Pedro Rivera: Always Gazing Through The Right Lens

Administration August 2021 PREMIUM
“If we can’t show that, then we’re going to work ourselves out of this higher education market,”

Pedro Rivera was raised by his mother and aunt in North Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. When he went off to college to study engineering at The Pennsylvania State University, he found he was woefully ill prepared. “I could not afford the basic tools and equipment needed to really properly engage in that major,” says Rivera, who was the first of his family to attend college. “My first year in college was extremely, extremely difficult.”

Through a humanities class he began tutoring high school students residing in a predominantly Latino and African American community. He fell in love with teaching. “I felt passionate about engaging with high school students,” says Rivera. Soon he dropped engineering and became an education major. Today, as president of Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Rivera serves college students who grew up as he did and face the challenges of their low socioeconomic status. Many, like Rivera, are first-generation college students.

Serving low-income students

The mission of both Thaddeus Stevens the republican politician and Thaddeus Stevens the school has long been to meet the needs of low-income, historically under-represented individuals. More than half of Thaddeus Stevens’s roughly 1300 students come from low socio-economic backgrounds. In 2020-21 eighty-three percent of the school’s students received financial aid, including grants, scholarships, and loans. Forty-three percent of the officially enrolled students were eligible to receive the Federal Pell Grant.

 Despite these statistics, the two-year school’s track record on educating low-income, underserved students is impressive. It has a 64.3 percent graduation rate and a retention rate of 72.4 percent. But that retention rate is a little misleading. “What’s not represented in (that number) is that our job placement rate is 96.2 percent. That’s not 96 percent of our graduation rate. That’s 96 percent of our entire population,” says Rivera. It’s not unusual for Thaddeus Stevens students to find full-time employment before they have a chance to graduate, which drives the school’s retention rate down. “They’re hired from their internships,” says Rivera. Ninety percent of Thaddeus Stevens students are hired in their field of study and five percent continue their education, as full-time or part-time students at four-year institutions.

A holistic approach to education

Before taking the helm at Thaddeus Stevens in October of 2020, Rivera served as Pennsylvania Secretary of the Department of Education. Before that he was Superintendent of the School District of Lancaster, a principal, a high school teacher, Executive Director for the School District of Philadelphia, and a staff member with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers. No matter the position, Rivera has always focused on providing opportunity in an equitable manner by applying a holistic approach to education. When teaching English language learners as a high school teacher, for example, he embedded workforce readiness standards into his curriculum. As a principal he implemented a community school model and invited outside agencies to teach students life skills, like tax preparation.

As superintendent in Lancaster he staffed his buildings with service providers and medical providers. “We really took a look at meeting the holistic needs of students and providing some of our underserved and under-resourced students in places where they can be supported holistically. You can’t learn effectively if you don’t have many of these other needs addressed,” says Rivera. “It’s the lens I’ve always worked through.”

While setting policy at the state level Rivera always gazed through a lens of equity, diversity, and inclusion. Equity is not a box to be checked off on a sheet of paper, says Rivera, but rather a lens through which educators peer to set conditions at the highest level, thus ensuring they focus on the needs of the most vulnerable students. “If you’re not looking through the right lens, you might miss out on opportunities or not focus on some of the areas that our students, their families, and our communities need…I’ve spent my life engaging in that space,” says Rivera.

When Rivera met with the Thaddeus Stevens board during the interview process he was unapologetic about his educational mission. “I interviewed the board as much as they interviewed me,” he says. He made it abundantly clear he wanted to serve historically lower economic and socially underserved communities. This position “gives me the vehicle to be a part of a team to make that happen…We can align and I can serve students who grew up in communities just like I grew up in,” says Rivera.

An inexpensive pathway to a living wage

The American Dream suggests that each successive generation will enjoy greater opportunity to succeed than the one that preceded it. But by most accounts it’s harder than ever for individuals to earn a living wage and for families to make ends meet. “It’s absolutely more difficult for them,” says Rivera. Historically Thaddeus Stevens has offered its students pathways to a variety of trades, like construction and carpentry. To ensure that its graduates are desirable in today’s workforce and to ensure they are on a path to earn a living wage, the school now offers a wide range of business programs. Students can choose from computer-integrated machinery, software engineering, architectural engineering, among others.

Because Thaddeus Stevens is middle states accredited, students can seamlessly transfer the credits they earn there to four-year institutions. “We have a good percentage of our students who will leave us and go to a four-year college as a junior,” says Rivera. Thaddeus Stevens negotiated credit articulation agreements with a number of Pennsylvania colleges and universities, allowing students to continue their education and complete their four-year degrees.

Those Thaddeus Stevens students who are Pell eligible upon enrolling attend the school for free. For those who have to pay tuition, their debt is manageable. “Our average student debt after leaving our program is under $10,000 dollars. Period,” says Rivera.

Students’ return on investment

Rivera envisions a progressive education system in which general education courses are a thing of the past. “We need to start getting students into specific programing modalities in their first years of college or else we are going to lose them,” says Rivera. Today’s students argue, and Rivera agrees, they should not be required to memorize basic facts when those facts are readily available on their phones. “We haven’t evolved as an education system yet to meet the opportunities and demands of technology,” says Rivera. “The for-profit sector of higher education has figured this out, which is why they’ve been growing,” says Rivera.

He suggests front loading courses that are meaningful in the technical world and differentiating to meet the needs of diverse learners. Today’s students demand to know the value of their education and the return on their investment. “If we can’t show that, then we’re going to work ourselves out of this higher education market,” says Rivera.

It’s a pathway not a pipeline

For years educators and policy makers have referred to the education pipeline. Rivera takes issue with that term. It’s not a pipeline, he says, it’s a pathway. “Pipelines only move in one direction. Pathways move in both directions and you can get on and off (them),” says Rivera. America’s education systems have failed to meet the needs of the Latino, the underserved, and the African American communities because educators were taught to herd their students in a single direction. “When we look at our institution and two-year institutions (in general) it’s about integrating a system to meet (students’) needs and exposing them to opportunities. It’s about giving them a pathway to success and realizing we as learners are dynamic. You have to build opportunities for them to move in the direction that meets their needs,” says Rivera.

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