After seven years as state house representative of the 19th Legislative District, Jake Wheatley has remained focused on his commitment to closing the racial achievement gap. For him, education is a top priority and improving education in his district, he said, is the key to resolving other issues.
“When I talk about education I always talk about the complete sense. It’s important to really make sure every child receives a high quality education,” Wheatley said. “We really see that as a critical piece; everything else is based on that. That’s the foundation.”
As subcommittee chairman on education appropriations as well as a member of the state education committee, Wheatley has been at the center of resolutions to improve education throughout his district and beyond.
He has also been a strong advocate for helping non-traditional students who will not go on to post-secondary education.
“Part of why I’ve taken a stand on a second pathway is some of our children want to gain career experience and technical skills,” Wheatley said. “We’ve really taken an active role in making sure they have that pathway.”
Wheatley also played a key role in determining where to transfer students from the former Duquesne High School when others wanted them to be split up into several schools. He helped ensure they would be sent to West Mifflin, a higher performing school than Duquesne and East Allegheny.
“It was my advocacy that brought a solution to that. I don’t represent the children of that district but they are children who deserve what they need to be successful,” Wheatley said. “I’ve used (my position) over the past four years to focus and really bring attention to the achievement gap issue.”
In the past Wheatley has been a part of developments such as the PNC Condominiums, New Hazlett Theater and the August Wilson Center for African American Culture. He said projects like these are a great way to revitalize communities and spur job creation.
“Communities are really about the people who are in them but if you don’t have the spaces that create an environment where people feel valued, the behavior reflects that,” Wheatley said. “We’ve tried to figure out ways to reinvest in our communities so the physical spaces are reflecting the behavior we’re trying to change.”
Several years ago Wheatley secured $1 million to Minority and Women Educational Labor Agency that helps small businesses get bonded. The state is now looking at expanding MWELA to a state-wide bonding program.
“I look at that as one of those moments that is really worthwhile,” Wheatley said. “Small business are basically the foundation of our economy. That’s where we see most of our employment growth come from and those are the people who are investing in our community.”
Wheatley will be the first to admit he has not won every battle. However, he feels he has been a strong advocate for his constituents and developed relationships across the state to help better serve them.
“Has it always worked the way that we’ve wanted, no, but we’ve taken a lead role in making sure those voices are heard,” Wheatley said. “We have a lot of investment, state resources that have been targeted in our community that they have never had until we got into the area. It requires a certain set of skills that we’ve acquired over the last seven years.”
This year Wheatley decided to reconfigure his staff by appointing people to represent each of his major neighborhoods. He now has staff members representing the North Side, South Side and Hill District and each of them is a resident of their neighborhood.
“What I tried to do was think about how to best serve our neighborhoods. These folks would be the advocates for the people they are naturally inclined to advocate for anyway.” Wheatley said. “We want to be a very accessible, a very knowledgeable staff that understands the issues of the different neighborhoods.”