Race Matters Spotlight: Bursting the ‘Pennridge Bubble’

Kevin Leven caught up with Lauren Bradley, Laura Foster, and Adrienne King of the PairUP Society to talk about why they organized a protest against Pennridge’s school board.
Left to right: Kim Barbaro (Red, Wine, and Blue), Laura Foster, Adrienne King (PairUP), Naiymah Sanchez (ACLU), and Lauren Bradley stand with concerned community members in Pennridge ahead of May's school board meeting.

Earlier in the month, community members in Pennridge School District held a demonstration prior to the May School Board meeting. Race Matters caught up with the organizers of the event; Lauren Bradley, Laura Foster, and Adrienne King of the PairUP Society, and asked them for an in-depth interview to shed some light on why they felt the need to come together and make their collective voice heard in this manner, at this time.

Kevin Leven: There has been a lot of controversy regarding this particular school board in recent months, even years. Can you go into why that is?

Adrienne King: The prevailing voice from one [political] party has been significantly ruling what is going on in our school district, and that voice has not been one that is representative of our community, our teachers, or our students. If you look back at the history of the board, it started to come through more as the board became less diverse from a partisan political representation perspective. At one point we did have a mix of Republicans and Democrats on the board, and at some point that diversity went away.

This new voice has been representative of the partisan political views that have come through that party. We are starting to see this has become evident in the policies and actions they are taking.

Laura Foster: To piggyback on what Adrienne is saying, it’s a calculated strategy to insert political views into our education system. Over the last couple years, our board has pulled pretty much play-by-play from a national playbook. It’s littered with discriminatory policies that they believe serve the larger community, but really only serve their own political advancements.

Lauren Bradley: I obviously agree with all that … and aside from the controversy, I think one of the reasons people are getting particularly fed up is we’re not being heard. People keep going to the meetings and  speaking out with eloquent, intelligent things to say, and there’s no response at all from the board, not any acknowledgement – it’s like they are not even listening. Then they just plow forward with what they wanted to do anyway.

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The frustration is really mounting with that, and especially the way they just announce amongst themselves what they want to vote on, like the Vermilion contract, without even sharing it with the superintendent or other board members. A ton of people come out and speak out against it, they don’t care, they move forward anyway. It’s incredibly frustrating.

Kevin Leven: Can you expand on that? What in the Vermilion Contract is particularly troubling?

Lauren: If you look at how it was initially announced to us – as a review of the Social Studies curriculum – that’s a problem because the firm itself is run by somebody who was involved in writing the Hillsdale College Curriculum, and the 1776 project, which are obviously really distorted, whitewashed versions of American history.

We talked about this at the rally. It should bother people in the community, because it doesn’t matter whether you are a Republican or a Democrat, or even whether you have a kid in the district or not, because it’s fiscally irresponsible. There’s no cap on this contract. We were already paying our teachers and administrators to look into the curriculum, and ultimately they have way more experience than Vermilion, which has only been around for 5 months. It’s obviously politically motivated, and it is going to hurt our kids by not preparing them for whatever steps they want to take next. It hurts the ranking of the district, hurts the reputation of the district, and ultimately impacts property values, so all around nobody wins.

Kevin Leven: Laura, I think I was at a school board meeting last year where you brought this up to the board – about the proposed curriculum not preparing students for the diverse world in which we live outside the ‘Pennridge bubble’, pointing out that colleges and fortune 500 companies look for students and candidates that have had exposure to a diversity of knowledge and lived experiences.

Laura: I can’t remember whether I said that or my sister said it. (Laughter). One of us definitely said it, and it definitely sounds like something I would say.

I think that one of the problems that I have with an ethnocentric view of history is not just the omission of important historical events or figures related to non-European regions, civilizations, and cultures – we are missing out on giving our kids a holistic and multifaceted view of what history even is.

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I think for some people they can, say, look at the curriculum that is anticipated to be coming from Vermilion as it’s seen in Hillsdale, and say ok part of this is factually accurate. But is it factually accurate if it is omitting other cultures’ experiences (cultures that have been marginalized), or provides very limited exposure to the experiences and achievements of these populations? That’s not American. The most patriotic thing I can do is provide my children with an accurate view of American History. And I do consider myself a patriot – I’ve worked for many years for the Department of Defense, I primarily serve veterans, a big part of my life is dedicated to supporting the mental health in military service of others, so patriotism runs deep in my household. So to kind of ‘bastardize’ the curriculum in a way that Hillsdale does is not patriotic – it’s not true to the ideas of Americanism.

Kevin Leven: And also, just because something is accurate doesn’t mean it’s complete, or in context of the full story.

Laura: Yes! Quote yourself on that! (more laughter)

Kevin Leven: And I think you may have just answered this, but why is Hillsdale so concerning?

Laura: We know that our school board has been overlaying Hillsdale curriculum, and introducing Hillsdale as a resource since last year. This is a calculated move by our school board to revamp curriculum that falls in line with Hillsdale’s curriculum, which In my view, is racist. And is homophobic. And is sexist.

Lauren: And let’s get real, our school district sought Vermilion out. It’s not like ‘Oh wow, look at this great consultancy, that has all of this experience and you can point to all these past schools that they’ve worked with’ – none of that exists! They sought them out for a very specific reason, and we are the first public school that they are working with.

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Kevin Leven: Is that right?

Adrienne: The first one that has signed the contract.

Kevin Leven: Interesting … So they are only five-months-old, and Pennridge is number one for contract sign-ups.

Adrienne: They’ve tried to get into others [districts], but their communities were successful in keeping them out. Specifically because of the lack of diversity in the administration, teachers and staff. When we asked for the district to hire a full time or consultant for DEI, the board and their supporters said No! They said we don’t need someone from outside of our district coming to tell us what to do. We don’t need to spend money on that – it isn’t fiscally responsible and we don’t need it because the majority of our community is saying that we don’t. So to see that they are rolling out the red carpet and welcoming an unqualified consultant to do something that we already have qualified people to do and to fix a problem that isn’t there is a slap in the face. The tone from the school board and the inability for the superintendent to stand up for what’s right continues to echo the message that the school district isn’t for all students.  

Kevin Leven: Wow. Ok, speaking of standing up for what’s right, let’s talk about the timing of your demonstration. Like we’ve mentioned there have been years of controversy in this particular school district. Is there any significance to why you chose to rally now?

Adrienne: I think like Lauren described, watching people come to board meetings to speak time and time again, whether it’s a teacher, a student, a parent, or community member, or someone that’s directly impacted, and seeing the board responded with a smug lack of response, watching that for so long, being a victim of that, and knowing how it feels … the stress and emotional tax … even just watching it from home I can feel the helplessness of people who speak [to the board]. No matter how beautiful their words are, how intelligent they are, how researched and full of data they are – when they turn and they walk away, you can see they are thinking ‘it’s not going to make a difference’.

And finally after this grand gesture around the social studies credits with getting students to the mic, getting teachers to the mic, seeing all of that and then watching the school board do whatever they wanted anyway…I wasn’t comfortable handling it the same way we’ve always handled it, which was to walk away feeling defeated. I felt like we needed to support our students and let them know they are heard, and there are community members, teachers, that stand behind them – and what can we do differently this time instead of just waiting for the next meeting?

I think about the other districts (looking at central bucks) and see what they do when these moments happen in their districts and think ‘What’s the difference between them and us?’ They speak out. They get loud. They become disruptors. And I said we need to start doing the same thing. So I said we are going to have a rally. And I didn’t know if anyone was going to bite on it, but I texted these two beautiful ladies, and they were like, ‘We’re down. We’re gonna do it’.

I went to the people who do this for support and said ‘help me figure this out’ and without that support it might have fizzled out quickly, because I wouldn’t have had that support to get going and get started. Those are just my thoughts on why now … not repeating the same thing for the same outcome. We had to do something differently. And it came together very beautifully, and very organically. I’m still in awe. When I see the pictures, and I see all this coverage from the news, and I’m like ‘Were we the catalyst for all this?’

Kevin Leven: You certainly were. Absolutely you were.

Laura: Can I speak on that for a minute? It does feel like an honor to me to be a part of this community in this regard, because there are so many places where people feel like their voices have been tamped down, they are feeling unseen, and unheard. And to be in a space with Adrienne and Lauren, and the other parents – I don’t care if they were involved in the organizing or not, but seeing each other in this space – that is very important to me personally.

I think another component that made the rally successful was the organizations that came in support of it too, ACLU, the Education Law Center, the Penn Arc, holding the backs of some of us through this. And the teachers that were having their feet held to the flame – it was almost like a perfect storm of things happening in that moment.

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When I think about what’s a little bit different this time, there’s been a litany of transgressions against our students, and so many of us have been doing the right thing for a really long time now – like we’ve been asking the board for data on why they are forming their policies, for the reasons why they are forming their policies – we’ve had families provide personal testimony open up, and open up their children in this vulnerable space in front of the school board – we’ve written to the school board – we’ve met may times to try to make something happen. We’ve never received a professional response back.

You’re stonewalled, you are not responded to, and in some cases you are punished. You are targeted for speaking out. And of course the people that are more targeted by the school board are the African-Americans in our community. I don’t think it’s any coincidence … It’s purposeful, it’s the deep seeds of racism that we see in our community.

And just as an aside here, and I’m trying to recognize my privilege as a white Ivy League-educated woman as I say this, but part of my emotional fatigue around this is when my white children come home from school and tell me stories about something that happened, and the use of the n-word being thrown around the school happens so often that it isn’t even the main part of the story. It’s so commonplace in our schools for kids to use racial and homophobic slurs, that it’s not even a main consideration. It’s so commonplace in my children’s lives, and I’m tired of it. I think you get to a place where you have that emotional fatigue, and feel like what we are tying to do the right way is not working, so let’s try something else. 

Kevin Leven: In talking with a Black Pennridge resident last year, this person said to me that this School Board does not represent the views of the majority of the community. That it’s a small but vocal minority in control of the board that has gotten increasingly loud, and most residents don’t echo those sentiments. Do you feel that is accurate?

Lauren: I feel that is accurate – I think part of it is they were voted in along party lines, and unfortunately a lot of people don’t pay attention to what’s going on with the board or with the district. And I feel like this is kind of a lightning moment in the sense that we heard from people on the other side of the aisle who voted for this board who are not supportive of what’s going on. And they’re getting angry, and they’re frustrated. And some of those people came to the rally. And I think that we are starting to see that they realize this is not representative of their neighbors. So I agree with that.

Adrienne: I will offer just a slightly different perspective. I will say while I am still growing to believe that, it’s hard to believe it because of the fact the majority of people in the district voted against all that I consider good, and specifically things that impact me and my family. So from that perspective that I’m pushing up against, it helps when I meet you two [Laura and Lauren] and I get to know you beyond the surface conversations. But even that’s a growth process. And I will say that for most people, and again I’m speaking from my experience, but I’ve checked this with other Black and Brown families in the community, and because we live here mostly within our four walls and we don’t do a lot outside in the community, we don’t get that perspective – that there are others that are embracing. All we see are the negative impacts and attacks that come towards us, and then we retreat to our place of safety, which is to say, inside our homes, and we communicate with each other from there. This is from a Black family’s perspective. I now know of four [families of color] that have moved out of the district – either moved physically (their whole family) or moved their children out of the district, because in their mind, based on their experience, it is the majority, and they don’t trust going outside of their home or putting their kids in the school because of what they’ve seen from the leaders. ‘Tone from the top’ is how I always phrase it, and it sets the tone for everything else. So when you see the leaders in the community getting elected that are supporting these things that are anti-you – it is hard to hold onto the idea that not everyone in the community is that. So I just wanted to offer that perspective.

Kevin Leven: Thank you for that. I would say that perspective is valid and accurate. And thank you all – this has been eye opening. It’s going to be hard to pick and choose amongst all the amazing things the three of you have said. Any closing thoughts?

Adrienne: Stay tuned for more rallies?

Thanks for reading Race Matters. I’ll echo that. Stay tuned…

Kevin E. Leven

Kevin E. Leven

Kevin E. Leven is co-leader of the Bucks County Anti-Racism Coalition, A 501(c)(3) nonprofit charity organization dedicated to educating, informing, and taking action on matters of racial justice.

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