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Chinese delegation’s visit to Riverside school stirs confusion

A Chinese delegation of government officials and journalists was bused to the vacant Hillcrest High School in Riverside recently for a tour of the newly constructed $105-million campus.

The event was hosted by Chino businessman David Li Chen, and guests included former California Secretary of Education Dave Long.

But confusion over the Sept. 30 event’s exact purpose has unleashed a flurry of claims and denials — covered breathlessly by the Chinese media — that a deal had been struck to turn the unopened high school into a school for students from China as well as the United States.

Officials from the local school district said they’re still trying to figure it all out.

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Mike Simonson, executive director of business services for the Alvord Unified School District, said he was asked to give the Chinese delegation a tour of the campus. Afterward, he said he was surprised to learn that some delegation members thought the event was a ceremony to celebrate the opening of a new school for Chinese students.

Simonson said that no such operating agreement exists and that no arrangement for the school’s use has ever been discussed.

“We’ve been informed that a Chinese group has been implying, if not outright saying, that there’s a partnership,” Simonson said. “For the record, we have no such deal. We’re trying to figure all of this out.”

Despite overcrowding at other high schools, the Alvord school board mothballed the new high-tech Hillcrest campus because the district was stung by severe cuts in state funding and didn’t have the money to operate it.

Three people who attended the event with the Chinese delegation said both Chen and a Chinese education official either suggested, or said outright, that Hillcrest High is the new satellite campus of the well-known Guangdong Experimental School in China’s Guangdong Province. Chinese students would travel to the U.S. to study at the school alongside American students, they said guests were told.

During a luncheon at a local country club after the tour, members of the Chinese delegation unveiled a new sign for the project: “Guangdong Province High School at the USA.” Newspapers in the Chinese province touted the new school as a significant cross-cultural achievement.

But Chen told The Times it was all a misunderstanding, and he blamed the Chinese media for misinterpreting what occurred. Chen said that neither he nor his for-profit company, the Chemax Education Foundation Inc., ever had an agreement with the school district.

“These rumors come from I don’t know where,” said Chen, adding that the misunderstanding has “hurt my foundation and my personal reputation.”

Newspapers in the Chinese province have since reported that the Guangdong school has announced closure of the U.S. school, and pictures of the sign-unveiling ceremony in Riverside have been removed from the school’s website. .

Officials at the Guandong Experimental School also sent an email to alumni saying they where misled. They called on Chen to issue a formal apology to the school, alumni and press. Representatives of the school could not be reached for comment.

In an earlier interview, Chen told The Times that he had asked the school district several months ago if his company could rent some classrooms at Hillcrest High for Chinese students studying abroad, but that the request was denied. Chen also said he reached an agreement with Chinese education officials to establish a branch of the Guangdong Experimental High School in the United States, but that it remains in the conceptual stage.

Keping Qiu, a federal court translator who lives in Hesperia and attended the event at Hillcrest High said that “to me there was no question. They were saying this was the Guangdong Experimental School.” Qiu grew up in Guangdong Province before moving to the U.S.

Qiu said she questioned Chen about the deal after the ceremony and got conflicting answers. At first, Chen suggested the event was to celebrate a deal to turn Hillcrest into a Chinese charter school, but he later told her that the event was nothing more than a tour of a modern American high school, she said.

“He was saying things inconsistently,” Qiu said.

An alumna of the Guangdong high school who now lives in Southern California and also attended the event said she was specifically told that Hillcrest was the site of the new Chinese school by the head of the Guangdong Province education agency, who also attended.

“He said that the school is our school. And I said, “Are you sure?” He said “Yes,’ ” said the woman, who asked not to be identified because she feared Chinese officials might retaliate against her friends in China.

Long, who served under Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and is now an education consultant, also accompanied the Chinese delegation and said “it became apparent that something was amiss.”

Long, whom Chen invited to the event and who later spoke to the visitors and posed for a photograph, said he thought the Chinese contingent was there for a basic tour.

“Two or three people came up to me and said, ‘Will you allow American students to go here?’ ” Long said. “They certainly had the perception that this was their school and there was some partnership. And, of course, there is no partnership.”

Long said he asked Chen about the comments but did not receive an explanation.

The Chemax Education Foundation website describes Long as a “partner,” but Long denied having any affiliation with the company. He said he had worked with Chen on projects in the past, but never as a paid consultant.

Last week, the director of the California Post Secondary Education Commission said she contacted Chen after she learned that he was claiming to be a representative of the state agency and was handing out business cards describing himself as the agency’s “Director of Office.”

“He has never been affiliated with the commission — period — either as a staff person or a commissioner,” said Executive Director Karen Humphrey. “It’s clear to me that he misrepresented himself.”

Humphrey said that she called Chen and told him to stop and that he agreed to do so.

Chen said that the incident was a misunderstanding and that “I did not do anything to hurt the reputation” of the state agency.

The Chemax Education Foundation also lists Lawrence Geraty, former president of La Sierra University in Riverside, as its chairman. Chen said he had worked as an unpaid assistant to Geraty, who was a commission member representing the Assn. of Independent California Colleges and Universities.

Geraty confirmed that Chen had tried to rent classrooms at Hillcrest in the past, but said he was unaware of the outcome. But he said Chen “had nothing to do with” the state commission.

“In other matters he has indeed acted as my assistant and been very helpful, especially … in relationships in China,” Geraty said by email this week.

Chen said the Chemax Education Foundation has not received funding from any U.S. or Chinese government agencies, nor does the company have private investors. The only income derives from commissions he receives for helping Chinese students enroll in American colleges and universities, he said.

phil.willon@latimes.com

rosanna.xia@latimes.com


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