Charter school’s mailings stir some pushback

  • Richard Alcorn, executive director of the Pioneer Valley Chinese Immersion Charter School, stands in front of the school in Hadley in this undated photo. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO/SARAH CROSBY

Staff Writer
Published: 2/14/2019 12:22:27 AM

NORTHAMPTON — Pioneer Valley Chinese Immersion Charter School has requested the names and mailing addresses for students in several school districts for marketing purposes, an action that the state law allows, though it gives parents the ability to keep their information private.

Amherst and Northampton school officials notified parents and asked them if they wanted to opt out.

The Hadley charter school requested the information for Northampton pre-K, fifth- and eighth-grade students, totaling fewer than 500 students, Northampton Public Schools Superintendent John Provost said.

“In the two days since the request was out there, we’ve been contacted by about 120 families asking that their info not be shared,” he said.

According to Richard Alcorn, the charter school’s executive director, the request was sent to six districts, two of which he said the state designated as low-performing.

“Just as traditional school districts advertise the availability of school choice seats and have staff focused on external communications, PVCICS has a budget line item to support advertising and communications,” Alcorn said in an email. “Direct mailings to students is encouraged by the state and is commonly used by charter schools to support the equitable recruitment students.”

Under state law, through a third party, charter schools are allowed to ask once a year for the addresses of students in the district who could enroll in the charter school to “fulfill its obligations under its recruitment and retention plan.” Parents and guardians are allowed to say no.

In Amherst-Pelham schools, the Chinese immersion school requested names and addresses for eighth-grade students to be given to its third-party vendor, JLS Mailing Services Inc., in a letter dated Feb. 5 sent to Superintendent Michael Morris.

“There’s been a lot of responses. A lot of opt-outs,” Morris said. He was unable to give a specific number as the deadline for parents and guardians to respond has not been reached.

Such a request is not new. Paulo Freire Social Justice Charter School made a similar information request within the past two years, Morris said, adding that since he’s been superintendent (he started the job in 2017), this is the first time the Chinese immersion school has made the request.

Provost estimated Northampton gets one or two requests from charter schools each year.

Pioneer Valley Performing Arts Charter School and Hilltown Cooperative Charter Public School, two charter schools in Hampshire County, said they have never done requests like these for mailers, but they both advertise in other ways.

Dan Klatz, director of administration at Hilltown Cooperative, said because the school has more demand than spaces available, there hasn’t been a need to use mailers for widespread recruitment.

PVPA Executive Director Marc Kenen said because of PVPA’s focus, the school targets families with an interest in the arts, and widespread recruitment through mailers doesn’t make sense for them.

He said charter schools have been criticized for lacking diversity, and that mailing flyers to everyone is one way to give people more access to that information.

Kenen added, “It’s hard to imagine that any parent would object to getting information in the mail about other public school options available to them.”

Morris said he has no problem with the Chinese immersion school’s request and that the district’s goal is to give families information to make their own decision. The issue, he said, is with how the state funds charter schools, which Morris said pits charter schools against other public schools.

For example, if a student leaves the district for a charter school, the district loses roughly $20,000, but the district can’t make up that cost, Morris said.

And, historically, the state has not fully funded reimbursements that aim to help close that gap, according to the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center. Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education data show that the state reimbursed, on average, 66 percent of the cost in 2019.

More people are aware of that problem, Provost said. “I think that has contributed to some of the strong feelings in our community,” he said.

Northampton City Councilor and parent Gina-Louise Sciarra has two children at Bridge Street School.

“Every aspect of this is outrageous and indicative of how this system is completely broken,” she said in an email, adding her concerns that the state doesn’t fully fund its charter school reimbursements.

“When you realize that is the same money that is being siphoned away from our public schools, how can you not be angry?” she asked in an email to the Gazette about the mailers. “It is adding insult to terrible injury. Those are taxpayer funds that are desperately needed to educate our children, not turn them into marketing tools.”

Greta Jochem can be reached at gjochem@gazettenet.com




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