Pedro Rivera: Education, politics aside
As a student, educator, union official, administrator, superintendent, and now secretary of education, Pedro Rivera has been involved in practically every aspect of public education, from North Philly to Harrisburg.
Politics aside, this is the story of how Pedro Rivera became secretary of education of Pennsylvania after serving for years at the School District of Philadelphia and as superintendent of the School District of Lancaster.
Rivera was born and raised in a single parent household in the Hunting Park section of North Philadelphia. His mother was only 16 years old when she gave birth to him before even completing high school. His grandmother — who came to Philadelphia from Puerto Rico to take a job in a sewing factory— lived with them, along with other members of the family.
“When I think of what I’ve been blessed to accomplish it is partly because of having a really involved mother, aunt, grandmother and family,” Rivera said.
Rivera himself is not a product of public education, but having grown up in a poor family in North Philly he got to live and see many of the educational challenges faced by the community.
He went to St. Henry’s and then Cardinal Dougherty, both Catholic schools which have long been closed. Rivera remembers being a “angelic” kid with great grades, at least up to the third grade.
“That’s when my family dynamics changed, so my needs in school changed,” Rivera said. It was then when his grandmother — the backbone of the family — moved out to live on her own, his mother took on a third job, and his aunt was also busy working.
“I went from a time when there was always someone home to a time when there was practically no one home,” Rivera said. “I was responsible for getting myself to school and taking care of myself after school.”
“Back then no one left the community and you still see it today,” Rivera said. “That’s how I grew up.”
“In Rivera we have an experienced educator, a former teacher and administrator, who knows how hard it is to attain academic achievement; especially in school districts that are poorly financially resourced due to their tax base. He knows that many Pennsylvania communities face English language challenges on top of the economic ones.”
Rev. Luis Cortés, president and CEO of Esperanza
“Unlike previous secretaries of education, Rivera has been one of the few who has been a teacher, a principal, a union official, and a administrator. At a time when school reform has caused tension among those constituents, it is important to have someone as highly qualified as him who has been in all of those posts."
Councilwoman María Quiñones-Sánchez
When he went to Penn State, he was surrounded, for the first time in his life, by people from different socioeconomic backgrounds.
“Kids had computers in their rooms and I had to go to the library or the computer lab at one o’clock or two o’clock in the morning for open lab time,” Rivera said. “There were many folks I thought were rich, but now I realize they were middle class.”
Rivera was originally an engineering major but after the first semester, he had to switch because he couldn't afford the equipment he needed. The financial aspect was only one of the challenges he had to overcome.
“I wasn't prepared for college. I had to deal with a lot of issues in terms of aptitude, learning, and also socially,” Rivera said. “I struggled but I was never afraid to ask for help and I got help from a lot of professors and counselors.”
When asked about his GPA, Rivera laughs and says he can’t remember but he said, “it was enough to graduate.”
“When I really started to excel is when I got into the actual practice of teaching,” he added.
After graduating with a bachelor's degree in Education from Penn State, Rivera received his elementary certification at Temple University. Later on he completed a master’s in Education Administration from Cheyney University and received his superintendent letter of eligibility from Arcadia University.
He then went back to Hunting Park, to teach in the community where he grew up. He worked in the School District of Philadelphia, tutoring after school and teaching GED at night.
“I fell in love with teaching through tutoring. I really enjoyed the interaction, teaching someone something new and seeing that look in their face when they get it,” Rivera said. “It’s a really good feeling when you know you help someone get to the point where they understand and they want to continue to learn.”
“Latinos are faring the worst in the Commonwealth's education system and the voice of Latinos is grossly underrepresented. We need strong leadership across the commonwealth and having a secretary sends a strong message that Latino voices are necessary to change a system that is not working for the community.”
Cynthia Figueroa, president and CEO of Congreso
“I’ve known Rivera for many years and I have proudly seen him grow into a brilliant educator and leader. He is a fierce advocate of educational equity for all children. Very importantly, he is a humble leader, and he will seize this opportunity to prove his sincere dedication to educational reform and justice.”
Johnny Irizarry, director of La Casa Latina at the University of Pennsylvania
“Almost all my career had been serving in North Philadelphia,” said Rivera. But after Sheridan, he was asked to serve as executive director of high schools and moved to the district’s office downtown.
Rivera managed to improved graduation rates and state assessment scores, as well as student participation in programs aimed at college success. He also led the development and implementation of a new preK-12 curriculum, and a community schools model that provides students free breakfast and lunch, eyeglasses, dental care and medical services. He also increased the district’s fund balance from $4 million to $9 million.
“When you are dealing with an urban environment, you have every type of kid, from low level in reading, writing and math, to high levels; from some of the poorest families to some of the more affluent,” Rivera said. “When you are looking at educating that vastly different (group) of students and communities, you really learn to differentiate and focus on the children and their needs.”
“While there is tremendous value in having someone in leadership at the State level who personally and professionally understands the needs and struggles of Latino students — for Philadelphia it is of equal importance to have someone at PDE who is familiar with the challenges of the Philadelphia School District.”
Farah Jimenez, member and commissioner of the School Reform Commission
“I’m very proud of what Rivera has accomplished. He grew up in the neighborhood, in Hunting Park, he never gave up and he made it. We have always supported him here at Aspira because we believe in him. He has done a good job because he thinks of what’s best for the students, not what’s best for himself”
Alfredo Calderón, president and CEO of Aspira