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Pioneer Valley Chinese Immersion Charter School: First K -12 in the nation

July 22, 2013

 Pioneer ValleyThe First Mandarin immersion school in Massachusetts will now become the first K – 12 Mandarin immersion program in the nation.

By Elizabeth Weise

The Pioneer Valley Chinese Immersion Charter School (PVCICS) is in the town of Hadley in western Massachusetts. The school opened in 2007, as a K-8th grade regional public charter school. It was the first Mandarin immersion program in the state and one of the first in the northeast. The school was recently authorized to add a high school.  In the 2013-2014 school year, the school will have roughly 320 students and will expand to 584 at full capacity in grades K – 12 in 2018. Students typically enter in Kindergarten, sixth or ninth grade.  Entrance is by lottery and as a public charter school is tuition-free.

PVCICS is a ‘whole school’ Mandarin program with an extended day. Students in kindergarten and first grade are in school 8:30 AM to 3:30 PM and students in second grade and higher are in school 8:30 AM to 4:15 PM.  Kindergarten and first grade students spend 75% of their day in Mandarin and 25% in English. At second grade it becomes a 50/50 model and then a 25/75 model starting in sixth grade or roughly two hours per day taught in Chinese in later grades.  But given the demands of a rigorous curriculum in two languages it still doesn’t seem like enough time. “We have almost an eight hour day and we still feel sometimes we don’t have enough time,” to do everything we’d like to, says Kathleen Wang, principal.

It is a one-way immersion program, meaning almost all students come in with no background in Chinese language. Most are native English speakers although for some, Mandarin is a third language. The school uses simplified characters as the foundation, but through calligraphy classes exposes students to both character sets. The school introduces pinyin in third grade.

The school was co-founded by Kathleen Wang, who is now principal, and Richard Alcorn, the school’s executive director.  In the spring of 2013 it received permission from the state of Massachusetts to extend into high school and is a candidate school for the International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma Programme. Authorization by the IB Organization normally takes two years, so entering ninth graders should be eligible to participate in an International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma Programme that starts in eleventh grade. The school expects to become the first fully articulated kindergarten through grade 12 Chinese language and culture public charter school in the nation.

Hadley is about 100 miles west of Boston in an area known both for farming and colleges. In the surrounding area are the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, Smith College, Mt. Holyoke College, Amherst College and Hampshire College. There is a small population of Chinese speakers in the area but the school’s population was always expected to be “very diverse,” says Wang.  PVCICS has some students from families affiliated with the area colleges but most families are not and come from all over its region of service which spans three counties encompassing 39 different communities.  One of the counties is the poorest in the state of Massachusetts and two of the poorest cities in western Massachusetts are in its region of service.  “The school’s students come from a geographic area roughly 50 miles across and we’re a Title I targeted assistance school”, she says.

That diversity is one of the things that made the school attractive to the federal government and helped it get a $1.5 million, five-year Foreign Language Assistance Program, or FLAP, grant in 2008.  These grants were crucial to the founding of many Mandarin immersion schools nationwide. When Congress eliminated the FLAP grants due to federal budget cuts in 2011, it was a surprise to PVCICS and many other programs because the FLAP program had been in existence for decades. “It’s tiny to the federal budget but to schools it’s a lifeline. We’re very thankful to have had the funding because it was very important to help us build the program,” says Wang. Thankfully PVCICS had its program in place when the grant ended, so it was less of a blow than it was to other programs.

Although the school is only seven years old, interest in Chinese immersion has grown enormously during that time.  “When we started there were fewer than 20 Chinese immersion programs in the country,” said co-founder Alcorn. In 2010 it was named one of the first of twenty schools nationally in the Hanban-Asia Society Confucius Classrooms Network. Today its students are meeting and surpassing all the benchmarks its charter has set for English, Mandarin and mathematics.

PVCICS got its start because Wang and Alcorn, were interested in a bilingual education for their children and they had also been working on a Massachusetts state initiative to promote improving international education in the state’s schools.  “We felt strongly that international education include high proficiency in world languages, of which we were focused on Mandarin,” says Wang.

They began researching Mandarin programs and worked with local school districts to start one but found little interest in the early 2000s.  “We talked to hundreds of parents and found there was interest throughout the Pioneer Valley.” says Wang.  They decided to apply to open a regional charter school, something possible under Massachusetts state law, because they wanted to offer a public Chinese immersion program to a wide range of families in the Pioneer Valley.  Families come from almost every socio-economic, linguistic, racial and ethnic background.  Being a regional public charter school made sense plus it would service a large enough population to support the program.

When the school opened in 2007, it had 42 students in one cohort of kindergarteners and one cohort of first graders.  Each year grades and staff were added and facilities were renovated to accommodate growth.  “Starting a new school requires commitment and work however providing an opportunity to the families in this region is our utmost priority.” says Wang.  Since then the school has thrived and continues to grow.

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