Pa.’s top education official talks STEM grant at Penn Highlands

Pedro Rivera, Pennsylvania’s secretary of education, speaks during a meeting with local education leaders at Pennsylvania Highlands Community College in Richland Township on Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2019.

Pennsylvania’s top education official visited Pennsylvania Highlands Community College on Wednesday morning, the latest of several trips he’s made to the Johnstown region in the past four months, to hear how local educators will use $498,000 in state funding to address the region’s workforce needs.

Secretary of Education Pedro A. Rivera said after Wednesday’s roundtable discussion that he expects that the money will be used “to help create partnerships here locally that will support the creation and the training of the next generation of workers.”

“I wanted to come here,” he added, “and hear from them about their process in creating the grant, to discuss what they see as the next steps in developing career and technical education opportunities … in creating a community that supports teaching, learning and supporting the next-generation workforce.”

The grant to the Southern Alleghenies STEM Ecosystem – a coalition of education institutions from Cambria, Somerset, Bedford and Blair  counties, including colleges, school districts and Appalachia Intermediate Unit 8 – was one of several education-related grants announced Monday by Gov. Tom Wolf and intended to “enhance science and technology education in schools statewide,” according to a press release issued after Rivera’s visit by the Department of Education.

A total of $9.6 million in “advancing grants” was handed out through the Wolf administration’s PAsmart initiative, described by the Department of Education as “a groundbreaking approach to prepare students and workers for the jobs of today and tomorrow through STEM and computer science education, apprenticeship and job training.”

“It was a great honor to have (Rivera) stop by,” Barbara Zaborowski, Penn Highlands’ interim vice president of academic affairs, said. “We’re very excited that we received one of the advancing grants through PAsmart. (Rivera) coming to recognize our efforts is really important to us, to have his support in our endeavor.”

The cash, Zaborowski said, will be put to a number of uses, including purchasing robotics and other STEM-related equipment for local schools, hiring a specialist to develop a “cross-disciplinary” STEM curriculum and paying for substitute teachers so that teachers have time to get out of the classroom and attend training sessions and other professional development opportunities.

The grant will also pay for bus transportation “to get students in areas where there’s no transportation to their local public libraries,” Zaborowski said, to take part in reading programs and other activities during the summer months.

Also covered will be the development of a web presence for the Southern Alleghenies STEM Ecosystem – “a one-stop location for anybody to do anything with STEM in this area,” Zaborowski said, where educators can upload training videos and other relevant resources.

“As soon as the weather breaks a little bit here and we can get all of our members together,” Zaborowski said, “we’re going to start to brainstorm, get all our pieces into place, so that we can start to execute the program as soon as possible. … In the fall, when the schools go back into session, we want to make sure we have things ready to go then.”

Participants in Wednesday’s discussion included Rivera; Zaborowski; Walter Asonevich, president of Pennsylvania Highlands Community College; Edward Zovinka, chemistry professor and STEM coordinator at St. Francis University; Derek Jones, professor of computer technology at Allegany College of Maryland’s Bedford County campus; and Debi Balog, director of workforce development for Johnstown Area Regional Industries.

Also participating were Janel Vancas, director of customized learning and curriculum innovation, and Sarah Brambley, STEM curriculum specialist, for Appalachia Intermediate Unit 8; Patty Burlingame, assistant superintendent, Altoona Area School District; and Kristy Wall, assistant supervisor of Altoona Area Public Library’s youth room. State Rep. Frank Burns, D-East Taylor Township, was also present.

Rivera previously visited Greater Johnstown High School on Oct. 25, where he participated in a roundtable discussion, and Somerset’s Eagle View Elementary School on Oct. 31, where he helped honor third-grade teacher Katherine Bobby, a recipient of the 2018 Milken Educator Award for excellence in teaching.

Mark Pesto is a reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter at @MarkPesto.

Recommended for you