In Pennsylvania, Private Schools Fill Void in Driver Education

By TORY N. PARRISH, Pittsburgh Tribune-Review | August 12, 2015

Jaida Syrek is itching to get behind the wheel but isn’t ready to do it alone.

The 10th-grader’s Pittsburgh school, Ambridge Area Senior High School, discontinued the behind-the-wheel portion of driver’s education three years ago, so Jaida will hit the road, after she turns 16 in December, with private driving school owner Larry Knopsyder, who also is a social studies teacher.

Times have changed, said her mother, Daphne Syrek, 57, of Economy.

“I grew up where we were taking driver’s ed in school. That’s hard, but at least they’re still offering it as an elective, the classroom part, which is a big help,” Syrek said.

The elimination of driver’s ed programs by some school districts, a rebounding economy and an increase in the population of 15- to 24-year-olds – the age at which many people learn to drive – have spurred an increase in demand for the services of driving schools.

The number of students enrolled at private driver training schools in Pennsylvania rose 29.6 percent to 35,662 between 2009-10 and 2014-15, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Education, which licenses the schools.

“I can’t keep up with it; it’s so busy,” said Cindy Cohen, whose 3-year-old Cindy Cohen School of Driving is relocating from McKees Rocks to Kennedy.

The number of licensed driving schools in Pennsylvania has risen 27 percent to 219 since 2004-2005, according to Department of Education data. Most are small operations. Some are one-car businesses run by active or retired teachers who taught driver’s ed for school districts.

Knopsnyder had been teaching driver’s ed for the Ambridge Area School District for 17 years when the district dropped the program three years ago. So, he opened Mr. Knops Driving School LLC.

The school district reinstated classroom instruction, known as theory, two years ago as an elective, said Knopsynder, who is a girls’ golf team coach.

“Since I’m a full-time teacher, it’s hard for me to pick up a whole lot (of driving clients). I’m on pace with last year, if not a little bit ahead. But this is more of a part-time thing for me,” he said.

Jaida Syrek is excited about the freedom driving will bring when she gets her license six months after getting her permit in December but has concerns.

“I’m just worried about the responsibility and all the different stuff you have to think about when you’re driving,” she said.

She’ll do fine with Knopsnyder as her driving instructor, her mother said.

“Larry is her golf coach. Larry has been one of her teachers, and he heads up the Advertising Club, so he’s very familiar with Jaida and knows she’s a responsible student,” Syrek said.

With one instructor – its owner – the Shaler-based Lazar School of Driving has been open 12 years, owner Rick Lazar said.

Most of his clients are teens, but he also provides driving tests for patients of a physical rehabilitation center in McCandless and driving lessons to participants in a self-sufficiency program run by the Pittsburgh Housing Authority.

“I could work seven days a week and still not get caught up,” he said.

School districts have been dropping driver’s ed since the 1990s because of the costs, such as for insurance, vehicle purchases and maintenance, said Sharon Fife, vice chair of the Association of National Stakeholders in Traffic Safety Education in Indiana Township. The number of programs took a big hit during the recession, which ended in 2009.

Of the 43 school districts in Allegheny County, five provide driver’s education, either with theory, behind-the-wheel lessons or both.

School districts typically would offer free or discounted driver’s ed to students, but the cost of driver’s ed at private driving schools tends to be more.

“In (Pennsylvania’s) larger regions like Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, the average cost is between $80 and $100 per hour. In the more rural regions, the cost range is between $40 and $60 per hour,” said Nicole Reigelman, spokeswoman for the Department of Education.

Founded in 1969, Rogers School of Driving in Ross is considered large, with eight training cars, owner Timothy Rogers said.

Business has been steady, but the growing popularity of theory classes online has led to fewer students taking theory with Rogers, he said.

The school responded by putting more emphasis on behind-the-wheel lessons, he said.

Retired state Trooper Randy McPherson opened Between the Lines Driving School in Centre, Beaver County, about a year and a half ago, he said.

Business was slow when he started, but it’s been busy this summer, he said.

“I get a lot of referrals from students. (I’ve trained) about a quarter of the Quaker Valley (School District) baseball team,” he said.

Ross resident Sage Steedle, 18, has had a driver’s permit since she was 16, but she lacks driving experience, said Steedle, an incoming freshman at Robert Morris University in Moon.

Her alma mater, North Hills Senior High School, doesn’t offer driver’s ed, and her parents have been reluctant to let her practice in their cars, Steedle said. She is taking lessons with Rogers School of Driving.

She sees the improvement after a few lessons.

“Driving is just a big deal. It’s very dangerous,” she said.

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