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Pennridge adopts new curriculum in emotional 5-4 vote


Editor's Note: This story has been updated to reflect that the social studies curriculum for grades 1-5 will take effect in the 2024-25 school year.

A saga that began in April with the last-minute approval of a curriculum consultant contract, encompassed several contentious public meetings and featured hours of mostly negative public comment and intense bickering among Pennridge School Board members, concluded Monday night.

The deeply divided board voted 5-4 to adopt a new curriculum that leans heavily on framework speakers described as a “dog whistle for white supremacy” and an example of what happens when “politics inform education.”

While three board members — Megan Banis-Clemens, Jordan Blomgren and Rikki Chaikin — spoke extensively before casting votes in favor of using Hillsdale College’s 1776 Curriculum as a framework in social studies and reading/language arts, two other board members — President Dave Reiss and Bob Cormack — never explained their support for the curriculum and have remained largely silent about their support throughout the process.

At the heart of the issue is the role of Jordan Adams, of Vermilion Education, who was hired by the board majority in April to serve as a consultant as the administration considered a total revamp of the district’s social studies curriculum. Among other issues, opponents denounced Adams’ lack of experience in public education, his failure to meet state guidelines covering curriculum writers, and his connection to Hillsdale College, a conservative Christian school in Michigan that developed the 1776 Curriculum.

Over the summer, Adams worked with Jenna Vitale, the district’s Social Studies Curriculum Supervisor, to develop the plan that was on the table Monday night. Last week, Vitale told the board she didn’t think teachers had enough time to properly plan to deliver the curriculum this year.

The board eventually voted to immediately use a new civics, government, and economics curriculum for ninth graders and to adopt but delay the social studies curriculum for grades 1-5 until the 2024-25 school year.

Public comment included 41 speakers, most of whom asked the board to either delay the curriculum implementation or reject it outright because of what they said is an overemphasis on “American Exceptionalism” at the expense of what they characterized as an accurate representation of hot-button topics such as race and gender.

A handful of speakers spoke in favor of the curriculum, saying it is needed to replace “liberal indoctrination” that has infiltrated public education over the last few decades. They received a smattering of applause for their remarks.

But the loudest, most sustained reaction went to Jim Kearney, a Hilltown resident who also serves as assistant director of teaching and learning in the Radnor School District. Kearney, whose two children attend Pennridge schools, said the curriculum “would be a mistake that undermines the quality of education we should strive to provide our students.” It also “exhibits significant pedagogical and content-related shortcomings.”

Kearney, who serves on the National Constitution Center’s Teacher Advisory Board, said the curriculum as it is presented is “a stark reminder of the detrimental effects to our community when politics informs education, instead of education informing politics.”

“Now that’s a curriculum expert I would hire,” board member Ron Wurz said of Kearney.

Board Vice President Megan Banis-Clemens passionately defended Adams’ qualifications and his work, saying many of the district’s current textbooks, especially those covering world history, “are full of opinions and conclusions to memorize. We need to stop dumbing down education and spoon-feeding conclusions. This curriculum raises the rigor and removes the predetermined conclusions and opinions. We need to set the bar for where education should be.”

With the meeting winding down and the clock ticking past 11 p.m., board member Joan Cullen motioned to terminate the Vermilion contract for several reasons, including what she said was improper contact between Adams and a member of the public when the performance of a district employee was discussed.

The motion failed by the same 5-4 vote that created the controversy back in April.

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