Metro

Chinese immersion charter school, again seeking expansion, remains dogged by critics

Seventh-grade Chinese teacher Xiaoying Li led a class at the Pioneer Valley Chinese Immersion Charter School. It’s the only Chinese-language immersion program in Massachusetts with a kindergarten-through-grade-12 curriculum.

Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff/File 2015

Seventh-grade Chinese teacher Xiaoying Li led a class at the Pioneer Valley Chinese Immersion Charter School. It’s the only Chinese-language immersion program in Massachusetts with a kindergarten-through-grade-12 curriculum.

A small Hadley charter school that produces consistently high student test scores and is ranked by the state as a top-tier school remains dogged by criticisms that could thwart its ongoing effort to expand.

The Pioneer Valley Chinese Immersion Charter School’s new expansion application, announced last month, is the latest salvo in a nearly decade-long drive to build out a full K-12 school to comply with a $1.5 million federal grant awarded in 2008, according to school administrators.

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Kathleen Wang, the school’s principal, said it has been unfairly caught up in “small town politics” that detract from its mission.

“Some of the mud-slinging is, quite frankly, extremely disappointing to me, and is wasting yet another generation of students’ education,” she said.

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The school’s critics — many of them parents of former students or officials from districts served by the school — have charged that its student population doesn’t reflect the demographics of those communities and that it encourages special-needs students to leave, rather than providing them appropriate accommodations.

Jalieh Shepard, whose son transferred after completing eighth grade in the spring, said he became proficient in Chinese in classes there. But Shepard had concerns about the school’s diversity, evaluation methods, opportunities for gifted students, and teacher preparedness, she said.

Shepard described Wang as “a wonderful person,” but said the principal did not take sufficient action in response to the issues Shepard raised.

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“My real concern is that I don’t think she has the team and the time . . . to really address things,” Shepard said.

Wang and Richard Alcorn, the school’s executive director, who is married to Wang, forcefully deny the critics’ claims.

Wang and Alcorn said the small school can’t tailor its offerings to the specific needs of every child, but it does its best to support all students, including those with special needs, and uses early interventions to avoid labeling children as special-education students.

They said the student population — which is nearly 18 percent Asian-American and more than 24 percent Hispanic, African-American, or mixed-race, according to state data — reflects the diversity of the communities it serves.

Further, Wang and Alcorn said, they have recruited teachers and administrators from many backgrounds, particularly ethnically Chinese educators, who are underrepresented in the field.

They said that, 10 years after opening the school’s doors, it remains the state’s only Chinese-language immersion program from kindergarten all the way through 12th grade, and that Massachusetts is lagging behind other states that have embraced similar curriculums.

01/27/2015 Hadley Ma. Pioneer Valley Chinese Immersion Charter School . Globe/Staff Photographer Jonathan Wiggs

Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff/File

Students walked on the school’s campus in 2015.

A 2015 report by the US Department of Education found that Chinese was the second most popular language, after Spanish, for US language immersion programs. That year, then-president Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping announced the “One Million Strong” initiative, which aims to have that many US students learning Chinese by 2020.

Nonetheless, concerns about the Chinese immersion school have for years delayed state approval for expansion, a green light required for increasing enrollment at Massachusetts charter schools, most of which operate outside local districts.

Wang and Alcorn said limiting the school’s size hinders its ability to serve students.

Despite the criticism, some parents rave about the school.

“It offers students an excellent general education, and . . . students are learning to speak Mandarin Chinese, which is a critical language in the world right now,” said Paula Quinn, mother of a former student and a school trustee who has worked in education program evaluation.

Wang and Alcorn said the school has long been the subject of unfair claims.

A 2011 allegation that the school had neglected a student was found by the Department of Children and Families to be unsupported by evidence. And Alcorn and Wang dispute a document prepared last year by the parent of two former students claiming the school drives out some students with special needs.

“The most recent allegations are hearsay allegations that aren’t supported by data,” Alcorn said of the document. “The data says we’re doing great.”

Alcorn and Wang said that most education officials who have criticized their school come from Amherst and Pelham, two of 39 communities in the region it serves.

Cara Castenson, chairwoman of the Pelham School Committee, said state policy for charter school funding, in which money follows children if they opt out of a district school and into a charter school, means small districts can unexpectedly face gaping holes in their budgets.

Last year, she said, Pelham Elementary School discovered after its budget was set that it had lost three students, each allocated more than $22,000.

“We had a $67,000 bomb dropped on us,” Castenson said.

Alcorn said charter schools are scapegoats for districts that are unprepared for an ongoing decline in the number of school-age children in Western Massachusetts, which he said leaves far more empty seats than charter schools.

Castenson was among a small group of speakers opposing the school’s expansion in February, when the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education denied approval to nearly double its seats, from a cap of 584 students to 1,036.

The board voted 7-2 against the plan, taking the rare step of overruling a recommendation by the late Mitchell D. Chester, then-commissioner of elementary and secondary education.

The school’s failure to demonstrate demand was the main reason it wasn’t awarded additional seats, which are strictly limited by the state charter school law, said Michael J. Moriarty, one of two board members who voted in favor of expansion.

Moriarty said Pioneer Valley is an excellent school, which is facing challenges that confront many other schools as well.

“It is a very high-performing and innovative dual-language school,” said Moriarty, who lives in Holyoke, one of the communities served by the school. “There’s not anything [else] really like it available to anyone in Western Massachusetts.”

Jeremy C. Fox can be reached at jeremy.fox@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeremycfox.
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