Got a question about life in Philly’s suburbs? Our suburban reporters want to hear from you! Ask us a question or send an idea for a story you think we should cover.
Pennridge School District was heading toward reducing its high school social studies requirements from four to three credits, by making world history an optional course.
But in a confusing turn, the Bucks County school district’s board changed its proposal at the last minute and voted 5-4 only to reduce the number of credits. The board did not share details of the new version of the policy with the public before its meeting.
In an email to WHYY News on Wednesday, a spokesperson for the district said world history would remain its own class and be mandatory for all students, most likely in their junior year.
Right now, it’s unclear how Pennridge will restructure its high school social studies curriculum into one less required credit.
What is clear is that teachers, parents, students, and other community members do not support the decision.
This near universal pushback is new for the Pennridge community, which has been divided in recent years over diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives, COVID-19 safety, and policies limiting student and teacher expression.
Decision to cut social studies came from board, not administration or the community
Board vice president Megan Banis-Clemens first proposed the change to the social studies curriculum earlier this year.
She said in an op-ed that she wanted to give students more choice to “accommodate different pathways.”
But according to the social studies department, students haven’t expressed a need for more choice. Board member Ron Wurz said students have control over more than 60% of their schedule and more choice is coming through new block scheduling.
The district currently requires two American history courses, one world history course, half a year of American government, and a half-year social studies elective.
District administrators consistently recommended maintaining four credits of social studies. They recently completed a three-year curriculum review process, based on the four-credit model.
Social studies teachers are “concerned over the lack of future competitiveness of our students compared to those of neighboring districts,” they wrote in an op-ed. “The overwhelming majority of school districts in Montgomery and Bucks County require four years of social studies.”
In October, students created a petition against reducing the number of credits, which reached almost 200 signatures by Monday, Wurz said. In November, Wurz started a similar petition; it had 1,000 signatures by the time of Monday’s vote, he said.
Eleven students spoke at Monday’s board meeting, and all of them were against the credit cut.
“Taking away a history credit requirement is going to send a message to the students at Pennridge that history is not important,” said high school senior Noelle White. “This mindset is frankly ignorant and will only breed hidden prejudice in the community.”
Wurz questioned why the board was rushing to a final decision and ignoring community concerns.
“This is a huge mistake,” he said.
Are four social studies credits necessary?
Pennsylvania doesn’t set credit requirements for graduation, but requires schools to cover academic standards, instructional hours, and units of content.
“How they arrange those into a curriculum, course titles, how long each course is, and how they award credit is a local decision,” a Department of Education spokesperson said.
Pennridge has required four years of social studies for high school students since the district graduated its first class in 1954, including world history in a student’s sophomore year, according to a local news article from the same year.
Banis-Clemens said some districts in the area require just three social studies credits, including Council Rock in Bucks County, and Radnor Township in Delaware County, and Tredyffrin-Easttown in Chester County.
Pennridge spokesman David Thomas said the district’s curriculum team will work with administrators and social studies teachers over the next few weeks to make necessary changes and will provide an update early next year.
Overall, the number of credits required for Pennridge students to graduate will remain the same due to the addition of a personal finance course and other changes that place an emphasis on STEAM instruction.
The social studies credit reduction is set to take effect next school year, and other changes will largely take effect starting with the Class of 2026, Thomas said.
Pennridge has tried to cut back on history education before
This isn’t the first time Pennridge has directed teachers to teach less history.
In January, Pennridge administrator Keith Veverka, who supervises social studies classes, directed social studies teachers and school principals not to “wade into” discussions with students about the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol a year earlier, citing “the current polarization and strong emotions” surrounding the event.
Earlier that same week, during a curriculum committee meeting, some board members expressed concern that the proposed world history textbooks were not focused enough on “Western culture.”
Board members also heavily criticized the district’s elementary school history curriculum. “There was not any focus on the greatness of America,” said board member Ricki Chaikin, who requested a teaching of history that she described as more “moderate.”
“Some things in history have two versions, but we need then to tell both versions,” Chaikin said.
This week, she voted to change the social studies requirements from four to three credits.
Will Pennridge condense courses and eliminate content?
Social studies teachers said they’ve long felt left out of the conversation, and are still opposed to losing one social studies credit.
Bob Cousineau, who has taught social studies in the district for five years, said the board should have consulted the department as experts on proposed changes and to help the community understand what was happening.
“But instead, board members were trying to diminish our credibility as experts,” he said. “That’s what seems like a lot of community members are very upset about, because if we’re not the experts, then who are?”
Cousineau was pleased to hear that the district is keeping world history, but said there are still inherent problems with the policy.
“No matter what we do with decreasing social studies to three credits and what that looks like, there’s going to be negative impacts on the students.”
While district officials said they will consult with social studies teachers to develop the new curriculum, Cousineau said it doesn’t feel collaborative. “They’re forcing us to establish something that we disagree with.”
Saturdays just got more interesting.