Wolf names Phila. native Rivera as education secretary

Gov.-elect Tom Wolf's pick for education secretary knows a few things about Philadelphia. Pedro A. Rivera grew up in Hunting Park and spent more than a decade as a teacher and principal in the city school system.

Rivera also worked as a Philadelphia Federation of Teachers staffer, and most recently as superintendent in Lancaster, where he learned firsthand the challenges of running an urban school system in Pennsylvania.

20150120_inq_rrxpedro20z-a
Pedro A. Rivera was a teacher and principal in the city, a union staffer, and Lancaster school superintendent.

That his soon-to-be new boss chose someone with his background to be the state's top education official is not lost on Rivera, he said in an interview. City school systems have been hit particularly hard over the last four years, and there is much work to do.

"Where you start is by having a governor who cares, and having a team that cares about urban education," said Rivera, who is 42 and married with two children.

Rivera's grandmother was born in Puerto Rico, and came to Philadelphia for a job at a sewing factory. He attended the now-closed Cardinal Dougherty High School, earned his undergraduate degree at Pennsylvania State University, and began working in the School District as a classroom teacher at Finletter Elementary in Olney.

Later, Rivera worked at Kensington High as a teacher and assistant principal, and for the teachers' union as a staffer, representing schools in the former Central East region. He also spent time as director of the district's office of high school reform, and as an executive in the human resources office.

He became Lancaster's top educator in 2008, and was named a White House Champion of Change in September for his work in that district of 11,500 students, 84 percent of whom live in poverty.

Wolf praised Rivera's work in Lancaster, noting that the district has made gains in graduation rates and test scores under his watch, while adding services at schools and becoming more financially sound.

"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 of Rivera in a statement.

Rivera said he would bring the same perspective to leading the Education Department that he had in Philadelphia and Lancaster: academics are key, but for many students, there are other things that are just as important.

"You have to understand the real needs of a child who, for example, may have not eaten that day, or who may have medical or social and emotional needs," Rivera said.

Community schools - schools that have amenities like doctors, dentists, and mental health services to address barriers to student success - were important to Rivera's work in Lancaster. And there's been a push for them in Philadelphia, too, particularly from activists and the PFT.

Rivera's nomination - he must be confirmed by the Senate - was cheered by PFT president Jerry Jordan, who said Rivera was "uniquely qualified" to become education secretary.

"Because his career has taken him from teacher to principal to superintendent of an entire school district, Rivera understands better than most how teacher unions and administrators should work together to improve public education," Jordan said in a statement. "This is a great first step to creating great public schools in Pennsylvania."

William R. Hite Jr., Philadelphia's superintendent, knows Rivera and speaks highly of him as well.

"His personal story, his professional story - that will help his understanding of the challenges we face in Philadelphia," Hite said. "He's dealt with fiscal challenges as well."

Hite called Rivera "personable, knowledgeable. He's known for increasing access for disadvantaged children. He's going to be very good in that position."

 


kgraham@phillynews.com

215-854-5146 @newskag

www.philly.com/schoolfiles