What the Secretary of Education thought of his visit to Bellefonte schools

Secretary of Education Pedro Rivera watches Melissa MacNeely’s third-grade Spanish class at Marion-Walker Elementary on Thursday, Oct. 25, 2018.
Secretary of Education Pedro Rivera watches Melissa MacNeely’s third-grade Spanish class at Marion-Walker Elementary on Thursday, Oct. 25, 2018.

Pennsylvania Secretary of Education Pedro Rivera sat in the back of teacher Melissa MacNeely’s third-grade Spanish class Thursday morning, smiling and watching as the students sang songs and participated in an engaging language lesson at Marion-Walker Elementary School.

MacNeely spoke only in Spanish throughout the lesson as her students went over numbers, did simple math problems, matched different shapes with their Spanish names, and eagerly raised their hands to answer their teacher’s questions — not a word spoken in English.

“To walk into a language class and to see the students engaged with as much energy that was exhibited by the teacher and the kids was great to see,” Rivera said. “What probably was most impressive was how she integrated language lessons with multiple skills, like sentence structure, and shapes with the geometry, and multi-course opportunities for kids. When you integrate different skill sets with different lessons, it makes for a great lesson.”

Rivera was visiting the Bellefonte Area School District Thursday as part of the state Department of Education’s School’s The Teach Tour to highlight opportunities and initiatives in public education. Since 2015, Rivera and other members of Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration have visited dozens of schools across the state as part of the tour.

“It’s all about opportunities and sharing stories,” Superintendent Michelle Saylor said. “And that’s what we’re trying to do.”

The Bellefonte tour started off with a roundtable discussion at Marion-Walker between Rivera, teachers, administrators, staff members and students leaders. The purpose of the roundtable, according to Saylor, was for people to bring up topics that had been on their minds with Rivera, and to learn more about what the state is doing.

After that, it was all about showing Rivera what is going on in the Bellefonte Area School District, starting with the elementary language classes. Each of Bellefonte’s four elementary schools offer K-5 foreign language courses. Bellefonte Elementary students are taught Chinese by Chinese scholars, while Benner, Pleasant Gap and Marion-Walker offer Spanish.

“His (Rivera’s) tour really is about public education and the great things that public education is doing,“ Marion-Walker Principal Karen Krisch said. “People aren’t always aware of the depth of some of the programs we have in public school, so we really want to showcase those kinds of programs — and the Spanish program is one of those.”

Rivera spoke with Saylor and Kirsch after the first classroom visit, remarking upon how the students were able to learn so many different skills through language.

“It was a great first visit,” he said.

They next stopped at Bellefonte Area Middle School, where teacher Jordan Eccher’s Project Lead the Way program was highlighted.

As explained by middle school Principal Sommer Garman, Project Lead the Way is an initiative that helps introduce middle school students to technology and engineering to spark interest and excitement about pursuing the tech field further in high school, where they can branch out into more specific STEM-related fields

Secretary of Education Pedro Rivera tries out a zSpace virtual reality computer as teacher Jordan Eccher looks on at Bellefonte Area Middle School on Thursday, Oct. 25, 2018. Lauren Muthler

“It’s a way for our students to get their feet wet, especially our females, and change the stigma that only boys can do engineering or woodworking. Anyone can do it,” she said.

Garman showed Rivera benches and tables previous Lead the Way students have made for the school, while Eccher showed off wooden mugs, cellphone amplifiers, Rubik’s cubes, and even a light-up corn hole board with the Red Raider emblem in the middle. Rivera got to take one of the mugs back to display in the Department of Education office.

“It’s amazing to see what students this age are doing in engineering,” Garman said. “They design a project on the computer, send it to a 3-D printer, take it out to the wood lab and build it. To see all the processes they’re doing at 11 years old, 12 years old, and how excited the kids get ... that’s why we wanted the secretary to see what we’re doing.”

After Eccher showed Rivera the woodworking and virtual reality computer lab, the secretary got the chance to talk to a class of sixth-graders, and take a selfie.

“Let me just take a quick moment and tell you how impressed I am with all your hard work,” Rivera told the students. “I was looking at some of the finished products and some of what you’re working on, and you guys are pretty impressive. You guys really deserve a big round of applause from me.”

The last stop for Rivera at Bellefonte was at the high school, where he got to sit in on a professional learning session, led by teacher Kevin Briggs, and Myken Poorman’s agriculture and environment classes.