Departing education secretary pleased with end-of-year exams, changes in curriculum

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While state education secretary Gerald Zahorchak is headed to a new job as superintendent of the Allentown School District, he believes Pennsylvania is well positioned to carry on many of the changes made during the Rendell years.

Dr. Zahorchak said many systems are in place, such as curriculum that fits standards and the upcoming Keystone Exams that will be mandatory for high school students.

He said the systems created "will be able to run for some time" and expects the next administration will build on the strong points of the past.

With only about eight months left in the Rendell administration, Dr. Zahorchak said there is always more work to do, noting, "There's never, ever a good time to leave. By the end of the administration, it's inevitable you have to leave."

Dr. Zahorchak, 52, held a phone news conference Friday morning after the Allentown school board Thursday evening unanimously appointed him to the $195,000-a-year post. His current annual salary is $139,548.

In his job hunt, Dr. Zahorchak said, "I was single focused. I want to go to the front lines and work hard in a district and be a school superintendent."

He said he is "absolutely elated" to be going to Allentown, which has 18,300 students and is the state's fourth-largest district.

Dr. Zahorchak will assume the superintendency on July 1, but he will leave the department on May 7. His replacement has not been named.

He joined the department in 2003 as deputy secretary for elementary and secondary education and was appointed secretary in 2005.

Before that, he was superintendent of the Greater Johnstown School District, which then had about 4,400 students. He said his tenure with the state Department of Education has helped him to see that delegation is "absolutely essential" and "teamwork matters most."

He noted that the Center on Education Policy, an independent public school advocacy group based in Washington, D.C., last year singled out Pennsylvania for improvement in academic achievement.

Some other achievements he cited include a new school funding formula designed to be fairer, state funding for pre-kindergarten and full-day kindergarten, training for principals and easier ways to transfer college credits from one school to another.

Asked about his most difficult challenges as secretary, Dr. Zahorchak said, "I think ensuring that people are investing in our schools and they know the result on the investment."

Dr. Zahorchak fought hard for state-mandated, end-of-course Keystone Exams, which were approved by the state board last year and first will affect the high school Class of 2015.

He also said that trying to help the struggling Duquesne City School District was "very tough." Dr. Zahorchak worked to get the Legislature to agree to send the high school students to West Mifflin Area and East Allegheny school districts despite some opposition.

Now, Dr. Zahorchak said, the remaining pre-kindergarten-through-grade-eight school in Duquesne, which he visited recently, has undergone a "complete metamorphosis."


Education writer Eleanor Chute: echute@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1955.


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