Aerial view of Pennridge High School in Perkasie, Pa. (Pennridge School District) Pennridge High School
Aerial view of Pennridge High School in Perkasie, Pa. (Pennridge School District)

Despite strong community opposition, the Pennridge School Board approved paring down the number of social studies credits needed to graduate from four to three.

Despite strong opposition from many corners of the community, the Pennridge School Board recently approved paring down the number of social studies credits needed to graduate from the Bucks County district.

Beginning next year, Pennridge High School students will be required to take three social studies credits, rather than four. To accommodate the change, the administration said it will work with social studies teachers to restructure the curriculum. Other credit changes include adding at least a half credit in personal finance and cutting the number of health and physical education courses. The total number of credits needed to graduate will stay at 24.

The 5-4 vote followed a storm of criticism from faculty, parents, students, and community members, who stressed the well-established four-credit requirement should remain.

School board member Ron Wurtz said many issues have divided the school directors, from mask mandates to diversity, equality, and inclusion matters, to Pride flags. “But, everyone was aligned on this,” he said, in an interview.

“There’s been a lot of community involvement, students got almost 250 signatures opposing the plan, teachers don’t want it and neither do parents,” said Wurtz, who started his own petition supporting four credits that garnered 1000 signatures. Social studies, he said, “is one of most important things you need to have in the world today.”

Scaling back the number of credits, the board member said, “is dumbing down our curriculum. It makes no sense.” 

In an opinion piece to The Intelligencer news organization prior to the December vote, 27 members of the Pennridge social studies department decried the move. 

“Our graduates will enter a world in which nations are increasingly interdependent. They will also be citizens in an increasingly polarized body politic. It is unconscionable that five members of the Pennridge School Board would even consider sending our students out into such a world handicapped by a lack of education in the very subjects they need to navigate their future,” the letter stated.

The board’s vice president, Megan Banis-Clemens, initiated the reduction plan, saying it’s needed to give students more choice. “This proposal would expand that choice in the 4th credit outside of social studies, to accommodate different pathways,” Banis-Clemens said in an email.

“Giving students autonomy over their education for 1 out of 13 to design their own pathways with the support of their guidance counselors and parents is not unreasonable,” Banis-Clemens said. 

Pennridge’s requirements, said Banis-Clemens, are “not consistent with admissions for colleges and universities or the top ranked districts in the state.” She said Pennsylvania is among 42 states that require less than four years of social studies. 

Furthermore, said the Republican board member, “this may be students’ only opportunity to play in the band, learn woodworking, sewing or graphic design, etc. These are lifelong skills students take with them. No one is suggesting social studies isn’t beneficial. The 4th credit is just not the most beneficial course for every single student and we have 12 prior years to impart that knowledge on students.”

Her fellow Republican board member and former board president, Joan Cullen, voiced strong disagreement. 

“All the feedback, from students, parents and teachers was clear. We don’t want it, we don’t need it, there are enough choices,” said Cullen. “Not a single person in a public meeting expressed support. Everyone is on the same side.”

While Cullen pointed out that surrounding school districts such as Central Bucks, Palisades, and Quakertown require four social studies credits, she said that’s not the point. There’s no need to establish this, there’s no desire for it.”

Banis-Clemens’s initial effort proposed making World History an elective, rather than an inclusive part of the social studies curriculum, but that created an even greater backlash and was hastily restored.

With the district in the midst of considering moving to block scheduling, eliminating a fourth year of social studies seemed even more ill-advised, said Cullen and Wurtz. Block scheduling, by design, allows students more opportunities to choose electives.

“We’re asking her (Banis-Clemens) to slow down…let’s look at block scheduling completely,” said Wurtz, who has two children at Pennridge.

In a letter to the editor, social studies teacher Robert Cousineau expressed grave concern over the change and its broader effect on the country.

“A strong social studies education program is important to maintain the integrity of a democracy. All students will become citizens in our society and will have the power to cast a vote. Our democracy is healthier if citizens are more enlightened on subjects that are taught within the field of social studies,” he wrote.

Asked why she believes there is such strong and widespread criticism of the credit reduction, Megan-Clemens said, “All of our teachers are passionate about their content areas and have advocated for additional requirements in their areas. We have to take in that feedback and look objectively at what all the data shows is best for all students to take for all pathways.”

In addition to Banis-Clemens, board president, David Reiss, and board members Jordan Blomgren, Ricki Chaikin and Robert Cormack voted to change the number of required credits.