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Increased Legal Fees and Student Opt-Outs Tied To Newly Approved Hillsdale 1776 Curriculum At Pennridge

Despite public outcry, the board approved the immediate use of Vermilion’s ninth grade social studies course, but pushed the balance of revised curricula to the 2024-25 school year.
Many Pennridge parents are concerned the new Hillsdale 1776 curriculum will indoctrinate ninth grade students with a whitewashed, nationalistic version of history. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

More than 200 people attended the Pennridge School Board meeting on Monday and, at one point, 581 people were watching virtually.

Monday was also the first day of school for the district. Several parents making public comment remarked that instead of being at home with their children to hear about their first day, they felt compelled to try again to convince the board of the need to abandon all proposed curriculum containing Hillsdale 1776, along with course materials developed or recommended by Jordan Adams or Vermilion Education.

“It’s with a heavy heart and professional concern that I observed your decisions being influenced by political ideology at the expense of established best practices and professional recommendations,” said Dr. James Kearney, a resident of Hilltown Township and the parent of two children in the district.

Kearney, who holds a master’s degree in history and a doctorate in educational leadership, is the Assistant Director of Teaching and Learning at Radnor Township School District.

The American Historical Association, among other professional organizations, has explicitly condemned the 1776 Commission report and stated that ‘the authors call for a form of government indoctrination of American students and in the process elevate ignorance about the past to a civic virtue.’ It’s important that we build our curriculum instruction on a sound foundation rather than polarizing ideologies,” he added.

Kearney’s comment is significant due to a December decision by the board’s five-member majority, Blomgren, Banis-Clemens, Chaikin, Cormack and Reiss, to cut the district’s social studies credit requirement for graduation from four to three.

In lobbying for the credit cut, Vice President Banis-Clemens repeatedly pointed to the Radnor Township School District as a top-notch school district with a three credit social studies requirement. According to the district’s website, Radnor curriculum does not utilize any portion of the Hillsdale 1776 studies.

The Pennridge curriculum has been under assault by the board majority since January when it was first suggested that an “overlay” of Hillsdale 1776 be incorporated into the ninth grade social studies syllabus.

The unexplained introduction of an outside, inexperienced curriculum consultant wasn’t revealed until April when the “overlay” suddenly expanded, also without explanation, to include not just social studies, but Reading/English and Language Arts (RELA) for a variety of grade levels.

Since April, hours of public comment from the community has become the norm at meetings, as has the appeal for details surrounding the Vermilion contract, primarily because right-to-know requests have produced little detail.

“In the last 12 months, this board has spent $676,575 on legal fees. In the previous 12 months, the bills totaled half of that at around $340,588. What are we spending all this money on,” asked Emily Smith of East Rockhill. “Much of this money has gone to paying over $200 an hour to have emails redacted for RTKs [Right-To-Know]. Why are we spending so much money to hide information from the public. Why are our tax dollars being spent on keeping the board’s actions secret from the public.”

Bethany Schwendy, of Perkasie Borough, has three children in the district and voiced strong concerns about the district using Hillsdale curriculum. 

“Our students deserve an education that challenges them to think critically and emboldens them to engage in the world with curiosity. They do not need to be told how to be good citizens or good Americans,” she said. “Should the curriculum be approved, I will be opting my children out of any instruction that uses it and seeking appropriate alternatives from the school district for the remainder of their time at Pennridge schools.”

Bedminster Township’s Laura Scattergood doesn’t want her son to be exposed to Hillsdale’s revisionist history.

“I’m here tonight to hand in my opt-out form,” said Scattergood. “My son loves history. He’s a rising 7th grader and I’m horrified that this is what he could be learning. It’s really disgusting that it’s come to this. I’ve started to look at schools outside of Pennridge because I’m tired of dealing with this over and over again.”

Scattergood added her completed form to a stack of opt-outs placed on the stage earlier in the evening by Laura Foster, a co-founder of RIDGE Network.

The forms, developed by RIDGE Network, provide parents the ability to opt children out of Hillsdale 1776 curriculum as well as content drafted by Adams and the related controversial curricula resources.

Prior to the first vote to approve reading courses for seventh and eighth grade, School Board Director Joan Cullen explained that parental objections to the new curriculum is in no way similar to saying ‘I don’t want my child to read The Kite Runner.’

“Even if you think you’re going to roll it out in pieces or we want to roll it out next year, there’s going to have to be two distinct courses because people want this want their children opted out of it,” Cullen said about the adoption of the new curriculum. “To say that this curriculum has more rigor when it has erased the 19th Century of American history from the American history course, I just don’t even know how that comment computes,” she added, referring to an earlier statement by Banis-Clemens.

The vote to approve the new RELA curriculum recommended by Vermilion for seventh and eighth grade reading courses passed with a five to three vote and included, for the first time, an affirmative vote from Director Russell.

The motion to approve the new Hillsdale influenced history curriculum for grades one through five and nine was revised at the last minute.

Following discussion, a new motion to extend the implementation date for the new social studies course material for grades one through five until the 2024-25 school year passed. The approval to immediately implement the new ninth grade curriculum passed with a predictable five to four vote.

Interest in Monday’s meeting had been stoked over the weekend by an online ad, promoted by a Republican political action committee, seeking “talented clappers” at Monday’s meeting. The ad said it didn’t matter if you lived in the district or not. Residents from outside the area are typically not permitted to provide public comment.

Since January, board members Robert Cormack and President David Reiss have not expressed any opinion regarding the hiring of Vermilion or the revision of the district’s curriculum yet have voted in favor of both. Repeatedly, the community has asked both the reason for their affirmative votes to which they have never responded.

In the second public comment period Director Reiss suddenly found his voice when Chalfont resident Mara Witsen approached the podium and announced she was not from the district, but with the far-right Protect Bucks Political Action Committee.

Mr. Miller, the board solicitor, said the ability for Witsen to speak would be up to the board’s president.

Reiss gave his okay.

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Jenny Stephens

Jenny Stephens is a freelance journalist who has written for a variety of publications, including The Reporter. An avid collector of all things vintage, she resides in the Philadelphia area.

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