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Pa. education secretary visits Baldwin-Whitehall School District

| Wednesday, June 22, 2016, 5:51 p.m.
Kristina Serafini | Tribune-Review
Pennsylvania Secretary of Education Pedro Rivera listens to Baldwin-Whitehall School District faculty and staff during a 'Schools That Teach' tour stop at J.E. Harrison Middle School on Wednesday, June 22, 2016.
Kristina Serafini | Tribune-Review
Pennsylvania Secretary of Education Pedro Rivera listens to Baldwin-Whitehall School District faculty and staff during a 'Schools That Teach' tour stop at J.E. Harrison Middle School on Wednesday, June 22, 2016.
Kristina Serafini | Tribune-Review
Pennsylvania Secretary of Education Pedro Rivera (right) talks with Baldwin-Whitehall School District Director of Information and Instructional Technology Janeen Peretin (far left) and J.E. Harrison Middle School science teacher Debbie Reynolds inside a control room for the middle school's IKS Highlander simulator during a 'Schools That Teach' tour stop Wednesday, June 22, 2016.
Kristina Serafini | Tribune-Review
Pennsylvania Secretary of Education Pedro Rivera talks with a Highlander Summer Camp student inside J.E. Harrison Middle School's IKS Highlander simulator during a 'Schools That Teach' tour stop Wednesday, June 22, 2016.

The room erupted with high-fives and cheers as a group of middle school boys solved a math problem correctly, saving them from failing a mission on the life-sized video-game style simulator.

Seeing what gets students motivated to learn — like the most modern technology — and hearing first-hand about the financial struggles of school districts across Pennsylvania has prompted Department of Education Secretary Pedro Rivera's “Schools that Teach” tour, which stopped at J.E. Harrison Middle School in the Baldwin-Whitehall School District Wednesday.

“Whenever you can accomplish that, hands-down, we know why we do what we do,” said Rivera, who has met with nearly 100 educators in the last month.

A panel of Baldwin-Whitehall administrators, teachers and board members shared with Rivera the successes and struggles of their suburban South Hills district, with 4,100 students.

“As a board member, you want to maintain everything because you know it's wonderful... but you have to be the responsible one,” Baldwin-Whitehall school board President Tracy Macek said.

The district, which struck a financial rough patch, was scheduled to vote Wednesday night on a balanced $62 million budget that included eliminating several professional positions and reducing other operational positions to part-time.

Many of the programs they shared with Rivera were funded through grants and community support, not state funding, leaders said.

“We absolutely want the community to continue to invest. But it shouldn't be a lifeline,” Rivera said. “It should be to augment and to provide more experiences to students.”

In his 2016-17 budget, Governor Tom Wolf has proposed a $250 million increase in basic education funding. This increase will be distributed through Pennsylvania's new Basic Education Funding Formula, known as Act 35, which Wolf signed into law on June 1. The formula accounts for factors including the wealth of the district, the district's current tax effort, and the ability of the district to raise revenue. It also includes student-based factors like the number of children in the district who live in poverty, are enrolled in charter schools or are English language learners.

“The formula will have a positive impact for your district and the decisions you have to make,” said Rivera, who called the formula “a step in the right direction.

“It's very comprehensive, it's progressive. Now, the next step of course is how much funding, how many resources we invest in education. That's probably the greatest part of the narrative now.”

Many in the Legislature agree that more funding is needed for education, Rivera said.

“The conversation always falls apart when it comes to how” to get the funding, he said.

Money needs to be there so districts, like Baldwin-Whitehall, are not forced to have students use their own phones to do school work because the district does not have the latest available, Rivera said.

Stephanie Hacke is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 412-388-5818 or shacke@tribweb.com.

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