Beaver County’s population is declining.
According to data from 2019, in the last 10 years, the county’s population fell by nearly 4%. In 2010, the county had a population of 170,531. Now, it’s a little less than 164,000.
Beaver County leaders want to do something about that.
Roughly 300 volunteer leaders make up the Beaver County Partnership, an organization started in 2016 that works with communities and agencies to boost population growth. The partnership focuses on job and economic growth, quality education, desirable housing, quality of life and good governance.
The partnership formed the Quality Education Council (QEC), which started a collaborative effort to learn more about the impact of the current population and student enrollment trends in Beaver County. The council is comprised of approximately 50 members of the K-12, college and post-secondary workforce development communities.
Through grant funding, the QEC commissioned a four-phase study to provide a high-level overview of the county’s current public education system within the context of demographic trends and fiscal sustainability.
Beaver County Commissioner Jack Manning said the study is important for two reasons.
“One, the only way you grow and attract and retain young families is by ensuring that they have an equitable quality educational opportunity,” he said. “And second, it’s just the right thing to do. Particularly for those underserved communities and to serve schools that are struggling to sustain their existence, quite frankly. So it’s really important to the future of Beaver County and all residents, regardless of whether you have kids or not.”
Phase One of the study included data collection and Phase Two involved community engagement. Both were completed in 2019.
Starting Monday, Phase Three will begin.
As a part of the third phase, over the next five days, researchers from Johns Hopkins University will conduct interviews and focus groups with education and community leaders throughout the county. Researchers will also analyze benchmark metrics relative to districts across the state and nation.
“What we’re hoping Johns Hopkins can bring, through their research and their expertise, is examples of where other communities have gone through population decline, loss of employment, and those kinds of things, and bring us examples of where we might be able to employ some of these solutions across our various school districts in Beaver County,” said Manning. “This isn’t about mergers. There are other solutions we can come up with and other examples of educational excellence that we hope to be able to borrow.”
QEC filed several requests for proposals for the continued data collection and analysis phase, according to Charles “Skip” Homan, chairman of the board of directors of the Beaver County Partnership.
When Johns Hopkins expressed interest, it was a no-brainer.
“We’re so delighted to bring a nationally recognized educational research organization in Beaver County,” Homan said.
Steven Ross, a senior research scientist and professor at the Center for Research and Reform in Education (CRRE) at Johns Hopkins University, said Johns Hopkins was interested in partnering with Beaver County because of the area’s robust history and the long-term impact still felt by the fall of steel mill industry.
While there are dozens of other counties across the region who have suffered similarly, Ross said Beaver County is unique.
“Beaver County is trying to make a change, and they’re trying to do it in a systematic way,” he said. “Those other counties aren’t at the present time, and what’s going to happen as the status quo continues, if they don’t make change, the present problems — whether loss of population, whether its schools struggling more — are going to become more and more serious to the extent that revitalization will become a very, very steep hill.”
QEC has received $175,000 in grant funding from the Pennsylvania Department of Education and The Grable Foundation to conduct the Future of Education in Beaver County Public Schools Feasibility Study. The funding will be used primarily to engage with a team from CRRE. Additional funding will be used to engage with the Allegheny Intermediate Unit for communication and outreach services.
The public is encouraged to attend community discussion groups throughout the week. The schedule is as follows:
- Monday at 6 p.m. at the Beaver Valley Intermediate Unit, 145 Poplar Ave., Center Township. Register here.
- Thursday at 2 p.m. at the Community College of Beaver County’s Learning Resources Center, Room 9103, 1 Campus Drive, Center. Register here.
- Thursday at 4 p.m. at the Community College of Beaver County’s Learning Resources Center here.
Ross said it’s vital the community works together to ensure change happens.
“There are no magical solutions, but what works when you try to make a systemic type of change, it requires cross-sector cooperation, trust, and belief,” Ross said. “And so my hope is that as third parties are coming in, ultimately we need to bring the community together so that people who do actually support the status quo, because they’re comfortable in it for whatever reason, and people who are progressive and see that the status quo can’t work, can work together.”
Board members with the Beaver County Partnership say the study is an opportunity for Beaver County to evaluate where it’s at and where it hopes to be.
“This is an opportunity for us to kind of look in the mirror and see who we are and where we really want to be in 2030,” said Dan Matsook, a former superintendent with Central Valley. “Even though we do things very, very well, there are ways to enhance the things that we do and to make sure that all students have access to the opportunities in what they’re interested in.”
The impetus to start the feasibility study was that sort of self-assessment, said Rob Postupac, superintendent at Blackhawk and Western Beaver school districts.
“We want to get the message out early and often that Beaver County offers a high-quality education to all of its students. All of our districts do very well, and our students are lucky to be in these school districts,” he said. “But the question is what would that look like in a decade from now, or more?”
State Reps. Rob Matzie D-16, Jim Marshall, R-14, and Josh Kail, R-15, and state Sens. Elder Vogel Jr., R-47, and Camera Bartolotta, R-46, have been instrumental in acquiring grants and supporting the QEC’s efforts, Manning said.
The organization has obtained around a quarter of a million dollars in funding thus far, Matsook said.
“We’re expecting another at least half a million dollar investment into getting through Phase Four,” he said. “We’re getting close to a million dollars of getting expertise to weigh in on how Beaver County can enhance itself so it can grow over the next 10 years.”
Homan said once Johns Hopkins visits the county, as long as funding is taken care of, planning will begin for the fourth and final phase of the study – implementation.
“I’m tired of feasibility and talking about stuff. I want to start building ladders and bridges to bring equitable educational opportunities,” Manning said. “That is what Phase Four is going to do. We start finally building some bridges and some ladders to make the change.”