Wednesday, November 19, 2008

SDL Superintendent discusses challenges with Rotary

School District of Lancaster Superintendent Pedro Rivera spoke to the Rotary Club of Lancaster about the district's goals and challenges on Wednesday afternoon.

Following brief remarks, he took questions from about ten members of the distinguished service organization.

Rivera compared SDL's mission to Rotary's, saying that both are service organizations. Whereas Rotary is a community service organization, SDL also strives to be a service organization most immediately for students but ultimately also for the broader community.

"There's a difference between getting it and getting it done," Rivera said, explaining that urban school districts face unique challenges.

It's not just about teaching, he said. "In an urban setting, you have to ensure that kids are learning."

He noted that the district serves over 900 homeless families and many Spanish-speaking ones.

Rivera said that the planned renovations to Washington Elementary will include a a clinic, to be run in partnership with Lancaster General Hospital. He noted that it's difficult for kids to focus on learning unless their physical needs are addressed first.

Daycare from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. is another service that will be available, Rivera said, and the auditorium and athletic fields will also be available for public use.

Asked about the school's dropout rate, Rivera said that there is still work to be done and he hopes to make the process easier for students who have dropped out to come back to school.

Asked about the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law, Rivera responded that the intention of the law is noble, but that certain aspects of it present challenges. For example, he said, whether you make Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) is dictated solely based on whether you meet established benchmarks, but "larger urban schools are inherently going to have a larger number of benchmarks to meet and subgroups to serve." Thus, it's more difficult for urban schools to meet AYP.

He went on to note that even children with physical and mental challenges are expected to test at their grade level under the NCLB standards.

Asked how he feels about merit pay for teachers, Rivera said that he is supportive of the concept and has been been involved in attempts to implement it in the School District of Philadelphia.

But he said that the single biggest obstacle to implementing merit pay for teachers has been organized labor. Teachers unions generally insist on compensation on the basis of seniority, not performance, he said.

He added that the process to fire teachers for poor performance has become a very difficult, long and involved under union collective bargaining agreements.

Pedro Rivera was hired as superintendent of the School District of Lancaster in April 2008. Born and raised in north Philadelphia, he worked in various capacities prior to becoming superintendent, including assistant principal, principal, and administrator within the School District of Philadelphia.