January 26, 2015

Q & A with Pedro Rivera, Acting Pa. Secretary of Education and student in Penn GSE’s Mid-Career Doctoral Program in Educational Leadership

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Pennsylvania’s new governor Tom Wolf was elected after making education the centerpiece of his campaign.

He chose Pedro Rivera, a student in Penn GSE’s Mid-Career Doctoral Program in Educational Leadership and, until last week, Superintendent of the Lancaster School District, to carry out his vision as Acting Secretary of Education. Rivera co-chaired the education committee for Wolf’s transition team.

Rivera knows the realities the state’s many urban school districts are facing, having spent December preparing a budget for the Lancaster School District, which is facing a $7-million deficit related to rising pension and healthcare costs. This is the fourth year in a row he’s dealt with such a task. In his statement announcing the appointment, Wolf said that experience is one reason Rivera is the right person for the job.

Rivera, 42, grew up in Philadelphia’s Huntington Park neighborhood. He began his career as a classroom teacher in the School District of Philadelphia, and spent 13 years in city schools working his way up to principal. Since 2008, he served as superintendent in Lancaster. While there, his team created a new PreK-12 curriculum, an aggressive professional development plan, and innovative teacher observation tools. The district’s graduation rates and state assessment scores improved, and The Washington Post rated its J.P. McCaskey High School as one of the most rigorous in Pennsylvania. In September, Rivera was one of 10 Hispanic leaders from around the country honored by the White House for extraordinary work in education.  

Rivera becomes the second Mid-Career Doctoral student to lead a state Department of Education. Program alumna Deborah Gist currently serves as the Rhode Island Commissioner of Education. Rivera’s appointment now awaits confirmation from the Pennsylvania Senate.

We spoke with Rivera when he was on campus January 24. He will be taking a leave from the program this semester as he transitions into his new role with the state. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Q: You’ve said it was a difficult decision to take this post and leave your “family” in the Lancaster School District. Ultimately, why did you accept it?

A: “The number one issue was education funding, and equity in funding and services. The conversation (with Gov. Wolf) kept revolving around, with these dwindling resources, how are we going to continue to serve kids? How are we going to give kids in communities what they deserve without the resources? 

“This definitely isn’t something I was looking for. I’m not a politician, I’m an educator. When the governor approached me, he said I need a practitioner to serve and lead this team, someone who knows education and is focused on education.”

Q: Education was one of Gov. Wolf’s main campaign themes. Now that you are part of his administration, what are your primary goals?

A: “The money is always a big issue, but it’s not just about the money per se, it’s about creating equitable funding. You could say you’re going to spend an extra billion dollars on education, and it could potentially not make a difference at all if you don’t allocate it in a way that meets the needs of kids. It’s about creating an equitable funding formula and supporting the Basic Education School Funding Commission to do that.

“Secondly, we’re looking at distressed schools, school districts like Chester-Upland, Harrisburg, York. We’re looking at ways to support them, and come up with plans that will get them off the distressed schools list, and not only in the financial sense, but from the performance sense, how they serve kids.

“We’ve had really specific conversations about early childhood expansion. And then of course, making that connection around college and career awareness. The first big meeting I attended was with (Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education) schools. I heard what they’re doing to grow. Higher Ed has taken a huge hit over the last four years and we need to support them.

“The agenda is huge, and it’s very deep, but it’s what we’ve committed ourselves to.”

Q: You’re from Philadelphia. Your career started here, and you have lots of experience working in the school district. What do you see as the Wolf administration’s vision for education in Philadelphia?

A: “We fully understand school districts can no longer work in vacuums, and that’s everything from Pre-K to post-graduate opportunities. Community partnerships, university partnerships, agency partnerships are going to be an absolute must. When you look at allocation of resources, it’s going to be about making sure we invest in ways that take advantage of those types of partnerships.

“I can give you a real quick example, the community schools model. One of the first conversations I had with the governor when he was a candidate was around community schools, and how do you support and create full-service community schools. Philadelphia has been doing a lot of work around the establishment of community schools. In Lancaster, we had four full-service community schools. It’s a direction the department and the governor support.”

Q: During the campaign, Gov. Wolf said he favors returning the School District of Philadelphia to local control. Is that still on the agenda? 

A: “I’ve not looked at it specifically — we haven’t gotten to that point in two days — but the governor was real clear during the campaign, and he was real clear in conversations with me that he was absolutely in favor of local control of school districts.

“I’m sure — I don’t know how, I don’t know the when — but it remains top on his agenda, so you’ll absolutely be hearing more of that as we continue.”

Q: You’ve been recognized for your work in Lancaster helping teachers and administrators improve. Can you replicate that at the state level? 

A: “Part of the reason we’ve been successful in the schools in Lancaster is we have real standards-driven professional development. We were very focused and deliberate. We also kept that local. We set conditions and ultimately the principal has to use those guidelines to access his or her staff, and develop them where he feels they are deficient, and grow them in areas where they are strong. 

“At the state level it’s very similar. You have to create conditions where school districts can focus on the needs of their communities, improve the educational offerings for their principals, who will then in turn do that for their teachers. One of the problems in education sometimes is everyone is looking for the silver bullet. There is no silver bullet it’s just hard work. So we need to set the conditions where folks can work hard, but be deliberate about where they’re engaging resources.”

Q: How has your time in the Penn GSE Mid-Career program influenced how you’ve thought about the big-picture challenges in education?

A: “Education is a profession of service. For me it always has been, from teacher to administrator, you do this work only because you want to do right by kids and serve communities. First and foremost, the opportunity to enter a learning environment where the selection process ensures everyone shares in that philosophy. Interestingly, it doesn’t matter if you’re from an independent school background or a foundation background.

“To immerse yourself in conversation in class, out of class, when you wake up in the morning with  — I don’t want say like-minded because we all have a different opinion how you do it — but with the same goal, it’s been phenomenal. It keeps your creative juices flowing.

“I’ve been in a number of conversations about the history of education or race and social issues around education. To have an open dialogue about that was impactful. Those are issues folks shy away from, and they don’t shy away from them here. So it really helps inform, reinforce, sometimes change your opinion on education issues.”