Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

School Voice: Karen Snider left a tremendous legacy, and big shoes to fill, at the Harrisburg Public Schools Foundation.

Karen Snider

A screen drops down in the cafeteria where 400 students gather before the school day starts at Downey Elementary School. While some children eat breakfast, a five-minute newscast featuring two young broadcasters appears on the screen.

“They do the pledge, talk about the weather and any important information coming up,” said Principal Travis Peck, explaining the morning routine. “Things like that.”

Peck also pointed out the ways the Harrisburg Public Schools Foundation, under the leadership of late Karen Snider, played a part in this routine.

The cafeteria’s speaker system? The foundation helped the school afford that, he said, plus the screen displaying the student journalists. The equipment used to record the broadcasts? The foundation helped the school purchase that as well.

This is part of the legacy left by Executive Director Karen Snider, who passed away unexpectedly on Jan. 12. Snider, 77, may be best known as secretary of the state Department of Public Welfare under Gov. Robert P. Casey, who appointed her in 1991. Others may know her from her leadership roles with organizations such as the Rotary Club of Harrisburg, United Way of the Capital Region and Girl Scouts in the Heart of PA.

“There are 24 hours in a day, and she would squeeze in 26,” said Dr. Sybil Knight-Burney, superintendent of the Harrisburg School District.

Knight-Burney met with Snider every other Thursday to coordinate programs with the foundation, she said.

“If it was something that would help students, she was always for it,” Knight-Burney said. “Her finger was in everything.”

The foundation provides enrichment programs and financial support to the entire district. Students participate in a writing contest, dual enrollment, science camps and health education programs, to name a few programs.

Snider did much more than required for the position, said foundation Chairman Morton Spector.

“I’d say the part-time job was 20 hours, and she put in 60 hours,” he said. “She was there nights and weekends.”

When the district wanted to bring “The Leader in Me” initiative to the Downey School, Snider and the foundation helped the school obtain a matching grant to start the process.

Now, the school is in its fourth year as a “Leader in Me” school, which applies principles from Franklin Covey’s book “7 Habits of Highly Effective People” in a school-wide and age-appropriate way.

“It’s about students finding their voice, finding their leadership styles and their intrinsic value,” Peck said. “They take leadership roles that inspire them to do better.”

First grade teacher Tracy Lechthaler, who has taught at Downey for 19 years, said the initiative helps her students find their voices. Her 26 students each apply for “leadership jobs” like “shoe sheriff” (in charge of helping peers tie their shoes) or “electrician” (turns on and off the lights).

“Giving them a leadership job, something they’re in charge of, gives them a sense of belonging,” she said. “It gives them a sense of, ‘Oh I can do this,’ and they love that.”

The foundation affected Lechthaler’s classroom in another way.

Her classroom has been sponsored as part of the foundation’s “adopt a classroom” since the program began.

“A lot of times, teachers, we buy our own stuff,” she said, while flipping through one of the hardcover books purchased with foundation funds. In one, a porcupine with a mullet of quills learned how to be responsible for his feelings after bully Biff Beaver said his quills look like toothpicks.

Spector said the board decided to honor Snider by adopting a classroom in her name. Board members individually contributed so at least one room per year will be adopted in her name, he said. Knight-Burney said her portrait will be displayed at the Camp Curtin mental health center already named after her.

“If I were in any other school district, [these programs] would just be a regular item on the budget,” she said. “But because we have some of the types of challenges that we have, it’s something that we know is a necessity.”

Stepped Forward

Much of Snider’s position of executive director dealt with fundraising, and she was known for her power to persuade.

Spector said her talent for fundraising shined in 2012. The district had a multi-million-dollar deficit, and the school board announced the district would have to cut music and sports programs.

Spector and Snider, who started as a foundation board member, attended that school board meeting.

“When the board looked at the financial condition and said they were going to have to cut the sports program as well as the band program, we looked at each other, and she stepped forward to the board,” Spector said.

Snider told the school board something along the lines of, “We’d like to make sure those programs continue and exist. We, the HPSF, would like to be able to help. We would like to attempt to raise the funds so you will have those programs,” said Spector.

“And that’s when we began to work,” he said. “That’s when her talent came forward. She had the connections, the person-to-person connections.”

She stepped up to become the executive director in 2012, amid the district’s financial distress and a transitional period for the foundation.

Foundation members started making calls to raise money. Money started coming in. A couple thousand dollars here, a six-figure corporate donation there. They raised more than $400,000, Spector said.

“She did an awful lot of that personally, one handedly, more or less,” he said. “I was able to make some calls, too, but she just outshined all the rest of us.”

Snider’s personal brand of persuasion left others feeling grateful to have been summoned.

Knight-Burney outlined how meetings with Snider went.

“She would say that she had some things that she wanted me to look over,” she said. Snider would push the most important item to the top of the list and delineate what would need to be done, she said.

“She would say you need to do this, this, this and this to make this happen,” Knight-Burney said, while Kirsten Keys, the district’s public relations coordinator, laughed in the background as if she also experienced this.

“But she would also tell you what she was going to do,” Knight-Burney said. “And most of the time she had already done it.”

Knight-Burney said working with her was like a call and response.

“If Karen called,” Keys said, and Knight-Burney finished the sentence, nodding, “You responded.”

Keys continued, “And, guess what, you were honored to respond. You were compelled to respond,” she said. “She had a way of bringing out your gifts, talents and abilities. Things that you had back in the recesses. You could bring them fourth and dust them off. And not only meet her request, but you could help others in the process.”

The foundation’s programs will continue.

Chris Baldrige, a board member with 30 years’ experience as an educator, stepped up at the January meeting to become the next executive director, Spector said.

“Because of his public-school exposure and because he is a person that most of us knew from the community, we are satisfied that he has the capability to do the job,” Spector said.

Knight-Burney also attended that late January meeting. She explained how the projects Snider was managing before her death would continue moving forward. She said she asked “Isn’t that what Karen would have wanted?”

“And everyone responded, ‘That’s right,’’ she said. “The board members are all on one accord. We have to continue because Karen would have wanted it that way.”

To learn more about the Harrisburg Public Schools Foundation, visit

Author: Danielle Roth

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