Fate of Governor's School at CMU hangs in the budget balance

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Excitement was palpable at the opening of the Pennsylvania Governor's School for the Sciences Sunday in Carnegie Mellon University's Doherty Hall.

Sixty high school students had gathered for the ceremony, ready to try their hands at subjects ranging from the biochemistry of viruses to computer science for the next five weeks.

They hailed from across the state, but a common "passion for science" united them, something Raashmi Krishnasamy, 16, said she came from Peters Township High School eager to share with her peers.

During the opening ceremony, Ben Campbell, an alumnus of the program and a former member of its faculty, perhaps put it best.

"You're here today because the alumni love this program too much to let it fail," Mr. Campbell, now an assistant professor of engineering at Robert Morris University, told the students.

PGSS, which opened Sunday and will extend until Aug. 2, is being brought back for the second year after budget cuts temporarily halted it in 2009.

It's the first of three Pennsylvania governor's schools to open this summer, a season that marks a partial revival of what once was a robust, state-wide network of the summer residential programs for talented high school students.

Alumni are optimistic about the revival, but with future state funding for the programs looking less likely as a budget with no money allocated to it awaits the governor's signature, uncertainty also hangs in the air.

"It's such a high-spirits, low-spirits time, because here PGSS 2014 students have just arrived ... and now we feel like we have such a challenge," said Janet Hurwitz, board secretary of the alumni and parent group PGSS Campaign Inc. Her son, Jeremy, attended PGSS in 2003.

The first of the state's governor's schools, an arts program that boasts actor Kevin Bacon as an alumnus, opened in 1973, and a numerous others, including PGSS, followed suit, until 2009 budget cuts ceased funding for the programs, which then cost the state an estimated $3.2 million.

At the time, it seemed to be their end, but last summer, PGSS reopened after it secured $150,000 in state funding and matched it with alumni donations and partnerships with the help of PGSS Campaign.

This year, two more governor's schools -- one focused on engineering and technology and another on agriculture, to be offered at Lehigh and Penn State universities, respectively -- will join PGSS in playing host to rising high school seniors, each with $150,000 from the Pennsylvania Department of Education.

Staff tasked with operating each of the three intensive educational programs highlight them as invaluable for the students admitted and believe the programs encourage interest in the sciences that they say is key to fostering the nation's global competitiveness.

Participants in Lehigh's new two-week program, for example, will partake in lab experiments and learn about the ethical implications of engineering.

Faculty members hope to encourage them to pursue careers in the field, according to Bill Best, a professor of practice in electrical and computer engineering at the school.

Lehigh hopes to expand the program next year, according to Henry Odi, its vice provost for academic diversity.

To do that, it hopes to match future funding from the state, which for the next year might not materialize.

Gov. Tom Corbett had proposed allocating another $350,000 to the schools in the state's 2014-15 budget, but that line item is absent from the version that passed through the General Assembly and now is on his desk awaiting his signature.

If the state ceases to fund the governor's schools, their revival, especially for the less established ones, could be brief.

David A. Bauman, a science education advisor for the Pennsylvania Department of Education, said after PGSS's opening ceremony that Mr. Corbett's office sees the program "as a priority," but he acknowledged the program's place in the state's future funding plans has not yet been secured.

"I don't know what will happen with the budget, but we hope that programs like this will continue," Mr. Bauman said.

In the same vein, alumni and staff of the programs hope to keep them going into the future.

They emphasize the importance of maintaining the schools' tuition-free model -- something Mr. Odi called "critical" to attracting students from diverse backgrounds -- which could make fundraising key.

Without state funding, Ms. Hurwitz said it will be "extremely difficult" to administer the program, but PGSS Campaign will continue reaching out to alumni and potential corporate sponsors.

"We're talking about doubling what we had to raise plus [other funds], and that's just going to be very, very difficult to do," she said. "We're hoping that we can survive."

Madeline R. Conway: mconway@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1714.

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