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A Way to Make a Very Good School District Even Better

by on February 11, 2020 5:00 AM

There are a lot of lists on the internet. Normally my eyes glaze over the never-ending headlines touting the top 10 this, the 50 most popular that or the 25 worst other things, but a recent social media post from a friend alerted me to one that looked interesting – the most and least educated towns in Pennsylvania

Using data from the 2014-2018 U.S. Census American Community Survey, 394 cities, townships and boroughs in Pennsylvania with populations greater than 5,000 were ranked based on the percentages of high school diplomas or higher, bachelor’s degrees or higher, and graduate or professional degrees. 

Here are the top 10 most-educated towns from that list:

1. Lower Merion Township, Montgomery County

2. Easttown Township, Chester County

3. State College, Centre County

4. Radnor Township, Delaware County

5. Tredyffrin Township, Chester County

6. Marshall Township, Allegheny County

7. Lower Makefield Township, Bucks County

8. O’Hara Township, Allegheny County

9. Patton Township, Centre County

10. Upper Makefield Township, Bucks County

Paul Morgan, a professor of education and demography at Penn State, characterized the list this way: “The towns where the education level is higher tend to be closer to major, urban areas.” 

Well, all except one. Good old Happy Valley! Way to go us!

As you can see, the borough of State College is No. 3 on the list, Patton Township is No. 9, and just outside the top 10, College Township is No. 15 and Ferguson Township is No. 16. Happy Valley is the one rural anomaly in this otherwise urban list. Which is, as you might have guessed, a function of the presence of Dear Old State. If it weren’t for Penn State being here we may have suffered the fate of another Central Pennsylvania community just down the road. Lewistown, a mere 30 miles southeast from our humble abode, came in as the least-educated town in the state. 

So again, excellent achievement to all the local residents. Pat yourselves on the back! 

Except you know me – I’m never one to leave well-enough alone. So I thought of a second thing that stood out.

That is, it would make sense if an area was well-educated that their school district might also be highly-ranked. Maybe a well-educated populace results in a darn good school district as well. Luckily, the full-of-lists internet stands ready to help in this regard. 

A recent poll determined the Best School Districts in Pennsylvania for 2020. It used data from the U.S. Department of Education, test scores, colleges, and ratings from the website’s users. They give each school district a grade on Academics, Teachers, Culture & Diversity, Health & Safety, Resources & Facilities, Clubs & Activities, Sports, and a Parent/Student Survey on Overall Experience. They weight each factor – academics gets 50% of the weighting – compile them, and come up with a list. 

Below are top 10 most-educated towns again, along with the school district each town resides in, and the rank of that school district out of the 496 Pennsylvania school districts ranked.

TOWN: SCHOOL DISTRICT (“SD”): SD RANK:

1. Lower Merion Township Lower Merion SD 3

2. Easttown Township Tredyffrin-Easttown SD 1

3. State College State College SD 32

4. Radnor Township Radnor Township SD 2

5. Tredyffrin Township Tredyffrin-Easttown SD 1

6. Marshall Township North Allegheny SD 5

7. Lower Makefield Township Pennsbury SD 54

8. O’Hara Township Fox Chapel Area SD 7

9. Patton Township State College SD 32

10. Upper Makefield Township Council Rock SD 27

Isn’t that interesting? A well-educated populace usually does result in a good school district. 

But let’s look at the outliers on this list. The lower-than-expected results of Lower and Upper Makefield Townships can be explained because the school districts they reside in — Pennsbury and Council Rock respectively – also contain other towns which didn’t fare as well on the most-educated ranking. In the case of Lower Makefield, Pennsbury School District contains Yardley Borough, Lower Makefield Township, Falls Township and Tullytown Borough. Falls Township ranked near the bottom quarter of the most-educated ranking. That could be the reason for the #54 rank. In the same way in Upper Makefield’s case, Council Rock School District contains Newtown Borough and the Townships of Newtown, Northampton, Upper Makefield, and Wrightstown. Newtown Township and Northampton Township were ranked in the 40’s and 60’s in the most-educated ranking. That might explain the #27 ranking.

But what of the State College School District? The four primary towns that make up State College School District all ranked in the top 16 for most-educated. Why is our school district ranked No. 32? Which, I might add, is still pretty darn good out of 496 other districts, but considering the possible correlation we’ve identified, is a drop you wouldn’t expect to see.

When we look at how the individual factors named above were graded, we find that the State College School District received 4 A+’s, 3 A’s, 2 A-‘s and a B-. To become a top ranked school district we need all A+’s.  Those A’s, A-‘s and that B- need to get better! But how do we do that?

I suggest that Penn State take over and run the State College School District.

Penn State is the reason we’re No. 3 on the most-educated towns list, maybe they can help us achieve a top ranked school district as well.

Before we go any further let me point out that this idea does have some precedent. Currently Ball State University, Indiana’s fourth-largest public institution, runs Muncie Community Schools in Muncie, Indiana, where Ball State is located. For two decades from 1988 – 2008 Boston University ran nearby Chelsea Public Schools in Chelsea, Massachusetts. So this would not be a unique situation. Plus there are very few places in America where the town-and-gown connection is so closely intertwined as it is here in Happy Valley. Our town was named State College for a reason.

Think of all the positives. State College students could benefit by being introduced to and involved in new and exciting learning partnerships that a closer relationship with the university would provide. They could have access to enhanced facilities and resources and be at the forefront of new teaching methodologies and concepts. Teachers and administrators could benefit from increased support resulting from this affiliation. With about 2,300 undergrads and 1,000 grad students, Penn State’s College of Education could make student/teacher ratios the envy of all other districts and provide the type of personalized teaching environment educators normally dream of. And because the school district is more than just the students and teachers – physical plant, finances, sports, and technology to name a few – opportunities could occur for students in the colleges of Business, Health and Human Development, Arts and Architecture, and Information Sciences and Technology to get hands-on experience in ways that internships just can’t match.

In other words, I may just be a big picture kind of guy, but we know we’re capable of having a top-ranked school district. If everyone looks for ways to leverage a partnership such as this for the betterment of the students – both State College public school students and Penn State students – then the picture of Penn State running the school district is one that could take us to that higher ranking and a very happy ending.



John Hook is the president of The Hook Group, a local management consulting firm, and active in several nonprofit organizations. Previously John spent 25 years in executive, management and marketing positions with regional and national firms. John lives in Ferguson Township with his wife Jackie and their two children.
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