Pedro Rivera : New Secretary of Education Devoted to Student Achievement

In describing the newly minted Pennsylvania Secretary of Education, Pedro Rivera, the Department’s Press Secretary Nicole Reigelman states, “He’s always smiling and full of energy.” Rivera will need to keep that positive vibe as he wades into the raft of challenges facing education in the Commonwealth.

“We don’t always have to look at the deficits in education,” says the 42-year-old Philadelphia native. “I’m an educator, not a politician. I’m an advocate for the kids, the school districts and the communities. This is just what Governor Wolf wants from someone in this office.”

Rivera met Wolf last year as the gubernatorial campaign was starting. “He invited stakeholders in his campaign to a meeting to discuss education,” says Rivera. “After the election, I was asked to co-chair the education transition team with Dr. John Sygielski, president of Harrisburg Area Community College. It was the best of both worlds, continuing my position as Lancaster School District superintendent and consultant to the governor-elect.”

That changed in early January. “I received a phone call from Governor Wolf at which time he asked me to be the new Secretary of Education,” says Rivera. “I said to him, ‘Are you sure?’ It came as a complete surprise. He advised me to talk it over with my wife, Erika. Later on, the Governor made a point to thank her for lending me to the job.”

Since assuming his post, Rivera has been traveling around Pennsylvania, listening to administrators, board members, teachers, students and parents. “We’ve visited several hundred districts,” he says. “It’s important to know what they need before developing any policies.”

One of the most recent issues to gain public attention is the Keystone Exam, a tool that is supposed to determine if a student has met the requirements for high school graduation. “I don’t believe that we should do away with the Keystone Exam, because some kind of baseline standard is necessary,” says Rivera. “But we need to use other assessments, as well. How do we measure educator effectiveness? We need to support the best practices, ones that are focused on the students.”

As the product of an urban environment, and having spent most of his professional career in the same, Rivera is aware of the negative social impact on some students who live in that setting. But he believes that schools can provide examples that help to improve relationships at home and in the neighborhood.

Of course, much of what needs to be accomplished in Pennsylvania’s schools has a price tag. And it is not cheap. With a Republican General Assembly, Governor Wolf’s education initiatives will need to pass its muster to be implemented. Compromise is in the offing. “I’m optimistic,” says Rivera, “but not blind. We’ve met with the Education Committee chairmen of the House and Senate. We all want to improve schools. How to do that is where ideas sometime differ.”

Rivera was raised in the Hunting Park section of North Philadelphia and attended Cardinal Dougherty High School. He is a first-generation college graduate, earning a BS degree from Penn State, a MS degree in education administration from Cheyney University and his Superintendent’s Letter of Eligibility from Arcadia University.

“I love education,” confesses Rivera. “Originally, I wanted to be an engineer and spent a couple of semesters in that curriculum at Penn State. Then I had the opportunity to be a tutor for students from Reading High School, and I fell in love with it.”

Prior to serving as Lancaster School District superintendent, Rivera taught Spanish and ESL in Philadelphia’s Kensington High School. Thereafter, he was a staff member with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, an assistant principal, principal and human resources executive director for the Philadelphia School District.

In September 2014, Rivera was honored by the White House as a Champion of Change for his efforts to transform urban education – one of 10 recipients nationwide to receive the prestigious honor.

Rivera lives in Lancaster with his wife, son and daughter. Aside from time spent relaxing with his family at home or at the beach, he finds satisfaction in reading, going to the movies, workouts at the YMCA and cooking on the backyard grill.

Staff Writer

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