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Intermediate units turn 50

WILLIAMSPORT — Intermediate Units in Pennsylvania were actually created in 1970, but didn’t begin functioning until the 1971-1972 school year, so the current school year is their 50th anniversary of service.

“I think it’s one of the best systems created in education,” Dr. John George, executive director of the state Intermediate Units, told IU 17 board members at their annual meeting recently.

There are 29 intermediate units across the state. The local is Intermediate Unit 17 which represents 19 school districts in Bradford, Lycoming, Sullivan and Tioga counties. It covers 4,000 square miles and employs approximately 323 people. It serves approximately 1,667 school age and 920 early intervention students. The total annual budget for the current school year for IU 17 is $37.1 million.

Prior to the creation of the intermediate units, schools in the state were organized by a county system, presided over by a county superintendent.

“Public education in Pennsylvania received its greatest impetus from the Free School of 1834. By 1854, with established school districts in need of coordination and leadership, the county superintendency was created by the legislature,” according to historical information from 1971.

This superintendency acted as a go-between for the state and local districts. Many small districts had created a need for organization and communication between the state and the districts was hampered by poor roads, lack of mass transportation facilities and rapid communication devices. There was also a lack of qualified teachers and administrators who could implement the state’s education policies, the information from the IU said.

As larger and fewer districts developed over time, these problems were reduced. What then became the greatest need was for highly specialized services that could not be administered by the Department of Education. To solve this problem, the legislature created intermediate units.

“Intermediate units are creatures of the General Assembly. The General Assembly created us and they also have the power to take us away if they want,” George stated.

Specific portions of the school code address intermediate units addressing the creation of the ideas, the assigning of school districts to a particular intermediate unit and talking about the power of the school board and the power of the director, George noted.

“No intermediate unit is exactly the same. While they’re all charged with the same responsibility and and same mission and do very similar things. Their challenges are unique,” George said.

The fact that the board meeting was held with some of the board members at the Canton office of IU 17 and other board members at the Williamsport office, George, who had been the director of the IU in Montgomery County, said was evidence that each intermediate unit is different.

“I can’t imagine in my years of experience what it can be like to have half of my board in one location and half of my board in a different location. That’s not normal. That’s not. So, you have a challenge here,” he said.

The school codes allow the intermediate units to be composed of 13 to 22 districts.

When IU 17 was created, Carl Driscoll was the first executive director. Since then, Robert M. Mitstifer, Clair Goodman Jr.,Tom Shivetts, Bill Martens and Dr. Christina Steinbacher-Reed have served as directors. Steinbacher- Reed is the first woman to serve in that position and the current director.

Specialized services offered by the intermediate units have changed through the years. Today’s IU’s offer many services that weren’t even imagined in 1971.

In going through files and photos from the past, Steinbacher-Reed said that she discovered a photo of when film reels were used in schools to show movies.

“We used to have a van that would go to districts and deliver the movie reels,” she said. “The intermediate unit was a hub and we had a van and we would drive to all the school districts and the districts would rent these out.”

“Over time the technology changes. So then that service closes and then we evolve and create a new service. The intermediate unit needs to be innovative, agile, trying new programs, responding to districts,” she added.

Out of necessity, the programs have changed because the role of education and educators has changed since the intermediate units were created.

“From 1971 to 2022, so much has changed and I’ll just use the general term of, in our world, in our society and in our social structures,” she said.

“The role of school has evolved. There was a time when school was the basics-reading, writing, arithmetic,” she stated.

The role of education in the past was based on efficiency and mass education.. Today, society is different, so the goals of education are different.

“I think the pandemic highlighted what people may not have realized all that schools do. Often schools are feeding students breakfast right away in the morning. We are doing social-emotional check-ins with students. We are ensuring the emotional, mental and social health of our students are intact,” she said.

“We are feeding students during the day. We’re doing after school programs. There is so much more that schools are doing right now. That is what’s changed. The role of schools is to support the whole child. Where we are now is we are creating learners that need to be self-driven. They need to be collaborative, creative, technology savvy. They need to have a sense of social justice and moral purpose. We are creating students for a very different world than what it was in 1971.” she stated.

As it relates to the intermediate unit, we know so much more about students with diverse needs. We didn’t realize all of the gifts and strengths and the capabilities of children with diverse needs. You look at all the years of research and knowing and what we know now, there are no limits. And that’s the difference right now with the intermediate unit and the populations we serve as well, there’s no limit to what our students can do,” she added.

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