Pennridge Parents, Teachers Criticize Vermilion Education’s Push to Require Hillsdale 1776 Curriculum for the District

Inaccuracies, a lack of resources, content, and little time to prepare were some of the chief complaints about the new curriculum that’s being forced on Pennridge teachers and students.

More than 100 people gathered at the Pennridge High School auditorium Monday evening, with hundreds more watching via live stream, to learn details about the new curricula that appeared on the agenda for the school board’s Curriculum Committee meeting.

The new coursework that was largely influenced by Vermilion Education’s Jordan Adams is the result of a months-long and mostly secretive process to develop studies that align with the Hillsdale 1776 Curriculum. Remarkably, Adams does not hold the necessary credentials to draft curriculum in Pennsylvania, yet that is exactly what he did.

Monday’s community feedback was highly critical of Adams, Hillsdale, and the school board’s lack of candor.

“You’re failing our kids, you’re failing our teachers, you’re failing our community,” said Stacy Smith of Perkasie Borough. “This district is in complete disarray, and I sincerely hope we get some people on the board in November who put public education over politics and clean up your mess.”

“Stale” and “uninventive” are two of the words used to describe the Hillsdale Curriculum by Bradley Merkl-Gump of Perkasie Borough. “The content throughout the curriculum is one sided at best and intentionally misleading at worst,” said Merkl-Gump, a parent, teacher and a candidate running for the school board in the upcoming November election.

A review of the new middle school Reading/English Language Arts (RELA) curriculum followed the first round of public comment and was presented by K-12 English Language RELA Supervisor Sarah Raber.

Jenna Vitale, Supervisor of Social Studies and English Language Development (ELD), reviewed the various social studies curriculum for grades one through five and nine.

For the most part, Vitale said, she wrote the coursework for first and second grades, and that she and Jordan Adams “wrote in isolation” and then worked together via Zoom to “edit, revise and compromise.” Vitale said she was asked to use Core Knowledge as a resource and that there was little change to the first and second grade studies.

Cullen took a moment to confirm that Jordan Adams had actually drafted curriculum. Vitale said he did.

Director Russell asked if the third grade curriculum had changed and she said it had.

Vitale said that while the teacher resources for third grade indicate Hillsdale 1776 as being required, she emphasized that it is for consultation.

Russell said he was under the impression that Hillsdale is supposed to be for consultation and not the primary foundation for the curriculum. “A required resource sounds very different than a consultative resource,” he said.

“Yes, I agree,” said Vitale. “It could be misleading the way it’s written in there. I brought that up with Mr. Adams and he said that board leadership had asked him to say that it was required.”

Director Blomgren interjected that the resource is supposed to be used as a framework but that this still allows teachers to
have autonomy and develop the learning experiences, activities and assessments.

Russell asked that the document be changed to reflect “consultative” versus “required.”

Director Cullen took exception to the word “framework.”

“So here again is another example of how we’re told one thing, and then we come to find out another,” she said.

The fact that Jordan Adams does not possess the necessary credentials to legally write curriculum in Pennsylvania was again discussed.

Board Vice President Megan Banis-Clemens said that if the same standard was applied to the district, Pennridge teachers should never have been writing curriculum.

“If it was done incorrectly in the past, it doesn’t mean that we are going to continue to do it,” Russell replied.

“Making changes to a curriculum is not the issue. Our particular issue is with the way that this is being done, it is not being done properly,” Cullen said. “There’s a lot of question marks. Things are changing day by day from what this person was supposedly hired to do, to now we’re finding out seven days before school begins, that no, in fact he was writing curriculum.”

Following a review of fourth grade social studies, Mr. Russell asked about the readiness of the curriculum.

“From a curriculum development standpoint, would this be something we would be looking at to implement next year as opposed to this year from a strategic rollout,” he asked.

“I would absolutely prefer that this be pushed to next year,” Vitale said.

Board member Christine Batycki asked why some fourth-grade resources were indicated as “to be determined” at which point the board was advised that textbooks had not been ordered.

Russell and Cullen continued to focus on the readiness of the new curriculum and suggested that last year’s curriculum be used until the new Hillsdale-influenced curriculum is complete.

Throughout the evening, Jordan Blomgren bent over backwards to defend the new curriculum and Vermilion Education head Jordan Adams. She claimed that new material was being rolled out in the Souderton Area School District where she teaches, and that it’s commonplace for instructors to work with unfamiliar curriculum. She said that teachers, over time, become “better and better as you go” and become familiar with curriculum.

“It’s fine to get better and better as you go because you get a redo as a teacher, but our kids don’t get a re-do,” Russell said.

Director Cullen asked for feedback from the teachers. “At the very least, I think that we should hear from the teachers,” she said. 

“Mrs. Cullen, we have a public comment period right after this,” Megan Banis-Clemens replied.

“These are not members of the public. These are our employees,” Cullen said.

Banis-Clemens would not relent and the teachers were forced to add their names to the public comment sign-up sheet.

Director Wurz, who was listening remotely, offered his comments.

“It appears that we’re rushing something through that certainly the public is against it,” he said. “We were elected to honestly serve the people of the community. We’re not doing that now. We’re rushing something through that’s not ready.”

The only public comment made in support of Jordan Adams and Vermilion came from Josh Hogan, a West Rockhill resident and a Republican candidate running for the school board.

“What is happening here tonight,” he asked rhetorically. “You had an administrator openly launch an ambush on their board.” He then proceeded to defend Jordan Adams of Vermilion. “Again, I’m more worried about the fact that we, as a district, are harming a contractor,” he said and referred to the evening as an “ambush.”

“I am with you. I’m with you 100 percent,” Hogan said to a portion of the board. “I don’t care anymore whether it loses me votes. I don’t care about the election coming up,” he said while the audience groaned. 

Bob Cousineau, a Pennridge social studies teacher, provided the board with resources to outline the concerns of several teachers regarding the new curriculum.

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“As a teacher, my goal every day is for students to know why they are learning content,” said Lisa Russell, a Pennridge high school instructor of 18 years, who had concerns about the short amount of time teachers are being given prior to teaching the new curriculum. “My main concern with this proposed curriculum is the lack of time that has been provided for teachers to properly implement and deliver the required lessons so that we can differentiate it for all learners.”

Kelly Angeli, a social studies teacher who has worked at the district for 19 years, was also concerned about the timing of implementing the new curriculum and raised concerns about Hillsdale 1776 being a required resource.

“I think it’s in the best interest of our students for us to take more time to meet with the other grade levels so that we aren’t reteaching content in our scope and sequence,” she said.

High school social studies instructor Bob Cousineau said that he and several teachers collaborated on comments about the new curriculum that they had received only a few hours prior to the meeting. A text analyzer was used to determine readability of certain portions of the new curriculum. Some of the materials were determined to be difficult to read and appropriate for college graduates, not high school students.

“Based upon our review, a major concern is that a large percentage of the curriculum is not developmentally appropriate for incoming ninth-graders,” he said.

Cousineau referred to Policy 105, Curriculum Development, and asked that teachers not be excluded from the process and that last year’s social courses be utilized for the 2023-24 school year.

The meeting ended without a vote on whether to adopt the Hillsdale inspired curriculum.

A full board meeting of the Pennridge School Board is scheduled for August 28 at 7 p.m. at the high school.

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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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