Pennridge parents say they are optimistic as Democratic school board takes office

All across Pennsylvania in November, it has been much the same story: In key school board races, moderate and liberal challengers have ousted conservatives, promising to reverse many of the far-right social policies championed by Republican school board members in recent years.

The Pennridge School District in suburban Philadelphia is one such district. Pennridge has been the site of one of the most contentious battles in Pennsylvania public education in recent years.

Conservatives have spent the last two years taking controversial actions, which have included passing restrictive bills targeting transgender students and mandating that teachers must take down any “advocacy materials,” including LGBTQ+ pride flags.

But those actions came at a price. In every single one of the five school board races in Pennridge this fall, Democratic candidates running as part of the Pennridge Community Alliance slate beat Republicans’ Protect Pennridge 2023 slate, including both incumbents and challengers.

It was a reversal of the fortunes of Republicans from the previous election cycle in Pennridge, when they took over the school board in 2021. That election cycle was the precursor to many of the headline-grabbing, controversial topics the board has taken up in the last two years.

But conservative voices predominated in the Pennridge School District’s governance even before 2021, parents say.

“Our board has been conservative for the last several cycles,” said Lauren Bradley, a parent who co-founded the RIDGE Network earlier this year, which was aimed at ousting the old school board. “After the shooting (in 2018 at a school in Parkland) in Florida, our students staged a walkout, our high school students, similar to many high schools in the area, and our school was the only one that doled out punishments.”

On Nov. 15, Pennridge families, the NAACP of Bucks County, and the social justice group PairUP Society filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Department of Education alleging the Pennridge School District had created a hostile environment for LGBTQ+ students and students of color.

Adrienne King, a onetime school board candidate and founder of the PairUP Society, told the Pennsylvania Independent that the mistreatment of students of color and LGBTQ+ students goes back many years.

“It’s sort of been an ongoing thing where students have been subjected to these things, but not necessarily getting the needed response from the leaders of the school to put any real actions in place to mitigate it from happening,” King said.

Bradley said the board’s recent actions were what finally got the community’s attention.

Perhaps the most prominent action the Republican-dominated board took — and one that it reversed just before Democrats were elected to the board — was its hiring of a right-wing education activist named Jordan Adams. 

Adams, a graduate and former employee of the conservative Christian Hillsdale College in Michigan, is the founder of the one-man education consulting firm Vermilion Education, which describes itself as “working with school boards to secure a transparent and ideology-free education for all students.”

Critics, though, say Adams is pushing a conservative social agenda.

“Our end goal is that every single kid who leaves Pennridge loves this country and understands our Constitution,” Ricki Chaikin, one of the board members involved in hiring Adams, said at the time. “Right now, that’s not happening.”

The district paid Adams $35,000 to review its 9th grade social studies curriculum, resulting in the controversial suggestion that it implement Hillsdale’s 1776 curriculum, derived from a report published by former President Donald Trump’s 1776 Commission on U.S. history in 2021. Historians have criticized the Trump administration’s report as historically inaccurate and biased toward right-wing ideas.

The board’s hiring of Adams riled up community members who had not previously been paying attention.

“I think that got the community more (attuned) and more involved,” said Heather Young, another parent who is involved with the Pennridge Democrats.

Adams’ hiring was the genesis of the RIDGE Network’s founding, Bradley said.

“We put together this rally in a high school parking lot that was very, very loosely organized, and had a lot of community members and teachers come out to support that,” Bradley said. “And then from there, we really talked about, you know, how do we get people engaged and kind of change the culture of our community?”

Bradley said their efforts ended up being more successful than she had anticipated.

“It’s an uphill climb in our school district,” she said. “It does tend to lean a little bit more conservative. And, you know, I thought towards the end, I thought that perhaps we would have a split ticket.”

That’s not what happened. Not only did the Pennridge Democrats flip the school board, the outgoing conservative board moved to end Adams’ contract as part of its last action.

“When we found out the results and we saw that we had flipped the board, it was really an exciting time for us because obviously to do that you had to get conservative voters to vote for the (Pennridge Community Alliance) slate of candidates,” Bradley said.

Another parent, Jeffrey Bernstein, said the results were particularly notable given how divided the community can be.

“The biggest thing that I’ve seen over the last couple of years is the amount of divide that there is within the community,” he said. “Especially when it comes to social justice issues, whether it be Black lives, whether it be brown people with racism, or whether it be to an extent queer people, especially trans people … that is where I see the biggest schism.”

Still, Bernstein said there is plenty of work to be done.

“In crisis, our community came together for the kids for the right reasons,” Bernstein said. “And when it comes to actually protecting children, our community did right. Now the board has to continue that action and make those promises happen.”