Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia

Catherine D’Ignazio

High School Sports

Originating in the nineteenth century, high school sports accompanied the spread of secondary schooling and became a nationwide phenomenon as students initiated team competitions and schools instituted physical education programs. In the Philadelphia region, early scholastic sports gained legitimacy from mentoring provided by the area’s many colleges and from the School District of Philadelphia’s commitment to a comprehensive, exemplary program of physical education. As college attendance became more prevalent, high school and college sports became mutually sustaining and fortified despite the uneven opportunities of secondary schooling in the region.

High school sports emerged at a time when “muscular Christianity”—which aligned physical training and manliness with the development of good morals—justified sport for shaping good habits and character of young men. In that spirit, schoolboys at Philadelphia’s Central High School played baseball in the 1860s modeled after adult clubs and football in the 1870s modeled on college programs. Increasingly, sports became part of high school life in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware. High school boys initiated competitive basketball and tennis by the end of the nineteenth century. Contests crossed state lines to include suburban and rural opponents, public and private high schools, non-scholastic organizations, and a mix of secondary and higher educational institutions.  

While school leaders sometimes provided playing venues, students managed these nascent sports largely on their own. Student organizers selected high schools for “league” membership in order to crown champions. In 1887, student managers in Philadelphia private high schools organized the Interscholastic Academic League (Inter-Ac), the first in the nation, and area Quaker schools organized a league for Friends’ schools in 1890. Public school boys organized the Philadelphia Public League in 1901. A Southern New Jersey League formed by 1911, and a Camden Suburban League began in 1928. John Bonner (1890-1945), vice-rector of Roman Catholic High School in Philadelphia, guided the creation of the Catholic League in 1919. Eventually, across the region schoolgirls began to compete with the same league opponents as their male counterparts.  

Influence of Colleges

[caption id="attachment_24593" align="alignright" width="300"]Black and white photograph of high school boys runners crossing the finish line at the Penn Relays. High school and college athletes from around the country take part in the Penn Relays, which can draw more than a hundred thousand spectators to the University of Pennsylvania each spring. (Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries)[/caption]

In the late nineteenth century, college athletic programs influenced sports for both high school boys and girls. Mimicking colleges, boys formed football squads. They interacted more directly with institutions of higher education in track meets dubbed “Interscholastics.” Swarthmore College, Haverford College, West Chester Normal School, Rutgers College, Princeton University, and Delaware College all sponsored interscholastic track meets for boys. The University of Pennsylvania’s Relay Carnival, a fund-raiser for its Athletic Association, became known as the Middle States Championship and had the longest influence on high school track in the area. At the inaugural relays in 1895, ten colleges and eight public and private high schools sent teams. Into the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, high school boys continued to assemble teams to compete at the Penn Relays and similar meets.  Penn also hosted a National Swimming Championship for high school boys from 1903 until the early 1920s.  Historically black colleges played a similar role for African American students by opening opportunities for college athletic careers through sponsoring interscholastic track meets and basketball tournaments.

Colleges also offered guidance for athletic associations, referred to as AAs, the organizing backbone of early school sport. From the 1880s to the 1920s, following the example set by colleges, high school students organized sports through AAs. With some administrative support for spaces and permission, AAs managed school sport with student leadership, membership dues, and ticket sales.

For high school girls, the collegiate influence came from teachers who had experienced physical education in their college days and, after 1892, competitive games of basketball. At first, Philadelphia’s secondary school for girls, Girls’ High and Normal School, made space for health reformist ideas. Beginning in 1869, girls had classes in the Dio Lewis System of Gymnastics. During the 1876 Centennial Exhibition, visitors toured the basement of the new Girls’ High building at Seventeenth and Spring Garden Streets that was dedicated in part to gymnastics and touted as a model facility for modern female education. In latter decades, Friends’ schools in the region employed former “YMCA men” as gymnasium instructors for their co-ed students. Philadelphia public schoolboys did not have physical education until 1903, when Pennsylvania mandated its addition to the curriculum.

[caption id="attachment_24592" align="alignright" width="300"]A black and white photograph of local high school girls playing field hockey. Field hockey has a long tradition in Greater Philadelphia, owing to a Bryn Mawr College athletic director who cultivated the sport in the region. (Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries)[/caption]

Basketball, incorporated into high school girls’ compulsory physical education classes, introduced competitive sports. Initially only intraclass games were played, but soon girls across the region seized the chance to play basketball on teams representing their high schools. Interest in volleyball, baseball, track, and tennis followed.  Constance Applebee (1873-1981), who introduced field hockey to the United States in 1903, became athletic director at Bryn Mawr College the following year. Her status and influence, including her field hockey summer camp in Mount Pocono, Pennsylvania, for high school girls (1922-94), made the sport prominent in the region.

Colleges also mentored high school sport across the region through the attendance of many college coaches and athletes at year-end high school sports banquets as motivational speakers and honored guests.  These collegiate emissaries bestowed prestige along with their advice on skills, practice methods, and programs and encouraged many girls and boys to aspire to play on college teams.

Influence of the Philadelphia School District

In 1907 William Albin Stecher (1858-1950), an activist in nineteenth-century physical culture and editorial board member of the national journal Mind and Body, became the first director of the Philadelphia School District’s newly created Department of Health and Physical Education (DHPE).  He instituted a comprehensive, hierarchical, physical education program for elementary to secondary students. The department organized playgrounds, indoor and outdoor meets, and play days for thousands of district students. Capping the program were high school interclass and interscholastic games leading to school and city championships, respectively.

In 1912, the DHPE took major control of sport from students by creating a Supervisory Committee to govern all athletic activities. Similarly across the region, school administrators began to impose eligibility rules based on academic standards and school attendance. From the administrators’ perspective, “playing to win” fit well in the merit-based hierarchy of schooling, but student control did not. The conviction that sport had a place in the curriculum also gained support from the formation of Fathers’ Associations and the awarding of perpetual trophies sponsored at significant expense by the DHPE. Stecher and his successor in 1935, Grover Mueller (1893-1987), a founding member of the American College of Sports Medicine (1954), made Philadelphia a leader in the field of physical education and school sport. Twice, in 1918 and 1932, the school district hosted the national conventions of the American Physical Education Association, which Stecher also cofounded.

As the Philadelphia School District added sixteen high schools between 1908 and 1939, each quickly started girls’ and boys’ sport programs. The district’s commitment to sport had influence beyond its own schools. Outside of Philadelphia, student athletes compared themselves to the larger and older city programs and consistently sought the well-supported Philadelphia teams to fill out their schedules.

At a time when schooling in general aspired to statewide standards, state-level control of athletics emerged amid concern that the teams could be prone to practices incompatible with educational purposes. The Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association (PIAA) formed in 1913, followed by the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association (NJSIAA) in 1918.  (Delaware did not have a state organization until 1946.) Together with greater oversight by school administrators, state associations eliminated national championships and competition against non-high school opponents and established state championships instead. NJSIAA sponsored a state championship for football in its first year and the following year for baseball, basketball, and track.  The PIAA established most of Pennsylvania’s state championships for boys between 1920 and 1941, adding soccer, football and lacrosse in 1973, 1988 and 2009, respectively. Girls did not compete in state championships until after the federal legislation known as Title IX, which banned discrimination on the basis of sex in any federally-funded activity, changed expectations for girls in sport.

Issues in Girls’ Sport

The earliest contests among schoolgirls, a mix of interclass and interscholastic games, followed the boys’ model but with greater adult supervision to oversee proper demeanor and guard against overexertion. Special girls’ rules reflected cultural concerns about physical exertion and potential overexposure to spectators.

In the feminist milieu of the 1920s, track and field for girls gained impetus from the 1922 “Women’s Olympics” held in Paris. Philadelphia elementary schoolgirls had been competing in running events at district-sponsored field days since around 1903, but inspired by the Women’s Olympics, female students at the seven Philadelphia high schools inaugurated an Interscholastic Track Meet that continued until 1931. From 1921 until at least 1928, Wilmington (Delaware) High School girls ran in a schoolwide track and field meet, and Woodbury, New Jersey, girls started their track team in 1923.  Many suburban schools arranged single, dual, and triple meets, and a Delaware County Meet began in 1924.

[caption id="attachment_24590" align="alignright" width="238"]A black and white photographic portrait of Lou Henry Hoover taken in 1922. Lou Henry Hoover, pictured here in 1922, helped to shape rules affecting girls sports in high schools and colleges across the country as president of the Women’s Division of the National Amateur Athletic Federation. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

Just as the girls’ opportunities looked like they would match the boys’, a nationwide effort emerged to eliminate interscholastic sports for high school girls. Women’s physical education professionals saw the increasing publicity and heightened tensions associated with winning competitions as injurious to the players and sought to eliminate the bad effects and expand the good. In 1923, future first lady Lou Henry Hoover (1874-1944), president of Girls Scouts of the USA, first female board member and president of the Women’s Division of the National Amateur Athletic Federation, led a national conference that formulated a new platform for girls’ and women’s sports.  In place of interscholastic games, physical educators provided robust intramural programs with point systems for earning the all-important school letter—the same award sought by schoolboy athletes. For decades to follow in cities across the region, intramural programs defined sport opportunities for public high school girls.  Philadelphia and some New Jersey high schools developed annual traditions for girls such as  “The Annual Demonstration,” the “Gym Contest,” “The Frolic,” and “Sports Night.” These required months of preparation, including the crafting of unique class songs and cheers. For many girls these one-day extravaganzas offered a singular opportunity to demonstrate athletic prowess in front of spectators.

While city public schools purposefully eliminated opportunities for girls to play for spectators and attract media coverage, in Philadelphia’s Catholic High Schools things were quite different. Under the guidance of sport enthusiast John Bonner (1890-1945), interschool competition for girls continued and Catholic girls competed for the Catholic League championship. Philadelphia’s Catholic schoolgirls went to all-girl high schools and reveled in interscholastic basketball games widely supported by classmates, families, school faculty, and administrators. Rivalries developed and gained in importance as generations added to the legacy. In the mid-1940s thousands of spectators filled Convention Hall and later the Palestra—iconic venues for college and professional men’s contests—to watch Catholic schoolgirls in Friday night double-headers play some of the best basketball, college or high school, in the nation. Talented Catholic schoolgirls during the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s graduated to collegiate play at the region’s many Catholic colleges and other colleges with strong physical education programs. When national collegiate basketball championships for women began in the late 1960s and 1970s, teams rooted in Catholic schoolgirl basketball were in a position to compete and win, most famously the “Mighty Macs” of Immaculata College.

Although a city school, Delaware’s Howard High School in Wilmington also did not suppress girls’ interscholastic competition.  At Howard, the only high school for black Delawareans, the girls’ basketball team reportedly played “boys’ rules,” not the special “girls rules” devised by professional educators to protect girls from the excesses of sport.

Philadelphia’s numerous suburban communities also continued interscholastic competitions for girls. Country clubs shaped notions of suburban female sportsmanship; competitive athleticism was social competency, not a social concern as it was in the city. While interscholastic competition was eliminated in city schools, suburban and Catholic schoolgirls continued to experience the culture of interscholastic competitions.

Twentieth-Century Transformations

Interest in high school sports expanded after World War II, an era of high birth rates, increasing focus on the family, and expanding suburbanization. New suburban community identities formed around rooting for high school teams, and gendered pageantry accompanied the games. In an era that strictly defined gender roles, cheerleading, once an activity for boys and girls, became female-only. Majorettes and flag girls accompanied the band at football half-time shows. Football teams, once only eleven to twenty players, increased to dozens of students. Students were just the athletes, fully organized, monitored, and coached by school personnel.

[caption id="attachment_24591" align="alignright" width="300"]A black and white photograph of Wilt Chamberlain as a 76er playing against the Los Angeles Lakers. Wilt Chamberlain (right), a basketball standout at Overbrook High School, became a legend in the National Basketball Association. (Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries)[/caption]

For schoolboys, athletic horizons expanded. A successful high school player could anticipate going on to college and, if successful there, advancing to a professional team. In Philadelphia, Wilt Chamberlain (1936-99), who graduated from Overbook High School in 1953, chose Kansas University from over two hundred offers, leading to his professional career.

After Brown vs. The Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas (1954), representatives of the all-black, multistate high school conference, the South Atlantic High School Conference begun in 1929, terminated the conference after awarding its final championships for boys in football, basketball, baseball, cross-country, tennis, track, golf and swimming.  Thereafter, black and white students in Delaware, Virginia, and Maryland competed together.  

Philadelphia public schoolgirl interschool competitions slowly reemerged between the late 1940s and the 1960s, but their contests paled in comparison to the robust boys programs that culminated in the Public League and City Championships.  The first Philadelphia public school championship for girls in this era took place in the 1969-70 school year for basketball, field hockey, softball, swimming, and tennis. Title IX spurred an expansion in women’s college athletics at a time when more teenage girls were going to college. Consequently, high school sports experience for girls became valuable for admission to college, much as it had for boys since the 1950s.  At the state level, Pennsylvania offered the first state championship for girls, in swimming and diving, in 1972. New Jersey schoolgirls played for state championships for the first time in 1973.

While the 1970s expanded athletic opportunity for female high school athletes in metropolitan Philadelphia, “white flight” and other demographic and political changes increased racial segregation in city public schools and sequestered more black high school athletes in a city league that did not participate in the state athletic association until 2003, and therefore did not compete for state championships. For many decades this was not a concern because in some sports the city championship and the City Title Series (begun in 1938, pitting the best public school boys’ team against the best Catholic school team) carried as much or more prestige than a state title. An indicator of change came when Kobe Bryant (b. 1978) selected suburban Lower Merion High School in 1991 to pursue his athletic aspirations, even though his father had played at Philadelphia’s John Bartram High School, a school with a proud basketball history that included Earl “the Pearl” Monroe (b. 1944) among its graduates.

[caption id="attachment_25121" align="alignright" width="272"]color photograph of Lurline Jones standing at lectern with microphone Lurline Jones was the University City High School coach whose Title IX-based lawsuit in 1979 led to the end of the boys'-teams-only City Title Series until three decades later, when the series resumed for both girls and boys. (Phoenix Club of Philadelphia)[/caption]

To give student athletes in Philadelphia access to state championships and their potential impact on college admission, in 2003 the Philadelphia public schools joined the PIAA, and the Catholic schools followed in 2007. Two years later the Philadelphia City Title Series, dormant since a legal challenge to its all-boys policy in 1979, was also revived for both boys’ and girls’ teams. Even the privileged private schools made changes to include post-season laurels. For decades, private and Friends’ schools did not play beyond their regular season schedule, instead basing their league championships on the season’s win-loss records. In 2010 the Pennsylvania Independent Schools Athletic Association formed to provide post-season tournaments. In New Jersey and Delaware both private and public schools joined their state interscholastic athletic associations and competed for state titles.

High school sport in the region’s public, private, and religious schools grew from the deep roots of relationships cultivated by area colleges from the 1880s to the 1920s. By the early decades of the twenty-first century, colleges had long since relinquished their mentorship to local and state school educators. However, sports continued to be entrenched in the education system across the nation.  Across gender, race, and religious boundaries, sports made it possible for adolescents in the Philadelphia area not only to compete but also to imagine and experience a relationship with higher education.

Catherine D’Ignazio holds a Ph.D. in Urban Education from Temple University. She is an Adjunct Professor of History at Rutgers University, Camden campus.

Public Education: Suburbs

In the second half of the twentieth century, many parents moved their families out of Philadelphia, Camden, or Wilmington so that their children could enroll in suburban public schools because they perceived them to be better than their urban counterparts.  Before then, many believed that the best public schools were urban and that rural schools were inadequate.  But as many rural communities became suburban, they created comprehensive public school districts with programs and facilities that matched or exceeded those found in the region's cities.

[caption id="attachment_7645" align="alignright" width="300"]Aerial photograph of Lower Merion Senior High School, Ardmore Junior High School Lower Merion Senior High School, Ardmore Junior High School, and nearby, 1925. (Library Company of Philadelphia)[/caption]

More often than not, the rural districts that upgraded their public schools were in communities that began to suburbanize as early as the 1870s with the advent of commuter railroads and, later, electric trolley lines.  The residents of these communities wanted urban benefits and services — paved roads, sewer lines, and, above all, comprehensive systems of public education.  Audubon, Collingswood, and Haddonfield, in Camden County, New Jersey, and Abington, Cheltenham, and Lower Merion, in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, acted on such expectations.  So, too, did those who lived in the several small but thriving centers of commerce and industry outside the region’s big cities, in places like Norristown, Pottstown, and Conshohocken in Pennsylvania and Gloucester City in New Jersey.

[caption id="attachment_7541" align="alignleft" width="300"]Cheltenham High in 1905 Cheltenham High in 1905. (Post Card Collection, Old York Road Historical Society, )[/caption]


Rural Districts Become Suburban

Between 1895 and 1920 many rural school districts in Montgomery County became suburban.  In 1897 there were 498 public schools and fifty-five public school districts in the county; forty-four of these operated only one-room schools.  By 1916 the number of districts operating just one-room schools had been reduced to ten; the total number of public schools had been reduced by more than 200; and the number of districts operating high schools had risen from a handful to twenty-one.  Not surprisingly, these included Norristown (with 474 students in high school), Pottstown (380), and Conshohocken (101), along with Abington (205 students), Cheltenham (273), and Lower Merion (336).  Jenkintown and Narberth did not have separate high school buildings in 1916; instead, they set aside rooms for high school classes in their elementary school. But the suburban die was cast, and by 1930 there were high schools in thirty-six of the county’s sixty-six public school districts. 

[caption id="attachment_7573" align="alignright" width="300"]The Main Building of Haddonfield Public School The Main Building of Haddonfield Public School housed most of the district's high school classes for nearly twenty years. (Historical Society of Haddonfield)[/caption]

The fifty years that followed the end of World War I might be called the era of suburbanization in Greater Philadelphia. Population grew substantially in the four Pennsylvania and three New Jersey suburban counties between 1920 and 1940, and the pace accelerated after World War II. In South Jersey, for example, population in Burlington, Camden, and Gloucester counties grew more than twice as fast in the twenty years after 1940 (+77%) as it did in the twenty years before (+33%). Some of this demographic growth resulted from the Baby Boom that began in 1946. But some of it came about because many young families relocated, and they often settled far from the city, renting or buying housing in newly developed communities. In 1960, for example, more than one-third of Burlington County residents had been living in their present house for no more than two years.  Levitt and Sons persuaded many white-collar and even some blue-collar families to uproot by building planned communities for them in both Bucks (1951) and Burlington (1958) counties.  

Most public school systems were unprepared for this demographic shift.  Those in Pennsylvania had some time to adjust because the effect was modest at first; between 1954 and 1958 public school enrollment in the four Pennsylvania counties surrounding Philadelphia grew by just eighteen percent. Over the next twelve years, however, it increased by more than two-thirds, climbing from 228,551 to 384,200 students. The comparable numbers for the three New Jersey counties across the Delaware River from Philadelphia are staggering. Public school enrollment in Burlington, Camden, and Gloucester counties nearly tripled between 1950 and 1970, soaring from just over 78,000 to just under 211,000 students.  The lion’s share of this growth (60 percent) took place in Burlington and Gloucester counties where the population before 1945 had been small and scattered.  

These numbers alarmed educators and reformers not only because none of the school districts in these suburban counties had enough teachers or classrooms but also because many districts still functioned as they always had.  In 1945 more than a few in both New Jersey and Pennsylvania relied on supervising principals rather than superintendents. Several did not operate their own high schools, paying for their students to go elsewhere. But by far the most vexing problem was the persistence of small school districts.  When Harvard University’s former president James Bryant Conant loudly complained in 1959 that far too many communities in the United States had public high schools that were too small to offer sufficiently rigorous academic programs, his words described the Greater Philadelphia suburbs. Most of their residents still believed that smaller was better in public education or at least not bad enough to justify the consolidation through reorganization of small school districts.  New Jersey codified this expectation by requiring local school boards to submit their annual budgets to the voters for approval by referenda.

Push for Modern Curriculum

Reorganization was not a new idea in 1950. As early as the turn of the twentieth century many school reformers advocated it. They wanted to eliminate the one-room, one-teacher school and form high schools that offered a modern curriculum including contemporary foreign languages, social studies, physical science, bookkeeping, and stenography. They wanted schools capable of housing a varied extra curriculum, including interscholastic athletics for boys and in most cases girls. Small rural districts could not provide these amenities; their tax base was too small, their unit costs too high. Between 1910 and 1940 reformers made considerable progress in achieving reorganization, especially in New England and the South Atlantic states.  But progress came more slowly to the Mid-Atlantic region where local loyalists resisted.   

[caption id="attachment_7714" align="alignright" width="228"]Pierre S. du Pont Pierre S. du Pont decided, unexpectedly and in middle age, to devote considerable time and money to the improvement of Delaware schools by founding and funding three philanthropic organizations with a $6 million gift. (Hagley Museum and Library)[/caption]

Delaware is a case in point. The crucial variable there was not the economic disparity between Wilmington, its biggest city, and the rest of the state but the political gap between Dover, its capital, and its rural school districts. The idea to reorganize came from the state’s first Commissioner of Education, Charles A. Wagner (1863-1924); his boss, Governor John G. Townsend (1871-1964), ran with it. At Townsend’s behest the legislature instructed the governor to appoint a school reform commission in 1919.  It devised a new school code that put considerable power in the hands of county school boards.  One of the most powerful men in the state, industrialist and philanthropist Pierre S. du Pont (1870-1954), endorsed this reform, but in the face of fierce opposition from local school districts the legislature reversed itself in 1921, dismantling the county school board system. Once again, public education would be overseen by local authorities working with the state Board of Education. But the unintended consequence of this reform was to increase the power of the state board and the state Commissioner of Education.

The state board hoped to modernize public education through reorganization.  At the time there were more than 400 incorporated school boards and unincorporated school committees in Delaware.  Many supervised just one school. The state’s first consolidated rural district (Caesar Rodney) had been formed south of Dover in 1916. By 1921 there were thirteen such districts, and the reformers hoped that consolidation would make it possible for more rural students to get a high school education.  Not including Wilmington, there were only 116 students in the state poised to graduate from a four-year public high school in 1918. Over the next twenty years the state commissioner convinced some rural districts to accept consolidation in exchange for help from Dover with teacher salaries and pupil transportation. In 1953 the state board drafted legislation to reduce the number of school districts from 105 to fifteen, but rural school consolidation did not really come to pass until the General Assembly adopted the Educational Advancement Act in 1968. It cut the number of school districts in the state from sixty to twenty-six.  Meanwhile, reorganization barely touched the lives of Delaware’s African American children before the 1970s because until then the state maintained a dual system of public education. Only Howard High School in Wilmington was available to black students while school segregation remained widespread.  In 1965 the state board of education ordered the closure of twenty-five “Negro” districts, but most of them were in rural communities.

In New Jersey reorganization reshaped the map of public education following World War II, but the state’s tradition of local control affected the way this occurred. Perhaps because New Jersey lacked a major metropolis, most people had no experience with anything other than “neighborhood” schools.  Not surprisingly, new school districts formed when population grew. Between 1900 and 1970 the number of school districts in the state almost doubled, rising from 395 to 576. Camden County’s total stood at thirty-eight in 1950, and this number did not change over the next twenty years because the fastest suburban development in South Jersey was taking place elsewhere. Burlington and Gloucester counties added seven districts in the same period. In many of them home buyers found a four-year public high school, one of the features they wanted most in a suburb. In the three-county region the number of school districts with a high school almost doubled between 1950 and 1976 (from 21 to 41) with Burlington (7) and Gloucester (8) counties registering the largest increases. Twelve of these were regional high schools operated by regional high school districts. For many years families living in a rural district without a high school sent their children to one in a nearby suburban district. In Camden County, for example, they sent them to Merchantville, Haddon Heights, or Haddonfield. But now rural and suburban families could send their children to one of twelve high schools operated by a regional high school district (RHSD). The first two of these, Rancocas Valley RHSD in Burlington County and Lower Camden County RHSD were formed in the 1930s; the rest came to life after World War II. The reason for them, according to the New Jersey State Department of Education, was that they “bring together a sufficient number of pupils and financial resources to offer a broad and comprehensive educational program.” Collaboration, not consolidation, was New Jersey’s response to the people’s demand for public secondary education.

Pennsylvania Takes the Lead

Pennsylvania took a different approach, committing itself to school reorganization after World War II. Larger than New Jersey and Delaware combined, it had 2,544 school districts in 1945, nearly ten percent of which (240) were in Bucks, Chester, Delaware, and Montgomery counties. Thirty years later the number of school districts in Pennsylvania had been drastically reduced to fewer than 600. In Bucks, Chester, Delaware, and Montgomery counties there were sixty-one (as before, about ten percent), but they were now educating more than twice as many students. The justification for reorganization was partly financial.  Even in Montgomery County the tax base in some suburban communities was not large enough to pay for an educational program with all the essentials, much less any extras. The state could have used its equalization subsidy program to compensate for the differences, but it chose to help less affluent communities by achieving economies of scale.  

Lawmakers knew that Pennsylvania had too many small school districts as early as 1854 when they first made provision for collaboration among them.  At the beginning of the twentieth century the commonwealth adopted a new school code that authorized the use of state aid for student transportation in districts that collaborated or consolidated. But it was not until the late 1940s, when many Americans realized that public education had been neglected for far too long, that the Pennsylvania legislature mustered the political will to attack the problem. In 1947 it passed a law that gave the county boards of school directors, created in 1937, the “power and duty” to prepare long-range plans for eliminating districts with no or only a few students. It also set aside money to give school districts an incentive to collaborate, but a commission appointed by Governor George Leader (1918-2013) concluded in 1960 that such financial incentives were ineffective.   Leader’s successor, David L. Lawrence (1889-1966), repeated the call for reorganization because he considered the real estate tax base in many rural and even some suburban districts to be insufficient to support a modern educational program. Some of those districts (such as those in Jenkintown Borough and Bristol Township) were in the Philadelphia suburbs. The legislature responded in 1961, passing legislation (Act 561) to reduce the number of districts, but quickly repealed it after Republican William Scranton (1917-2013) defeated Democrat Richardson Dilworth (1898-1974) in the 1962 gubernatorial election. Once in office, Scranton endorsed a watered-down version of Act 561 (Act 299) that retained its predecessor’s minimum enrollment provision of 4,000 students but allowed for numerous exceptions based on topography, pupil population, community characteristics, transportation, and educational quality.

[caption id="attachment_7572" align="alignright" width="144"]Wilmot E. Fleming Wilmot E. Fleming, president of the Jenkintown Board of School Directors for six years, believed that the best small districts should remain independent.(Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries)[/caption]

Perhaps the most outspoken opponents of school district reorganization came from the Philadelphia suburbs. Jenkintown’s Wilmot E. Fleming (1917-1978) believed that the best small districts should remain independent. Others argued that consolidation would lead to higher taxes or decline of community spirit and loss of local control. In 1966 State Senator Clarence Bell, a Republican from Delaware County, warned that reorganization would eventually lead to the formation of a metropolitan school district, an idea that Richardson Dilworth floated while he was the president of the Philadelphia School Board.  If such a district had been created, it would have brought a wave of African Americans from the city to the suburbs, a prospect certain to upset many of the whites living there. They did not see the minority children already in their midst, perhaps because they lived in neighborhoods and patronized schools that were mostly segregated. This discrimination led to civil rights protests in places like Mt. Holly, New Jersey, and Abington, Pennsylvania.  It even convinced the Lower Merion School District to close the Ardmore Avenue Elementary School in 1963 because it was segregated.  But it also led to a long and bitter fight against school reorganization – in Delaware County especially.

Just beyond West Philadelphia, southeastern Delaware County began to suburbanize at the beginning of the twentieth century. Public transportation allowed many of its white-collar and blue-collar residents to commute to jobs in Chester or Philadelphia. Some of the area’s public school districts took on suburban characteristics. In 1908, for example, the Darby Borough district replaced its supervising principal with a superintendent. It also opened a four-year high school, as did the Lansdowne Borough School District in 1914. The population of southeastern Delaware County, which rose rapidly at the beginning of the twentieth century, leveled off during the Great Depression but started growing again once prosperity returned. Folcroft’s mostly white population increased by twenty-six percent in the 1950s. Public school enrollment did not increase as fast, in part because many young families chose the leafier suburbs of Bucks and Montgomery counties instead.

Shifts in Racial Balance

Between 1900 and 1960 the African American proportion of the population in Delaware Country shrank from ten percent to seven percent.  But in places like Darby Township and Yeadon Borough there were already enough black families to deter prospective partners in any reorganization effort. In 1964 the county’s plan for reorganization faced opposition because it proposed to combine three school districts that were almost exclusively white – Collingdale (99.9 percent), Folcroft (100 percent), and Sharon Hill (98.8 percent) – with two that were significantly black, Darby Colwyn (22.7 percent) and Darby Township (68.2 percent).  Responding to an appeal from the white districts, the State Board of Education placed Darby Colwyn in another reorganized district. The Delaware County Board of School Directors approved the consolidation of the Folcroft, Sharon Hill, Collingdale, and Darby Township school districts in 1968, and subsequent appeals that eventually went all the way to U.S. District Court failed to prevent the formation of the Southeast Delco School District. But discrimination persisted because minority students living in the southern portion of Darby Township were bused past all-white schools in nearby Folcroft and Sharon Hill to schools in the northern part of Darby Township that already had many black students.

The elaborate appeals procedure set up by the state in 1968 (Act 150) slowed but did not prevent reorganization from being implemented.  In 1975 there were thirteen local and forty-eight regional school districts in Bucks, Chester, Delaware, and Montgomery counties; many of the latter emerged out of cooperative arrangements, known as “jointures,” which had been in place for years. For example, the eight districts in Montgomery County that had participated in the North Penn Jointure for grades seven through twelve stayed together as the North Penn School District. Its 11,400 students made it one of the largest in Greater Philadelphia. But some small districts avoided reorganization, especially in Montgomery County, because they met the state’s requirements for independence.  Despite never enrolling more than 828 students, the Jenkintown School District was not forced to merge with either Abington or Cheltenham because its leadership convinced county and state officials that it had the economic resources and the educational standards to remain self-governing.

By the early 1980s segregation had become a regional problem in Greater Philadelphia because the public schools in Philadelphia, Wilmington, and Camden now had such a high proportion of black students. There were simply not enough whites enrolled in these urban school systems to achieve racial balance. Aware of this disparity, most educators and politicians ignored it. Change did occur in Delaware when the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed a District Court decision (Buchanan v. Evans, 1975) that led to the consolidation of all the public schools in New Castle County where Wilmington is located. Formed in 1981, the Brandywine, Colonial, Christina, and Red Clay Consolidated school districts brought the black children of the city together with white children living in its suburbs. But such sweeping changes may have helped convince at least some people that public education was failing not just in the region’s cities but everywhere. Whether urban or suburban, public schools increasingly found themselves being compared unfavorably with private schools, charter schools, and even home schooling.

The crisis of confidence in public education that began in the 1980s stemmed in part from the fact that suburban public schools were not able to escape the problems of their urban counterparts. Given a choice, suburban educators would immunize their schools against violence and substance abuse. All their students would excel on standardized tests and be admitted to college. None would be victimized by the ravages of poverty or the sting of racism. But this is not how public education works, even in the most affluent suburbs.  

[caption id="attachment_7576" align="alignright" width="261"]JV Field Hockey Team, Yeadon High School, 1971. (Yeadon High School Yearbook) JV Field Hockey Team, Yeadon High School, 1971. (Yeadon High School Yearbook)[/caption]

Public schools are open and free to all – by definition. Those in charge cannot ignore at-risk students, no matter what the problem. Children with special academic needs or debilitating personal problems are not geographically bounded, and their right to a “thorough and efficient” public education is legally protected. But some previously all-white suburbs had to contend with more equity issues than others at the end of the twentieth century because by then they had absorbed enough nonwhite residents to make race a significant issue in their public school systems. Consider, for example, the Cheltenham School District in Montgomery County, whose minority population had become big enough by the mid-1990s to attract attention.  In 1996 the Cheltenham School Board decided to achieve better racial balance by busing some elementary students. This decision was denounced – not by white, but rather by some black parents, who accused the board of racism because its busing program increased one school’s proportion of white students. The board members who made this decision did not anticipate such opposition, but they stuck by it because they believed it would make the Cheltenham public schools better for everyone.  

Over the course of the twentieth century the relationship between suburban and urban public schools in Greater Philadelphia flipped. Suburban schools at first emulated their urban counterparts and hoped to be compared favorably with them. When urban public education fell on hard times, suburban schools ran away from such comparisons. But suburban and urban public schools could not run away from each other not only because they shared the same fundamental characteristics but also because they served a region that was itself becoming increasingly diverse and interdependent.

 William W. Cutler III is Professor of History, emeritus, at Temple University. He was a member of the Jenkintown Board of School Directors for eight years (1995 to 2003), the last two as president.  Catherine D’Ignazio holds a Ph.D. in Urban Education from Temple University. She is an adjunct professor of History at Rutgers University, Camden campus.

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