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Renovations and progress: New Scranton superintendent wants to put up walls, and take them down

New Scranton Superintendent Erin Keating receives a tour of the renovations at West Scranton Intermediate School.
Sarah Hofius Hall
New Scranton Superintendent Erin Keating receives a tour of the renovations at West Scranton Intermediate School. She is joined by Rich Dempsey, assistant principal, and Patrick Laffey, district business manager.

Erin Keating started as Scranton School District superintendent four weeks ago, amid a ransomware attack on the district network, heightened calls for more safety and security and ongoing construction projects.

In a day filled with phone calls and meetings, the new superintendent put on her hardhat at West Scranton Intermediate School.

“How is everyone?” she asked as she stepped inside one of the classrooms that already has walls.

When the district built West Intermediate in 1975, open-concept schools, or classrooms without permanent interior walls, were popular. Nearly 50 years later, the district is adding walls, updating classrooms and making room for fifth grade. The district moved fifth graders from elementary schools to intermediate schools a few years ago, and in West Scranton, the fifth graders have attended classes in modular units in a former parking lot.

The $35 million project also includes a new roof and updated pool. Funding came from the capital improvement fund, the district’s federal COVID relief allocation and a state grant. Construction is on track to be complete in August 2025.

As crews renovate the building, Keating plans to make her own improvements to the district.

The Edwardsville resident spent five years working for the district as chief of leadership development and school operations and supervisor of elementary education. She left in 2019 to become superintendent in Old Forge.

“People have been so welcoming, so kind to welcome me back into the district,” she said.

When she left in 2019, the district was just beginning the financial recovery process. The state lifted the designation last year after Scranton’s finances improved and put Scranton in a monitoring phase. The district must still follow the board-approved recovery plan, which calls for restructuring or closing some city schools.

Much of that controversial work was paused after former Superintendent Melissa McTiernan left last year, but working with a consultant, a committee of parents and community members evaluated options. The consultant, Vern McKissick, has presented the work to the new superintendent, and she’s not ready to make any recommendations.

“I think there's more than just numbers on paper,” she said. “You have to look at climate, culture, areas of the city, needs. So there's a lot and those are discussions that have to happen so we can make some future plans.”

Before making closure recommendations or improving academics, Keating says the district must ensure students are safe. A reported rise in gang activity and several recent crimes involving current or former district students have strengthened the calls for greater security and positive programming for the city’s youth. She says the increase in violence goes beyond Scranton.

“You have to meet people's basic needs. If kids don't feel safe, and if kids aren't taken care of, kids aren't going to be able to learn,” she said.

She wants to work with mental health professionals and law enforcement on restorative justice, so that when students face consequences for behavior, the district can also provide the student with resources to help change future behavior.

Academically, Keating points to the district’s high growth scores and wants to evaluate what the district can do to increase achievement levels. She also wants to ensure that the students in the cyber academy are receiving the support that students would receive in physical buildings.

As legislators debate the 2024-25 state budget, Keating says she will continue to advocate for fair funding. Scranton is one of the most underfunded in the state, with one study finding the district needs about $9,000 more per student. There are about 9,300 students in the district.

“We know that it's not a perfect world,” she said. “We just have to get the message out that ZIP code should never determine educational programming, and in the state of Pennsylvania right now, ZIP code does that.”

Investigation of the cyber attack, which left the district offline for several weeks, is ongoing.

While walls are going up at West Intermediate, Keating wants walls to come down elsewhere. She wants to be as transparent as possible.

“With the staff, with the community, to have information flow on a regular basis so that people feel like they are informed… and they're aware of what we're doing on a regular basis to help kids,” she said. “Because in the end, listen, I wouldn't be in this job if I didn't want to help kids. That's what I want to do. I want to help kids.”

Sarah Hofius Hall worked at The Times-Tribune in Scranton since 2006. For nearly all of that time, Hall covered education, visiting the region's classrooms and reporting on issues important to students, teachers, families and taxpayers.

You can email Sarah at sarahhall@wvia.org
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