Pedro Rivera

School District of Lancaster superintendent Pedro Rivera was tapped by Tom Wolf to serve as secretary of education.

For the first time in a long while, voters in Pennsylvania have cited education as their top concern. New Gov. Tom Wolf has promised he will make education a main priority—and it’s clear that he’s looking to Lancaster County to help drive changes in the state’s education policy. 

Wolf on Monday named Pedro Rivera, superintendent of School District of Lancaster, to be the state’s top education official. Rivera’s appointment follows the selection of Sen. Lloyd Smucker, whose 13th District covers the SDoL community, to lead the high-profile Education Committee for the two-year legislative session.

As secretary of education, Rivera will have a wide-ranging role in helping to oversee and create education policy from kindergarten to college.

“Pedro Rivera is nationally recognized for his efforts to improve urban education, and he will work with me to build a strong public education system and get Pennsylvania back on track,” Wolf said in a release Monday.

In a telephone interview, Rivera said it is “extremely exciting and humbling to be offered an opportunity to serve all the kids of Pennsylvania. ... 

“When (Wolf) and I met, I was amazed by how much he knew about education, about our school district and how he was going to use what is being done at school districts across the state to drive his agenda,” he said. 

Rivera, 41, takes over at a time of uncertainty, as districts across the commonwealth struggle to meet growing pension obligations and the state moves to a new curriculum standard. But Rivera will won’t face those challenges alone. He’ll be able to work with fellow Lancastrian Smucker on making changes to the state’s education system.

“The prospect of working to achieve results with an education secretary with whom I have collaborated frequently and constructively over the years is very encouraging,” Smucker said Monday.

Smucker, a West Lampeter Township Republican, will be responsible for leading the Senate confirmation of Rivera. He said the proposed superintendent can expect to receive careful scrutiny and a lot of questions about philosophy, practices and priorities.

If approved by the Senate, Rivera also will continue to work closely with Rep. Mike Sturla, who represents Lancaster city and its surrounding suburbs. The Democratic lawmaker is a longtime advocate of public education and serves as the House caucus’ policy committee chairman.

“There’s a very small learning curve here for all of us in some respects,” Sturla said. “Pedro and I have been discussing these issues for years now, so I know his position. And I respect where he’s coming from.”

Smucker and Sturla said they are looking forward to welcoming Rivera to the Basic Education Funding Commission — a 15-member panel tasked with reviewing the school funding formula.

Rivera is aware of the work the commission has been doing. In fact, he already has some opportunity to prepare for his new job. Wolf tapped Rivera last month to lead his transition team on education issues, enabling Rivera to work with the outgoing administration to better understand the challenges that face the executive branch.

Rivera has been recognized for his accomplishments at SDoL, despite the adversity many of his students face. He was honored last fall by the White House for being a Champion of Change. About 84 percent of the Lancaster district’s student body is economically disadvantaged, and 17 percent are English Language Learners.

Under Rivera’s tenure, the district has seen improving graduation rates and gains in state assessment scores, and it has increased its fund balance to $9 million from $4 million.

Another highlight has been McCaskey High School’s 20th-place ranking by The Washington Post as one of the most rigorous high schools in Pennsylvania, based on the number of students enrolled in Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses.

“This is great news for Lancaster and this is horrible news for Lancaster,” Mayor Rick Gray joked Monday. “We’re losing him but when you have something that good, it’s nice to be able to share it with the rest of the state.”

When Rivera was hired by the Lancaster district in 2008 as its sixth superintendent in 10 years, he took over a system dealing with four multimillion-dollar building renovations, ongoing maintenance issues, substandard test scores and a recent history of leadership instability.

Gray said he would meet with Rivera once a month to talk about how they could help each other. “He really cares about the students and faculty, and the larger community in general,” the mayor said. “We would talk about how we could make Lancaster a better place for everyone who lives and works here.”

Wolf touted Rivera’s work to implement a community program, which provides students with free breakfast and lunch, as well as eyeglasses, dental care, and medical services. “I look forward to working with him to adequately and fairly fund our schools, which are the foundation to a sustainable, long-term economy in Pennsylvania,” Wolf said.

Rivera came to Lancaster from the School District of Philadelphia, where he served as head of the human resources department. He had previously served as executive director of high schools in the Philadelphia district and as a high school and elementary school principal, bilingual teacher and coordinator of English as a second language programs.

Shortly after the announcement Monday, the administrative team at SDoL posted a comment to the district website congratulating Rivera on his new job. “While this is a tremendous loss for the School District of Lancaster, we are honored for the recognition of the great work that is being done by our educators and staff under our current leadership,” the statement read. “We thank Pedro for the impact he has made on our 11,000 students during his six-year tenure and are excited for the enormous impact he will make for all children across the commonwealth.”

The post said the team will work with the school board to establish a transition plan and to keep the community involved going forward. It’s not clear what the process will be for finding a replacement for Rivera, but the school board is scheduled to meet Tuesday evening.

This is not the first time a Lancaster administrator has been named education secretary. In 2003, Gov. Ed Rendell appointed former School District of Lancaster superintendent Vicki Phillips to the post. She had been superintendent of the city school district from 1998 to 2003. Phillips left the position after only a year as the head of education and took a job as superintendent of Portland School District in Oregon.

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