade at Pioneer Valley Chinese Immersion Charter School, Shoshona King says Dimitri was already being pushed out the door.

Dimitri, who is on the autism spectrum, started classes at the school in September 2009. Difficulties with the administration began, his mother says, at the very first meeting to review Dimitri’s federally mandated special education plan.

“They told me that they didn’t have services for him and I should consider sending him to a special school for the disabled,” King said.

King says she asked if Dimitri could be placed in a booster class to help with Chinese-language classes, but school principal, Kathleen Wang, told her no such class existed. In January, however, King says a teacher at another education plan meeting informed her that a booster class did exist, and that her son should have been in that class.

“She wanted him to fail,” King said of Wang. “She did not want Dimitri in that school because he was nothing but dragging them down, and costing them money. He was more than what she wanted to deal with.”

Ultimately, King made the difficult choice to pull Dimitri out of the school after just a year.

“I felt like, ‘Am I not serving the autism community by just pulling him out?’ Because legally he has the right to go,” King said, referring to the fact that charter schools are considered public schools under state law, and are federally mandated to provide full services to students with disabilities.

“But I was just like, ‘I’m just beating my head against the wall, and he’s going to be the one that doesn’t get what he needs,’” she said.

King is one of six former parents at the charter school who told the Gazette that they felt their children’s special needs were, at best, inadequately met at the school. Parents complained that their children were denied needed services, inappropriately disciplined for behaviors related to their disabilities or forced out altogether.

Five of those parents were part of an exit survey that Christin Glodek, one of the disaffected parents, conducted in 2016 with families who had recently left the school. Of the 13 families interviewed, 11 said the handling of their children’s special needs was a primary reason for leaving the school — findings that Glodek presented to the school’s board of trustees in May 2016. The Gazette also spoke with two parents who weren’t in that report and had similar concerns, one of whom spoke on the record.

School administrators say Glodek’s report misrepresents the school. They say they make every effort to accommodate the legitimate needs of every student, often finding alternative ways to provide extra help.

School officials declined to address questions about the treatment of particular students, with the school attorney saying that would violate state and federal privacy laws.

But speaking generally in a meeting with the Gazette, school officials said they closely adhere to all relevant requirements, and categorically denied that any child has been deprived of services, punished for behaviors related to a disability, “counseled” or otherwise pushed out of the school.

“We appreciate that the parents that are in Glodek’s report have concerns, but none of that has been supported by any of the independent reviewers coming to the school,” Executive Director Richard Alcorn said.

One of the independent reviews Alcorn referred to was the state’s Coordinated Program Review, conducted every six years to assess a district’s compliance with federal and state law, including the state education board’s special education regulations, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and other federal special education rules.

A member of the state’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education visited the Chinese charter school in spring 2015, and found the school to be largely in compliance with special education regulations. The report did find some areas that the school had only partially implemented: filling out all specific learning-disability forms, consistent providing of written updates on a student’s progress on their special education plan’s goals, some incomplete sections on those plans and a school adjustment counselor whose licence was expired at the time.

Board concerns

The report citing disillusioned parents clearly weighed on a few members of the state’s Board of Elementary and Secondary Education on Feb. 27, when they met to vote on whether the Chinese immersion charter could increase its enrollment by 452 students. Ultimately, the board voted 7-2 to deny the school the right to expand.

“The two things that concern me about this expansion is one, the question of whether special education students are being counseled out or otherwise disadvantaged,” board member Penny Noyce said during the meeting. “And the second is the question of whether this is creating a more segregated school system.”

“Some of these are quite damning if true,” state Secretary of Education James Peyser, who ultimately voted in favor of the expansion, said of examples cited in the report. “Even as isolated incidents, if the incidents are true, they’re troubling that these kinds of conversations may have happened between staff and students.”

At issue in those allegations is also a long-simmering debate not just at the Hadley school but in Massachusetts and nationally about whether charter schools provide greater educational opportunities or increase segregation in already unequal school systems.

Charter proponents often bill the schools as experimental labs that provide improved educational opportunities, while offering students in failing districts a way out. But critics have long maintained that at least some charter schools underserve at-risk populations, including special education students. Instead, they say, charters become publicly funded schools for the elite.

That particular claim has dogged the Chinese charter school: Of the state’s 404 school districts, only nine had a lower percentage of students with disabilities in 2016, according to data from the state’s education department. Just 5.9 percent of the Chinese school’s students are listed in that category, compared to 17.4 percent statewide, 19.48 percent in Northampton Public Schools and 18.6 percent at Pioneer Valley Performing Arts Charter Public School.

The state defines “students with disabilities” as those who, like King’s child, are on an Individualized Education Program, or IEP — a document that establishes personalized educational goals and special education services tailored to help students meet those goals.

Positive experiences

School administrators put the Gazette in touch with two families who say their children with special needs have been treated well at the school. Only one, however, was willing to speak on the record.

That parent, Kristin Neal, says her 10-year-old daughter Tessa attends the school, and because of diabetes and ADHD she is on a 504 plan, which helps students with special needs who qualify for some services but not a full IEP.

“The school has been nothing but proactive with my child,” Neal said, describing how teachers and administrators suggested further testing to see whether Tessa needed an IEP.

“They’ve bent over backwards for her,” she said. “Honestly, I can’t ask for anything else.”

Another parent, speaking off the record, said his child came to the school this year with an IEP, and was moved onto a 504 plan after experiencing improvements due to the support of faculty and administrators.

“This year has been nothing short of miraculous,” he said.

The school’s board of trustees also addressed Glodek’s survey directly on April 25, 2017, almost a year after the report was presented, when a task force met to review the accusations. Paula Quinn, the board’s secretary, reported back to the board on May 4.

“Changes have happened in the school that we as a board are familiar with and aware of that assure us that actually special ed students are being treated appropriately,” she said at the board meeting. Quinn did not respond to the Gazette’s request for specifics on those changes.

Quinn also called into question the validity of the report because of the anonymous interviews it presented, as well as the lack of information on the methods that Glodek used to collect interviews.

“Therefore it was of limited value, and it was of questionable value in terms of being able to fact-check or look at the specific things that were discussed,” she said.

The Gazette however, has been able to verify the stories of five families who were interviewed in that report, and all accuse the school of mishandling special education services. All five had children on either a 504 plan or an IEP.

In addition to Shoshona King, there was Donna Thibault-Wang, whose family was ecstatic when her son began attending the Chinese immersion school in 2010. 

“We were extremely excited because my husband is Chinese, and this was an opportunity for him to learn about the culture and the language,” she said. “My son came home from first grade and said, ‘I’m Chinese and I speak Chinese’ and we thought ‘Oh my God this is the best thing in the world.’” 

But around third grade, she says the problems started: poorly managed IEP meetings, resistance to providing services for reading trouble and less-than-subtle pressure from administrators to withdraw from the school. 

“And when I heard that phrase — ‘counsel out’ — I thought, ‘That’s what is happening,’” Thibault-Wang said. “Basically it’s a way of making the parent feel like, ‘Your child doesn’t belong here.’”

The final straw, she said, came in fifth grade after a comprehensive evaluation of her child’s reading from the Curtis Blake Center at American International College, which specializes in language learning disabilities. Her son was found to have dyslexia, a fact Thibault-Wang had long suspected.

However, when she had an IEP meeting with charter school staff to discuss those results, she says they questioned whether her son was just having a bad day when he was evaluated.

“They brought back to us an IEP that did not mention the Curtis Blake report, did not have any recommendations, did not have services for reading,” she said. “At that point it was very clear to us that they were not tracking him, they were not testing him properly and that they did not want to recognize this disability.”

Official resistance

Cameron Murrell’s two sons are just like he and his wife were in school — bright students who happen to have Attention Deficit Disorder.

His sons attended the Chinese immersion school between 2011 and 2015, and after a year or two, teachers started reporting difficulties.

However, Murrell said, administrators discounted his and his wife’s repeated insistence that their sons may have ADD, seizing on any justification to insist the boys didn’t need what the Murrells felt they needed.

After pushing unsuccessfully for their children to be tested and placed on an IEP, the Murrells decided to have kids privately tested — at great financial cost to the family — at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. The results confirmed that their sons had mild anxiety and ADD, and Murrell brought those results back to the school.

“We got a very basic IEP for our older child,” Murrell said, but accommodations that were included in that IEP were rarely followed in the classroom — little things like letting his son walk around when he got worked up.

What’s more, the family was unable to get their younger son placed on an IEP, Murrell said, despite the fact that he had the same issues as his brother.

“I didn’t necessarily feel that we were being pushed out, it wasn’t that. It was just that they didn’t care,” he said.

Sonia Lindop’s son was chronically behind in Chinese classes, and was on an IEP for clinical depression after Lindop’s husband died in 2014. She says that instead of taking his needs into consideration and providing him with needed additional help, he was made to miss recess to finish classwork, put in a corner and forced to sit still, doing nothing, in Chinese class.

This, after Lindop and the school had come up with a plan of healthier alternatives.

“All these accommodations were negotiated in these meetings with all the teachers and the administration,” Lindop said. “And when the time came, nothing was done.”

Lindop, a firm believer in the benefits of charter schools, felt that the treatment of her son was due in large part to the school’s desire for high test scores.

“It’s way too focused on being outstanding, so in order to be outstanding, I felt like those kids who are lowering the grades and lowering the scores are put aside,” Lindop told the Gazette.

Two more parents not featured in the survey also detailed similar complaints, one of whom spoke on the record.

Kathy Lynch’s daughter Mallory ran into some behavioral issues after starting kindergarten in 2012, and after repeatedly insisting that the school test her daughter, she was placed on a 504 plan for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. 

Lynch, however, felt she should have had an IEP. She removed her daughters from the school in 2016, due in part to the exhaustion she felt from constantly having to advocate on their behalf. She moved them to her town’s public elementary school, where her daughter’s 504 plan was immediately shifted to an IEP. 

“It became clear to me that my district’s concern, primary and foremost, was to provide needed educational services for my child,” she said. Not, she added, to bury those needs under a 504 plan, which she felt the Hadley charter school did.

Guidelines followed 

School administrators maintain, however, that all proper guidelines are followed at the school. Some frustration, they said, may result from parents misunderstanding what exactly is required — or not required — under the law.

“We do what we are required to within the context of state and federal law,” special education administrator Christie Fontaine said. “Parents sometimes wish it could be more.”

Fontaine, along with Alcorn, Wang, director of student services Marilyn Kusek, director of education Hsiu-Wen Hsieh and international baccalaureate coordinator Patrice MacPherson, described in detail the complex special education process at public schools, who is and isn’t eligible for special education services, and how some parents might confuse normal developmental issues, like early trouble with reading, with a learning disability.

“The parents will look at that, and can interpret it a different way than what is legally required of the special ed administrator,” Alcorn said. “So it can be quite challenging interpreting this, and that can lead to misunderstandings and the parents may be quite unhappy, but it’s not an indication that the school or the administrator did anything wrong.”

To receive special education services, the administrators explained, a student needs to have an eligible disability, must also be struggling to make progress as a result of that disability and must require specialized instruction to make progress in school or to better access the curriculum.

As for the criticism that the school has far lower rates of students with disabilities than almost every other district in the state, Alcorn said he believes that is in part because of the way the charter school uses an educational approach called “response to intervention,” or RTI. The methodology, which uses universal screening and early interventions, is used as an alternative means of identifying and helping students with learning disabilities.

“We believe our focus on RTI reduces the percentage of students referred for Special Education,” Alcorn wrote in a letter to the state education board ahead of the expansion vote, also pointing to the school’s low attrition rate for high-needs students, which falls below the statewide average.

Common methodology

The Chinese immersion school is not alone in seeing RTI reduce the number of students on IEPs. 

Northampton Public Schools Superintendent John Provost says his district’s total special education population declined by 8 percent when educators began using RTI in 2015. That fall, 14 percent of students in Grades 1 through 3 received an intervention. By mid-year, he said, interventions were successful for around 71 percent of those kids, keeping those students from potentially being placed on an IEP.

But some aren’t convinced that RTI fully explains the charter school’s low disability percentages.

“I don’t know many districts that don’t use RTI; it’s a really commonly used methodology,” Michael Morris, interim Amherst-Pelham superintendent, said. “If it was something that other schools didn’t use, then I might be more open to thinking about that.”

Morris said that in the 16 years he has been in the district, educators have used some form of RTI. More than 19 percent of Amherst-Pelham students were identified as having a disability this school year, compared with just 5.9 percent of students at the Hadley charter school, according to numbers from the state education department.

Laura Schifter is a lecturer on education at Harvard, and though she’s unfamiliar with the Chinese immersion school, she says other charter schools have used the explanation that their RTI programs lead to lower disabilities numbers. But she says there’s no causal evidence to support that claim.

“While that may be contributing somewhat to the lower numbers of enrollment, there’s no clear evidence to suggest that is the reason for the whole difference in enrollment,” Schifter said.

Speaking broadly, Schifter says parents of students with disabilities may feel their children won’t receive enough services from charter schools. That could mean officials suggesting that students with special needs will find the school difficult, or simply a lack of details about special education programs on a charter’s promotional materials.

“It’s certainly a concern that students with disabilities are both being discouraged — either overtly or subtly through what their programs provide — from applying,” Schifter said. “That’s a conversation that’s true nationally.”

The Chinese immersion school will be able to make another expansion request on Aug. 1.

Dusty Christensen can be reached at

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