Penn State or the state pen?

Columnist : Albert Paschall

by Albert Paschall,
Senior Commentator, Lincoln Institute

How would like a job that includes responsibilities for 11 large buildings, managing 1,000 employees, make sure over a million meals get served every year and while you are at it oversee the activities of about 7,000 kids?

That’s Doctor Lisa Andrejko’s job.  She’s the superintendent of the Norristown Area School District in Montgomery County’s seat and is probably the only person I’ve ever encountered who can almost make me a fan of public education in this state.

The Norristown school district, like so many in this state, is a district of contrasts – the haves and have nots.  Its two affluent townships merged with a struggling borough.  It’s got the kids who arrive in Cadillacs and the kids who are dependent on the 30 cent cafeteria breakfast for their daily nutrition.  In the 2005 school year it cost about $105 million to keep the doors open.  Like every public school system in Pennsylvania, there’s anger among property owners still awaiting the gaming revenue windfall that the Rendell administration has promised will lower the cost of renting their homes from the school district.

Responsibilities that would daunt most mortals don’t seem to faze Andrejko.  It’s with obvious pride that she talks about the innovations that have been introduced into the district and the opportunities they have created for the students.  While those of us who are somewhat skeptical of the merits of the No Child Left Behind Act, she makes the case that it actually has made inroads into reforming the way we think about educating our kids.

In the Norristown district they’ve created career oriented clusters.  These groups of students concentrate in disciplines like law, health care, business and performing arts.  Not many adolescents can lay out career paths but experiencing what they think they want to do can at least rule out what they don’t want to do with their careers.  Through partnerships students are given the opportunity to experience technical education but still remain on a college bound track.  Working with the county’s community college, high school students can actually graduate with college credits, something every college tuition paying parent has got to appreciate.

Though the real way to correct inequities in public education is free and open school choice we’re not going to get it.  Choice’s biggest champion, former Governor Tom Ridge got finger nails screeching across black boards all over this state in his two failed attempts to open up the system.  The current administration doesn’t even think about the concept.

What we can get is innovation.  New and different ways of integrating career tracks into our schools.  A director of the Norristown School District, Pearl Smith is fond of saying we can train kids to get them ready for Penn State, or let it go and take the risk that they end up in the state pen.  She’s right.  It costs around $21,000 a year to support somebody in either one of those institutions.  Someday if districts all over the state adopt some of Norristown’s ideas into their curriculum there can be hope that more kids make it to Penn State.

Albert Paschall
Senior Fellow
The Lincoln Institute of Public Opinion Research, Inc.