Many a Pennsylvania school district already faced problems with the likes of dwindling enrollment and an eroded tax base while trying to make sure the bills were paid.
Then came COVID-19.
“Schools were struggling to get their kids online. They were struggling financially. They were struggling with equipment. They were struggling with IT support, everything,” Peters Township resident and business owner Pam Selker Rak said.
When the pandemic hit in full force, she was in the midst of completing an eight-month educational program for senior-level leaders, and sessions continued on a virtual bases until the cohort’s graduation in June.
Even though the Leadership Pittsburgh Inc. program had ended, the graduates wanted to continue working together on a community-oriented project. Rak and Adam Ennis, attorney with Steptoe & Johnson PLLC of Cecil Township, took the lead in determining what could be done on behalf of some area schools.
They met with Rosanne Javorsky, assistant executive director of teaching and learning for the educational support agency Allegheny Intermediate Unit, and she pointed them in the right direction.
“We discussed this with her, and we said we wanted to work with a couple of school districts and see what their needs are,” Rak said. “So she identified the schools that she thought needed our help.”
Sto-Rox and Brentwood Borough school districts both have enrollments of fewer than 1,200 students in kindergarten through 12th grade, according to Pennsylvania Department of Education. By comparison, Peters Township, Rak’s home district, educates nearly 4,000 children.
“We wanted to hear from them what their biggest challenges were, and it boiled down to: They had already gotten their equipment secured, but they didn’t have cases for the kids to use to carry their devices back and forth,” Rak said.
To avoid placing the financial burden for protective units on parents and guardians, the Leadership Pittsburgh contingent made other arrangements. Graduate Dave Weber brought the cause to his employer, Dollar Bank, which underwrote the entire $22,000 purchase of cases for Chromebooks.
“We’re working now to help them offset the costs of the warranties on the devices,” Rak said, and with an eye toward the longer term, a career mentoring program also is part of the effort. “People in our Leadership Pittsburgh class will be able to work with the students at both of these schools, and encourage them and do everything we can to entice them to keep going after they graduate from high school.”
She and Ennis hope to expand the project to include other Western Pennsylvania schools that are encountering difficulties.
“This is precisely the type of civic leadership initiative we hope to seed through our program,” said Aradhna Oliphant, Leadership Pittsburgh president and chief executive officer. “Working creatively and collaboratively, in the middle of a global pandemic, these alums have helped alleviate a practical pain point for our school leaders and helping to educate 2,000 students in our region. Our board and I are so proud of them.”
The latest graduating class represents a wide variety of professions, including education, engineering, finance, industry and the Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium. Adding to the mix, Rak is president of the marketing firm CommuniTech LLC, which in recent years has focused on the nonprofit sector.
“I became more interested in civic leadership, and I started looking into ways to get myself more educated in figuring out what areas of civic leadership I want to focus my time on. And that’s why I decided to apply for Leadership Pittsburgh. It really has changed my life in many ways,” she said. “It opened my eyes to so many things that I didn’t even think about or realize. Boy, I look at everything in a different way now, and it’s a good thing.”
She now is part of a network of more than 2,000 Leadership Pittsburgh Inc. alumni representing 36 years’ worth of graduating classes.
“It just takes one phone call, one email, and the next thing you know, you have this whole productive partnership going,” she said. “There’s a kindred spirit between these people, and you just feel like you can plug right into it and you can conquer the world.”
For more information about Leadership Pittsburgh Inc., visit lpinc.org.