Turning the World Outward In a COVID-19 World

Meet the Pennsylvania Department of Education’s New Chief

Senior Associate Brandi Hunter-Davenport had a candid conversation with Noe Ortega, the Pennsylvania Department of Education’s Acting Secretary, just a couple of days before his official transition. They spoke for a few moments about his goals for the department and his initial priorities. Below is a recap of that conversation. Triad Strategies thanks Acting Secretary Ortega for taking the time to speak with us, and we congratulate him in his new role.

To learn more about the Pennsylvania Department of Education, click here

Talk to us about your career path. What led you to education?

I connected with higher education very early on in my career. My career path took me from Texas, to Japan, back to Texas, to Michigan and then to Pennsylvania. At the undergraduate level, I worked in the student services/affairs area, and that was really my entry point into post-secondary institutions. I also had experience with early childhood programs through work I was able to do in Japan, working with young people in the classroom. In that space, I was working with children learning a new language, and that opportunity gave me a taste for curriculum design, pedagogy, and leadership in education. I was never formally certified as a teacher so I would say I took a path of post-secondary education through trajectories in school counseling and recruitment which ultimately led to me being here at the department.

As deputy secretary, what have been your primary areas of responsibility?

There were two key areas of focus in my role as deputy secretary. When I first stepped into my role, Pennsylvania was working on a post-secondary attainment goal where some of the work had already begun, but had not yet been finalized and moved forward to gain state approval. So much of my energy was focused on convening stakeholders to engage them in the conversation and the needed work, bringing them together around post-secondary attainment. Ultimately, we were able to move forward with the goal and were granted state approval.

As a part of meeting that goal, we were able to move forward with meeting another benchmark a couple of years ago, and that was having some 60% of Pennsylvania’s adults obtaining some form of high-quality postsecondary education (whether a degree or a workforce training and development certification).

Under Secretary Rivera’s leadership, we also focused on post-secondary attainment for historically under-represented groups. This meant closing the gap for these students. Simultaneously, there was a focus on the need for diversifying our human capital – specifically in the education workforce. Less than five percent of the teachers in Pennsylvania are teachers of color. In looking at the demographics of our urban centers, as well as some of the suburbs, we realize we don’t have quite the composition when it comes to who is teaching in our classrooms. In other words, our teachers aren’t necessarily reflective of the students they are teaching. Diversifying the teacher workforce is very important. Diversifying offerings around professional development and offering training in diversity, equity and inclusion and, then helping all educators incorporate those teachings into their curriculum, is paramount.  

This is where our primary energies were spent these last few years in the Office of Postsecondary and Higher Education (OPHE).

What are some of your initial priorities as you transition into this role?

A lot of time will still be specific to the work around the pandemic, which created disruption for every layer and everyone involved in education.

There were several questions we had to answer and continue to answer as things are constantly changing. How do we navigate out of the pandemic? What pieces can we not rush right back into when you think of “returning to normal?”

The reality is this pandemic has exposed the inequities in education, and we must make addressing those a high priority in conversations around education. There are life-sustaining services for our students – food, shelter, mental health services – that schools were providing. We need to address those to support the student holistically. Not every student has access to those things needed to have a successful educational experience. Some homes may not be conducive to learning. The unfortunate reality is not every home provides a safe space. We must keep working to address these areas.

But we also know that brick-and-mortar buildings as related to higher education weren’t always accessible to all. There are education deserts around Pennsylvania. What this means is it may not have been geographically accessible for students to physically attend classes. Now they can come in remotely. There’s a new population of students who can now engage with post-secondary education outside of the traditional school setting. There’s an opportunity here. There are faculty members at institutions of higher education who may not have previously considered distance learning and teaching. They are now doing so.

We’ve also talked about educational attainment when it comes to both social and workforce advancement. Yet, in those conversations, we may not have necessarily considered the public good that comes from the education system – elements such as equity and educational attainment, civic engagement, and volunteerism. It’s the ideas of thinking of others and being able to move forward together. And educational attainment is very connected to health disparities. Education is correlated to your ability to access resources to understand your health and obtain health resources and services. We are seeing some troubling signs of society when these pieces are being disrupted for any population. And we know there are populations, primarily of people of color, who are more vulnerable to COVID.

We also see the disturbing side of civil unrest globally. Educational institutions play a role in getting people to understand one another’s perspectives and the importance of maintaining respect for one another, even when having differing opinions. We must think about what it means to be good citizens, good Pennsylvanians. And all of this is connected to education. This work is the legacy of what Secretary Rivera imparted in his time with the department, and it’s the work I’ll continue building on.   

How can higher education institutions work with state government to continue navigating and ultimately survive the pandemic?

I don’t like to say one level of education should be highlighted more than another. But in relation to your question, I think post-secondary institutions are well equipped to help think through and solve these problems. Think about Pennsylvania’s landscape and the state-related institutions with the research capabilities and mission driven-institutions that can help spread the message of healthy behaviors. Our schools of higher education are positioned to become local conduits working with community members to help areas navigate COVID-19.

Our colleges and universities can help think about next steps around mitigation strategies. An example is the University of Pittsburgh working on vaccines. We are very strongly positioned with our higher education institutions to continue helping Pennsylvania meet arising needs and continue sharing messaging about how to be safe as we continue living through the pandemic.

Whether teaching in the early childhood setting, K-12 or in higher education, we have to figure out how to engage meaningfully with a student’s support systems to help come up with solutions to ensure the student’s success. This pandemic may be a snapshot in time, but it’s not situational. The methods we can incorporate into educator training and the efforts undertaken can continue being employed going forward. We have to take these lessons and embed them into learning, long-term.

We are at the brink of beginning a new century. When you think about a century ahead of us, we’ll be the ones limited in understanding. We all have to understand there is more to experience and we can proactively make conscious decisions at the early part of the century to ensure the future is better prepared to handle a disruption like this if it were to ever happen again.

Any other things you’d like to share about Pennsylvania’s education efforts as you step into your role as secretary?

I am a lifelong advocate of the importance of educational attainment. I take seriously the challenge of making education accessible to everyone. For people who may feel as though the systems in place now aren’t inviting, or that they can’t be a part of them, I want to ensure they have access and know they have access. We need to begin to dismantle this idea of inaccessibility of education as a state education agency. Regardless of what people decide to do with their educations or where they want to go, they have the right to knowledge, tools, resources, and anything they want or need to achieve their educational goals. I want people to know that I am authentic in this belief and in taking steps to address inequities across the board.

I know the terrain we are experiencing in this current time is very contentious, politicized, very polarized. It’s important for us to know what people are thinking, what the expectations are, what challenges they are facing in this current environment and how that all ties to education. I am here to be a resource for Pennsylvania and to work to ensure educational access, resources and supports for everyone.