Richard Alcorn has not forgotten the frustration he felt when he owned a business that imported goods from China and had to communicate with non-English-speaking customers on the other side of the globe.
“There were times when I spent 45
minutes or an hour with an interpreter only to realize they had absolutely no
idea what I was talking about,” he told BusinessWest.
That experience, combined with the
fact that Alcorn’s wife, Kathleen Wang, wanted their children and others to be
prepared to work in a changing, global economy, led the couple to establish Pioneer Valley Chinese Immersion Charter School (PVCICS) in Hadley. It was important to them because
both Alcorn and Wang were involved in the Massachusetts Initiative for
International Studies, a statewide initiative to instill more international
focus into K-12 education.
The school opened its doors in 2007
to kindergartners and first-graders, and today boasts roughly 440 students from
39 communities in kindergarten through grade 11. The continued expansion led
the couple to outgrow their space, and last year the school was enlarged with a
Next year, PVCICS will add grade 12,
and the first class that will matriculate will receive international
baccalaureate diplomas that will open the door to continuing-education
opportunities in other countries, while providing students with skills needed
to work for Chinese employers or companies that do business in that country.
Through dedication and hard work,
Alcorn, Wang, and others who are passionate about their mission have
established a new model for education: PVCICS is the first fully articulated
K-12 Chinese-language and cultural-immersion public charter school in the
“In addition to learning the
language, our students learn about cultural differences,” said Wang, the
school’s principal, as she explained that small things make a difference; for
example, in China, the proper way to hand someone a business card is with two hands,
rather than one.
Knowledge of such customs is
important to engender respect and good relationships while communicating with
Chinese customers, suppliers, and business owners.
“The State Department has deemed
Chinese as a language critical to the future of the country’s economic and
national security,” Wang said, noting that more employers are looking for
people proficient in this language and the country’s cultural norms.
Tricia Canavan, president of United
Personnel, a temporary and full-time staffing agency in Springfield, agreed.
“We’re starting to see a demand for
employees who speak Mandarin Chinese, and we are recruiting them for jobs,” she
said. “It speaks to the global nature of commerce; China is the world’s
second-largest economy, and there is a need for fluency in the language.”
Alcorn, executive director of
PVCICS, pointed to Chinese-owned CRRC USA Rail Corp., which broke ground in
September on a new, $95 million subway-car factory in Springfield, as an
example of the presence Chinese companies are establishing in the U.S.
“From the time we started this school, it was
clear to us that, if local companies want to conduct business with China and
local communities want to encourage Chinese companies to make local
investments, we need people who know the language,” he told BusinessWest.
“Massachusetts, like all of New
England, is trailing the nation in developing language and cultural-immersion
programs that offer students the opportunity to develop skills needed to
compete globally,” he went on. “When we first opened, there were only 15
Chinese-immersion programs in the U.S., and now there are over 150
public-school programs like this.”
The vast majority of the student
body at PVCICS knew no Chinese when they entered, which reflects the growing
movement to make students who speak English at home bilingual.
New York City has about 180
dual-language programs where students are learning Arabic, Chinese, French,
Haitian-Creole, Hebrew, Korean, Polish, Russian, and Spanish. Delaware and
North Carolina have joined their ranks, while 9% of public elementary-school
students in Utah are enrolled in dual-language programs, and one in every five
kindergartners in Portland, Ore. are in a dual-language program.
“These programs are
economic-development initiatives,” said Alcorn. “People in the workforce who
are employed in global businesses really need to be bilingual.”
PVCICS opened in 2007 with 42
students. Classes were held in a strip mall in South Amherst, and as the
student body grew and grade levels were added, the school moved into a
26,000-square-foot former health club in Hadley. The space was completely
renovated, and last year the building underwent that 40,000-square-foot
expansion to keep pace with the growing number of students.
Growth continues, and demand for
seats in this free public charter school is high. Students are chosen by
lottery, and more than 100 applications pour in every year for 44 kindergarten
Students can also enter in sixth or
ninth grades, and those who do start in introductory Mandarin Chinese, while
those who entered in elementary school are in a higher-level Mandarin class.
In grades kindergarten and grade 1,
75% of daily instruction is in Chinese, and 25% is in English. In grades 2
through 5, 50% of instruction is in Chinese, and 50% is in English. As the
need for an expanded vocabulary and skills in English grow, the time spent in
Chinese classes is decreased. Starting in sixth grade, 25% of daily
instruction is in Chinese, and 75% is in English.
Research shows that early immersion
in a foreign-language program makes it easier to become fluent. Mandarin
Chinese can be especially difficult for adults to learn because the language is
tonal and doesn’t have an alphabet.
And PVCICS ninth-graders are proud
of their language skills.
Talia O’Shea entered the school in
first grade and didn’t really understand what her teachers were saying until
the middle of the school year, despite the use of drawings, puppets, and other
props. But by the middle of second grade, she was speaking in Chinese.
Today, she does math in the language
because she learned it initially in Chinese and says she sometimes finds
herself thinking in the language, rather than in her native English.
But she regards the ability to do so
as a bonus.
“China is a very significant nation
in terms of politics and economics on the world stage, so being fluent in both
English and Chinese will be a benefit when I get a job,” the 14-year-old told
BusinessWest, adding that her proficiency could help prepare her for a
government career or allow her to work as a translator.
Amanda Dee also entered PVCICS in
first grade, and although she had heard Chinese spoken at home, the language
really didn’t take hold until she began conversing with her peers and
interacting at school.
“When you learn to speak Chinese at
a really young age, it gives you a deeper understanding of the language,” she
Ninth-grader Gabe Crivelli entered
the charter school in sixth grade because he was seeking a challenging course
of academics. He found it at PVCICS, and said the combination of rigorous
standards and the challenge of learning a new language exceeded his
expectations. He is glad he changed schools, and believes his bilingual skills
will help him in the future since he hopes to own a business.
“Students in almost every other
country learn a foreign language,” he noted, adding that his sister is also a student
at the school, and they sometimes speak Chinese at home.
Parents also tout the school’s
benefits. Canavan said she and her husband chose to send two of their sons to
PVCICS and are happy they did.
“We felt it was important for our
children to be fluent in another language so they could become global
citizens,” she said, adding that they were also attracted by the focus on
academic rigor and character building.
Alcorn and Wang tried to get a
Chinese-immersion school program started in Amherst before they applied to the
state to start a charter school in Hadley. And although their proposal was
rejected, today they are happy with the outcome.
PVCICS has been highly successful
and was a recipient of the 2015 Confucius Classrooms of the Year Award,
which was presented to 10 schools across the world for excellence in teaching
and learning, curriculum, cultural richness, community engagement, and
extracurricular activities. Only three schools in the U.S. received the award,
which Alcorn accepted from the Confucius Institute at its World Conference in
Shanghai. In addition, last year its students received some of the highest MCAS
scores in the Commonwealth.
Parental demand for the school’s
program has fueled its continued expansion. Interest in Chinese has grown, and
the school has enjoyed the support of the U.S. Department of Education and the
U.S. Department of Agriculture, Rural Development.
In short, this couple’s vision is
yielding positive results as PVCICS helps to establish a pipeline of students
whose fluency in Mandarin Chinese will enhance the local economy and give them
the skills needed to flourish in a fast-changing world.