Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia

William W. Cutler III

Community Colleges

Two-year, public colleges—commonly known as community colleges—first appeared in the United States at the beginning of the twentieth century. Situated at the intersection of secondary and higher education, they were local institutions that offered both general studies and vocational training. Referred to as junior colleges before the 1950s, they owed their inspiration to Benjamin Franklin (1706-90), whose idea for a “Publick Academy” in Philadelphia derived from his belief that education should be both academic and utilitarian. Franklin’s academy soon became the University of Pennsylvania, but its figurative descendant, the community college, did not become a fixture in the Greater Philadelphia area until the second half of the twentieth century.

Founded in 1901, Joliet Junior College in Illinois was the first two-year, public college serving a local community. It had more than eighty public and private counterparts across the country within two decades, most often in states with strong systems of public higher education. None were in the Greater Philadelphia area. The number skyrocketed over the next twenty years, however, reaching 456 by 1940 with combined enrollment approaching 150,000 students. About 18 percent of the nation’s undergraduates at that time studied in two-year institutions, almost two-thirds of them in public junior colleges. Despite such impressive growth, however, the two-year college struggled to carve out a distinctive place for itself in the American educational system. Was it an extension of high school, an introduction to college, or something else?  Should its students expect to pass directly into the workplace upon graduation or continue their formal education?  

In the 1930s most two-year colleges in the United States had no home of their own; public school districts provided them instructional and administrative space. In 1932 the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching recommended that the two-year college be recognized as the capstone of public education. But because the high school was well on its way to becoming a mass institution by then, some educators and policy makers thought that two-year, public institutions of post-secondary education deserved to have their own place in the American educational system. A special commission established by President Harry Truman (1884-1972) in 1946 endorsed this idea. Proposing that they be called community rather than junior colleges, the commission argued that they could help fight the Cold War by bringing higher education to a wide audience at the local level. But what should such institutions teach? Some favored general education for all, but most adopted a diversified curriculum for academic and social sorting and tracking.

1960s: The Rise of Community Colleges

[caption id="attachment_31861" align="alignright" width="300"]This color photograph shows a large brick building with several windows. A large patch of grass separates the building from its parking lot. Bucks County Community College, founded in 1964, opened in 1965. Founders Hall, shown here in a 2012 photograph, houses the college’s STEM programs. (Shuvaev, Wikimedia Commons)[/caption]

There were almost no community colleges in Delaware, Pennsylvania, or New Jersey prior to 1960. A federal agency, the Emergency Relief Administration, funded six junior colleges in the Garden State in the 1930s, but just two remained after the agency terminated. Only a catastrophe like the Great Depression had justified any federal aid at all because most Americans thought education was a state and local obligation. A generation later these three states had many community colleges, including eight in the Greater Philadelphia area. Higher education was expanding thanks to the GI Bill, the Baby Boom, and the democratization of secondary education. The Community College of Philadelphia and Bucks County Community College opened in 1965; Montgomery County Community College in 1966; Camden County College, Gloucester County College, Delaware County Community College, and the Delaware Institute of Technology (soon renamed Delaware Technical Community College) in 1967; and Burlington County College in 1969.

State government helped these schools get established, but its ongoing role differed in each state. Enacted by the New Jersey legislature in 1962, the County College Act authorized the creation of public community colleges and set up procedures for launching them. It also committed the state to funding them, at least in part. Pennsylvania took a similar step one year later. The Pennsylvania Community College Act permitted local authorities to establish two-year colleges and called for developing master plans to coordinate their design and development. Adopted by the Delaware General Assembly in 1966, House Bill 529 authorized a statewide technical community college offering career, remedial, general, and transfer education. Congress undoubtedly gave all three states added incentive by adopting legislation in 1963 to fund construction of college facilities and, two years later, scholarships and loans to college students. Doing so did not preempt state control of higher education. Consequently, the management schemes worked out for community colleges in these three states reflected their different political cultures.

[caption id="attachment_31865" align="alignright" width="215"]This black and white photograph shows Pierre Samuel du Pont reading a paper. He wears a dark suit and glasses. Pierre Samuel du Pont, shown here in a 1916 portrait, donated more than $5 million to modernize Delaware’s public school buildings. (Library of Congress)[/caption]

Small in population and in area, Delaware had a history by the 1960s of centralized educational decision-making. More than forty years before reformers had convinced the legislature to adopt a new public school code that greatly reduced the power of local authorities. The philanthropist Pierre Samuel du Pont (1870-1954) reinforced such thinking by giving more than $5 million to modernize the state’s public school buildings. The legislature’s decision to have one community college for the entire state followed from this history. The college might facilitate attendance and even tailor some programs to local audiences by having multiple campuses. Between 1967 and 1974 it opened four in Georgetown (1967), Dover (1972), Stanton (1973), and Wilmington (1974). But each campus was part of the same centrally managed institution.

Pennsylvania Rivalries and Local Control

In Pennsylvania regional rivalries and a strong tradition of local control delayed the adoption of a master plan for higher education until 1967. By then, the Commonwealth had  fourteen community colleges, including four in the five-county Philadelphia area. Each had its own board of directors, and each reported to a local sponsor: a city (Community College of Philadelphia), a county (Montgomery County CC and Bucks County CC), or local school districts (Delaware County CC). Charged with implementing the Pennsylvania Community College Act, the newly created Council of Higher Education wanted to open more two-year colleges in the state, especially in areas it deemed underserved by public higher education. But there was some hesitation in Harrisburg because by 1960 Pennsylvania State University had fourteen two-year branch campuses, offering both terminal and transfer programs. It added five more between 1965 and 1967, one of which was in Delaware County. Other Pennsylvania universities such as Temple, Clarion, and the University of Pittsburgh had similar operations or aspirations. When Montgomery County CC offered to buy Temple’s suburban campus in Ambler, Temple said no, even though it had just sold the Stanley Elkins Tyler estate in Newtown to Bucks County CC. Already the site of the university’s horticulture program, the Ambler Campus was to be Temple’s portal in the suburbs after the university’s becoming state-related in 1965 put it on track for major expansion.

New Jersey’s approach to the oversight of community colleges vacillated between local control and centralized management. Adopted in 1967, the New Jersey Higher Education Act created a centralized administrative structure for overseeing and coordinating a state system of higher education. A new State Board of Higher Education and a Department of Higher Education now took responsibility for county college development; by 1982 they had helped raise the number of such schools from four to nineteen. But each school had its own board of trustees, most of whose members were appointed at the county level. Trenton never provided adequate funding, forcing these colleges to rely primarily on local property taxes and student tuition. They took more responsibility for themselves when the New Jersey Higher Education Restructuring Act (1994) abolished the State Board of Higher Education in a Republican move to reduce government regulation. Authorized by the state legislature in 1989, the New Jersey Council of County Colleges became the means by which these schools submitted a collective budget request to the state. In 2003 Governor James E. McGreevy (b. 1957) created by executive order the New Jersey Community College Compact, a partnership between the state and its county colleges. The compact’s primary goal was to strengthen training for workforce development, but it also sought to improve the protocols governing the transfer of county college students to four-year colleges and universities in New Jersey. 

The community colleges in Greater Philadelphia grew rapidly at first. Enrollment at the Community College of Philadelphia reached 4,365 students in 1967, just its second year of operation. At Delaware County CC it popped by over 400 percent between 1967 and 1969. Bucks County CC went from 731 students in its first year to 5,607 in its seventh.  In South Jersey the numbers were equally impressive.

[caption id="attachment_31864" align="aligncenter" width="414"]A chart showing the steady growth of community college enrollment in southern New Jersey between 1968 and 1973. This enrollment chart demonstrates attendance patterns in the years following each college’s opening. (Chart by Luke Hoheisel for The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia)[/caption]

Decades of Growth

Powered by an open-door admissions policy, the region’s community colleges continued to grow for the rest of the century. The Community College of Philadelphia became enormous, educating between 35,000 and 45,000 students annually. In its golden anniversary year (2007), Camden County College reported its enrollment to be more than thirty thousand, not counting remedial students. Enrollment also surged at the rest, bringing thousands of nontraditional students to campuses where they mingled with six to nine thousand degree and certificate candidates (matriculants). In 2016 the Community College Review reported that Montgomery County CC had 12,805 matriculants. According to the same source, the number of such students at the Community College of Philadelphia had reached 19,119, but Camden County College’s number had fallen from 14,471 to 12,051 since 2007. Full-timers now amounted to more than half the matriculants at only two of the eight schools in the region (Gloucester and Camden), reflecting a trend in undergraduate education that saw the time-to-degree ratio increase as more students, including many working adults, pursued higher education.

[caption id="attachment_31862" align="alignright" width="300"]This color photograph shows an aerial view of Camden County College's buildings and sports fields. The parking lots are nearly filled with cars and the surrounding trees showcase autumn colors. Camden County College opened in 1967. This 2013 aerial photograph shows the college’s main campus in Blackwood, New Jersey. (ProfGennari, Wikimedia Commons)[/caption]

The campus facilities of the community colleges in Greater Philadelphia changed dramatically over the years, helping each of these schools develop their own brand and image. The Community College of Philadelphia conducted its first classes in a repurposed department store near City Hall. In 1973 it began migrating to its next location at Seventeenth and Spring Garden streets, an impressive neo-classical building that once had been the Philadelphia Mint, a move not completed for a decade. The community colleges in Burlington, Camden, and Gloucester Counties began their work in public schools but soon moved to their own facilities. Over time, every community college in the region erected buildings, often on large properties, and opened branch campuses. Purchased in 1967 from the Mother of Savior Seminary, Camden County College’s original campus in Blackwood came with 320 acres. In Camden city, it did not have a building of its own for twenty-two years. Partnering with Cherry Hill Township and the William G. Rohrer Foundation, it added a multipurpose campus on Route 70 and Springdale Road in 2000. Serving Delaware and Chester Counties, Delaware County CC eventually had six locations including one in Chester County Hospital.

The curriculum was never static at any of the region’s community colleges. As transfer institutions, they offered general education courses that could count toward bachelor’s degrees earned elsewhere. As adult institutions, they taught both credit and noncredit classes for academic advancement, professional development, or personal enrichment. As vocational institutions, they provided technical training that could lead to immediate employment. Their vocational programs responded to modifications in the local economy. Medical coding, information technology, hotel management, and culinary arts became popular choices as Greater Philadelphia left behind its industrial past for a future built on health care, communications, hospitality, education, and public administration. These applied curricula attracted many students, but even more popular were those for students aiming to transfer to four-year colleges or universities, including those not yet ready for college-level work. In 1973 the Office of Institutional Research at Bucks County CC did a comprehensive study of its recent graduates. It learned that the majority were still students one year after graduation and so was a plurality of all its graduates. Most had remained in the region, matriculating at Penn State, Temple, Trenton State (renamed the College of New Jersey in 1996), and West Chester. This pattern became more pronounced as the region’s four-year colleges and universities increased their tuition year after year. Looking for a cheaper alternative, many families decided to send their children to the local community college for their first two years. This helps to explain why the Office of Institutional Research at the Community College of Philadelphia found in 2013 that about 60 percent of its recent graduates had gone on to a baccalaureate program within five years.

Credit Transfer Not So Seamless

In theory, transferring from a community college to a four-year institution was seamless. Applicants for advanced standing at a four-year college or university expected to carry all their community college credits with them. But receiving schools did not always award full credit, leaving some transfer students with a deficit. Inter-institutional agreements to facilitate transfer were not new in the 1980s, especially in states with large, public higher education systems. Such agreements became increasingly important in the Philadelphia region, especially as undergraduate enrollments started to decline in the 1970s. To keep transfer students from going out of state, four-year colleges and universities in New Jersey and Pennsylvania adopted what came to be known as “articulation” agreements, often after lengthy negotiations with local and state authorities. In 1973 New Jersey adopted what it called the Full-Faith-and-Credit policy that promised a smooth transition between its county and state colleges. Graduates of approved transfer programs at county colleges were guaranteed admission to a state college with 68 credits, but in practice fewer than half had all their county college credits accepted. A state Higher Education Plan adopted in 1981 urged Rutgers, the state university, to implement the policy, but only its Camden and Newark campuses complied. The campus in New Brunswick demurred. By contrast, Temple signed separate articulation agreements with Bucks, Montgomery, and Delaware County CCs in 1998. In 2006 Pennsylvania required its fourteen state universities to admit graduates of the state’s community colleges and award them at least some transfer credit.

[caption id="attachment_31866" align="alignright" width="300"]This color photograph shows the quad area of Rutgers University - Camden. Several students walk on the sidewalk or sit on the grass. Rutgers University-Camden is a transfer destination for many students from community colleges in Southern New Jersey. (Wikimedia Commons)[/caption]

Transfer students almost always remained in the region. Rutgers-Camden was by the far the most popular transfer destination for students from the community colleges in Burlington, Camden, and Gloucester Counties. Between 1984 and 1986, only ten chose to enroll at Rutgers in New Brunswick. Temple University was the most popular destination for students from the Community College of Philadelphia. For example, more than one third of all the students transferring to Temple between 1988 and 1998 came from there, 7,662 out of 22,248. Both Temple and the Community College of Philadelphia closely monitored their transfer students’ five-year graduation rate, which went from 42.6 percent in 1988 to 49.3 percent six years later.  But students from the Community College of Philadelphia never achieved a higher graduation rate than the university’s general population of transfer students.

In 2001 the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems concluded that Pennsylvania still had not developed “an effective system for providing community college services” across the state. It urged the existing schools to strengthen their capacities in workforce development and educational access. In response, some community colleges streamlined the transfer process by adopting dual admissions agreements. Over the next decade Montgomery County CC and Bucks County CC partnered with four state universities in Pennsylvania: Montgomery County CC with Cheyney (2005), Kutztown (2007), and West Chester (2009) and both Montgomery and Bucks County CCs with East Stroudsburg (2016). Montgomery County CC even reached such an agreement with Dickinson College, a selective, private institution more than one hundred miles from its main campus. In South Jersey both Gloucester and Burlington County College partnered with nearby Rowan University, leading both county colleges to change their name. Gloucester became Rowan College at Gloucester County in 2014 and Burlington became Rowan College at Burlington County the following year.  By then the latter had guaranteed admissions agreements with more than thirty public and private colleges and universities. 

Race and Economics

[caption id="attachment_31863" align="alignright" width="300"]This black and white photograph shows a group of students in graduation gowns lined up on a Philadelphia street. In this 1977 photograph, students from the Community College of Philadelphia march in their commencement ceremony. (Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries)[/caption]

From their inception the community colleges in Greater Philadelphia enrolled far more white than black students. The Community College of Philadelphia was the lone exception. By the turn of the millennium, after all, the city’s population was 44 percent African American.  Philadelphia also had many champions of black education. Led by Maurice B. Fagan (1910-92), the Philadelphia Fellowship Commission was one of the most important. Along with the NAACP, it urged city and state officials to establish a community college that would open the door to higher education for the city’s African Americans. From the beginning the Community College of Philadelphia attracted many black students. In 1967 they comprised 23 percent of its student body. Fifty years later they were 40 percent. 

Economic circumstances were also an important variable in the student demographics of the community colleges in the region. Their comparatively low tuition and work-friendly programs appealed to those with busy schedules and limited incomes. Such students often could not attend full time; the demands on their personal time and the opportunity costs of such attendance were too great. Many had spotty academic records. While these schools never enrolled only students from the lower half of the socioeconomic spectrum, such students increasingly predominated. Their alumni’s average annual earnings corroborate this generalization. In 2016 it did not exceed $40,000 for any of them. The suburban schools approached that number ($39,300 at Bucks and $39,200 at Montgomery), but the rest fell well below it, some by several thousand dollars ($32,800 at Delaware Technical Community College and $34,900 at the CC of Philadelphia).

When the community colleges in Greater Philadelphia appeared in the 1960s, there was no consensus about whether they were needed.  It was not at all clear where they fit into the region’s educational system. Such uncertainty came from a lack of consensus about their status and mission. By the beginning of the twenty-first century the region’s community colleges had become an integral part of its educational system. They compensated for the limitations and failures of public education by providing trade training and remedial education. They broadened access to higher education by being a low-cost, local alternative for beginning college students. They contributed to economic growth and local pride by building modern facilities and operating multiples campuses. The complexity of this mission defied totally successful implementation, but it justified their repute as an educational staple in the region.   

William W. Cutler III is Emeritus Professor of History at Temple University and the associate editor for education for The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia.

Private (Independent) Schools

[caption id="attachment_15708" align="alignright" width="300"]A color postcard of the corner of a city block, with some buildings and trees in the background. Some steps and a light pole are in the foreground and some people are walking on the sidewalk. Germantown Academy, established in 1759 as a nonsectarian school for local boys, moved to Fort Washington in 1965 as middle class families relocated to the suburbs. (Library Company of Philadelphia)[/caption]

The private or independent schools in the Greater Philadelphia area came about mainly to satisfy a need felt by wealthy, white families to educate their children in a cultural and intellectual environment that would prepare them for the responsibilities befitting their gender, race, and class status. Most have existed for at least a century. Although never a large proportion of the region’s educational marketplace, they achieved respect based upon their associations with wealth and power, their academic excellence, and in many cases their religious affiliations. Nevertheless, they struggled with three important issues: access, location, and cost. Finding the right balance among them was a perpetual problem. Since the 1960s, they have addressed this problem by diversifying in many ways—in student body, curricula, and leadership. Ironically, this made them, as a group, more alike than different. But as a result, they lost an important part of their heritage—namely, the desire to preserve strict economic, social, and cultural distinctions.

Most of the region’s private and independent schools are concentrated in southeastern Pennsylvania and northern Delaware. South Jersey lagged behind because it did not have a critical mass of middle- and high-income residents at the beginning of the twentieth century when circumstances for founding such schools were most propitious. Protestant denominations and Catholic religious orders, both male and female, started many of them. They wanted a “protected education” that would reinforce their teachings. Sequestering students from those of different faiths and from the opposite sex screened out “undesirable” influences and temptations.

[caption id="attachment_30815" align="alignright" width="300"]An aerial photograph of William Penn Charter School. William Penn Charter School, shown in an aerial photograph taken by the Aero Service Corporation c. 1925-26, gained its name from Pennsylvania’s founder. (Library Company of Philadelphia)[/caption]

In 1689, members of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) founded the first school in the region because they associated education with the common good as well as personal salvation. The William Penn Charter School was named for the document establishing it by Pennsylvania proprietor William Penn. In the beginning it taught rich and poor, Quaker and non-Quaker alike. By the twenty-first century, it could claim the honor of being the oldest Friends school in the world, the oldest elementary school in Pennsylvania, and the fifth-oldest elementary school in the United States. After occupying several sites in the old city, it moved in 1925 to the suburbanlike neighborhood of East Falls/Germantown. Its new address and high tuition made it inaccessible to many children. Friends Select School was originally “under the care” of the Philadelphia Monthly Meeting, a sponsorship later shared with the Central Philadelphia Monthly Meeting. The word “select” in its name indicated that only Quaker children were admitted (or selected); financial considerations brought this practice to an end in 1877.

Abington_Friends_School_LogoEstablished in 1697 in what became Jenkintown, Pennsylvania, the Abington Friends School was under the care of the Abington Monthly Meeting. When it opened, it was in a completely rural area. The same could be said for the Westtown School, which was established on a farm in Chester County, Pennsylvania, in 1799. The Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, which planned the school and brought it to fruition, purposely located it a day’s ride by stagecoach from Philadelphia to protect its students from the city’s corrupting influence. Not surprisingly, it was a boarding school though it eventually accepted day students as its surroundings became more populated.

Most Quakers were clear about the different roles of men and women, but they vacillated for years on the subject of coeducation for children. Friends Select operated separate schools for boys and girls before consolidating them in the 1880s. Abington and Westtown Friends admitted both boys and girls in the beginning, but Abington excluded boys for three decades, a practice that ended only in the 1960s. Westtown kept the sexes apart until the late nineteenth century, when it gradually began to allow boys and girls to attend some classes together and play with one another under strict supervision. By contrast, it did not admit non-Quakers until the 1930s. The school incorporated for the first time in 2010, making it an independent Quaker prep school.

George SchoolThe George School, a Quaker school not affiliated with a Friends meeting, opened in 1893 and has been located in Newtown, Bucks County, ever since. It was named for John M. George, its principal donor, who along with other backers intended it to be a coeducational institution for Hicksite Quakers. Since the Westtown School was affiliated with the Orthodox movement, the George School saw itself as an alternative. Over the last fifty years, a large number of financially successful alumni have built one of the largest endowments of any private school in the greater Philadelphia region, facilitating the admission of low-income students. In 2006-2007 Westtown and George enrolled a much higher proportion of such students than all the other Quaker schools in the region (see chart in the image gallery at right). Nevertheless, both are schools for which family income remains a defining characteristic.

Germantown Friends SchoolSuburbanization affected some Quaker schools more than others. Friends Select School remained in downtown Philadelphia, eventually settling in 1937 on the grand boulevard that became known as the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. Founded in 1845 by the Germantown Monthly Meeting, Germantown Friends School never left its original location (Coulter Street near Germantown Avenue) even though this neighborhood, which was once almost entirely white and middle class, diversified demographically and deteriorated physically. The school has always been coeducational, but until the early twentieth century,Friends Central School it admitted only Quakers. Friends Central School, on the other hand, started life in 1845 at Fourth and Cherry Streets before moving to the fringe of the developed city (Fifteenth and Race Streets) just before the Civil War. It left Philadelphia altogether in 1925, relocating to Wynnewood, Montgomery County.

Suburbanization caught up with both the George School and Abington Friends. As Bucks County’s population grew in twentieth century, the George School accepted an increasing number of day students. Situated in eastern Montgomery County, Abington Friends expanded its campus, allowing it to stay in the same place under the same management longer than any other school in the nation. All of these Quaker schools have relied on academic rigor and a high college acceptance rate to attract both urban and suburban applicants since at least the middle of the twentieth century.

[caption id="attachment_16218" align="alignright" width="150"]Chart showing enrollment figures in private schools for two school years. Private schools enrollment comparisons for two school years. (Click to enlarge.)[/caption]

Not to be outdone, Quakers in New Jersey founded two schools, Moorestown Friends in 1785 and Haddonfield Friends one year later. The latter accepted both Quakers and non-Quakers from the beginning.  Like most Friends schools, it required students to attend meeting once per week. Founded by the Wilmington Monthly Meeting in 1748, Wilmington Friends, in Wilmington, Delaware, has been an independent day school for decades. Before public schools existed in Delaware, it served a wide array of students, but in recent decades it has concentrated on those aspiring to attend college. It moved to suburban Alapocas in 1937. 

The percentage of Quakers enrolled at Friends schools has diminished over the years in part because, like most private schools in the region, they have increasingly sought to enroll many different kinds of students. At the same time, these schools have always stressed such core Quaker values as equality, simplicity, justice, integrity, and service to others. None of these values is exclusive to Quakers, of course, but sometimes they conflicted with practices associated with a rigorous college preparatory education. Germantown Friends, for example, eliminated academic awards for its students in 2002. As a rule, the Quaker schools have not required try-outs for their athletic teams; anyone who comes forward can participate.

Roman Catholic Schools

Waldron Mercey AcademyThe Roman Catholic Church sponsored many private schools in the region. Even more than the Quakers, the Catholics were committed to religious schools for their children, and some—especially those for girls—practiced single-sex education. In time, they all admitted non-Catholics and some even opted for coeducation, both of which helped make ends meet. Waldron Mercy Academy, for example, brought together two single-sex private schools in Merion, Pennsylvania —Waldron Academy for Boys and Merion Mercy Academy for Girls—in a merger that took place in 1987. That there was some precedent for this combination may be inferred from the history of their mutual predecessor, Mater Misericordiae Academy (1885). It had a young boys department that joined Waldron Academy for Boys when it opened in 1923.

Malvern Preparatory SchoolThree Catholic private schools began as feeders for Roman Catholic colleges. Such an arrangement was not unusual at a time when most small colleges had to prepare students for admission by sponsoring high schools or academies. The oldest is Malvern Preparatory School in Malvern, Chester County. Operated by the Order of St. Augustine, it began in 1842 on the campus of what was then Villanova College. In 1922, partly in an effort to make an even clearer distinction between the college and the academy, its secondary department moved to Malvern where it served a largely suburban population. Other early feeder schools included St. Joseph’s Preparatory and La Salle College High School. “St. Joe’s Prep” traces its roots to the founding of St. Joseph’s College (chartered in 1851), both under the aLaSalle College High Schooluspices of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits). The school and college were located initially at (Old) StSt Joseph Preparatory School. Joseph’s Church on Willings Alley (between Third and Fourth Streets, and Walnut and Locust Streets). When the college moved to Seventeenth and Stiles Streets, the “Prep” went with it and remained there when the college relocated to City Avenue in 1927. After considering coeducation, the Prep decided to remain all male. La Salle College High School for boys came into being with the establishment of La Salle College in 1858. A century later it moved to a separate suburban campus in the affluent community of Wyndmoor, Montgomery County, while the college remained in the city.

Archmere AcademyLike the Catholic prep schools in Pennsylvania, Archmere Academy in Claymont, Delaware, started as an all-boys school in 1932 but became coeducational in the early 1970s. The Norbertine Brothers founded it as a boarding school but eventually abandoned this policy due to space considerations.

Academy of Notre Dame de NamurCatholic women’s religious orders established several girls’ schools in Philadelphia in the second half of the nineteenth century. Founded by the Sisters of Notre Dame in 1856, what became the Academy of Notre Dame de Namur educated both sexes at first. Moving west with the city, it opened a convent boarding and day school on fashionable Rittenhouse Square (Nineteenth Street below Walnut) in 1866. It remained there for nearly eighty years (1866-1944) before establishing a second campus in Villanova (Sproul Road) to which it moved its entire operation in 1967. By then, it was a day school for girls only, a policy that the move did Mount Saint Joseph Academynot change. The Sisters of St. Joseph established Mount St. Joseph Academy in 1858 on what later became the campus of Chestnut Hill College. It sought to instill a fear of God in girls about to enter polite society and impress upon them such values as modesty and chastity. It also sought to “recruit” young women for the sisterhood, and for many years some followed this path. But its primary objective soon became college preparation.

[caption id="attachment_15706" align="alignright" width="300"]A black and white aerial photograph of a series of school buildings surrounded by fields and sections of trees. Villa Maria Academy occupied several sites before establishing this campus in Frazer, Pennsylvania. The Academy only taught girls here for a few years before moving to another campus and transferring the land to Villa Maria College (now known as Immaculata University). (Library Company of Philadelphia)[/caption]

The Sisters of Mercy established what became Gwynedd Mercy Academy in 1863, and it moved several Gwynedd Mercy Academy High Schooltimes before settling in suburban Gwynedd Valley in 1947, where it shared a site with Gwynedd Mercy College. Nuns belonging to an order known as the Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary opened Villa Maria Academy in 1872. It occupied several sites before moving to the Chester County campus of Immaculata College in 1925. Along the same lines, the Ursuline Sisters established Ursuline Academy for girls in Wilmington, Delaware, in 1893. All these Catholic academies had mandatory religion classes, but they stopped requiring their students to attend Catholic religious services when many were no longer practicing Roman Catholics.

Similar to the Roman Catholic academies, the Academy of the New Church grew up in a religious tradition. Established in Bryn Athyn, Pennsylvania, in 1876, it was formed to train clergy for the New Church founded by Emanuel Swedenborg. Separate schools for boys and girls began in 1881 and 1884, respectively. Their main purpose was to strengthen their students’ ties to the faith, and for many years all of them belonged to the New Church. The school separated boys and girls in classes that were deemed gender restrictive but mixed them in other subjects. Students not only took religion classes but also attended church services on a regular basis. Among private schools in the region, it enrolled by far the largest proportion of low-income students in 2007 (see chart in the image gallery at right).

Episcopal Schools

Episcopal Academy

[caption id="attachment_30898" align="alignright" width="300"]A 1946 image of the Episcopal Academy's Merion campus. The Episcopal Academy was founded in 1785 by Rt. Rev. William White at Old Christ Church. This 1946 picture shows one of the buildings on its Merion campus. (Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries)[/caption]

Men founded the academies associated with the Episcopal Church in greater Philadelphia.  They became more diverse over the years, enrolling girls in most cases as well as some minority and low-income students. William White, the first Episcopal bishop of Pennsylvania and the moving force behind the creation of the Episcopal Church in the United States, founded Episcopal Academy in 1785. Located in the city at first, it followed its mostly affluent constituency to suburban Lower Merion in 1921. In 2008, the school pulled up stakes once again, relocating to a larger campus in Newtown Square, Delaware County. Its students were still required to attend chapel, but religious observance in its daily life paled by comparison to academic rigor and college acceptance.

St. Andrew’s School (also Episcopal) in Middletown, Delaware, is a boarding school for college preparatory students with an emphasis on the liberal arts. Founded in 1929 by A. Felix du Pont, a member of Delaware’s immensely wealthy Du Pont family, it was intended to give a superior education to boys of all socioeconomic backgrounds. The school’s large endowment has allowed it to be generous with financial aid for low-income students.

Akiba Hebrew Academy

Barrack Hebrew AcademyAs the anti-Semitism that once characterized Philadelphia culture subsided in the second half of the twentieth century, Jews gained access to many private schools that had previously been off limits to them. But before such barriers came down, Rabbi Joseph Levitsky, among others, established Akiba Hebrew Academy. Opened at the Young Men’s/Young Women’s Hebrew Association on South Broad Street in 1946, it moved to North Philadelphia (Strawberry Mansion) in 1948, Wynnewood six years later, and Merion Station in 1956. The wealth amassed by Philadelphia lawyer and philanthropist Leonard Barrack made possible another move, this time to Bryn Mawr in 2008, where it became known as the Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy. Like many of the Christian preparatory schools in southeastern Pennsylvania, it was mobile but perhaps because it was not founded until after World War II, it was also coeducational from the beginning. 

Nonsectarian Private Schools

Besides the schools with religious ties, nonsectarian private schools have been in the region for many years. Some always were, while others have become college preparatory. A few moved to suburbs during the twentieth century. Like several of their sectarian counterparts—Abington Friends (1966), St Andrews School (1973), Episcopal Academy (1974), and Penn Charter (1980) — they began shifting from single-sex to coeducation in the 1960s and 1970s. They did so not only because of changing attitudes about gender roles, but also because of their dependence on tuition income. In 1962 the average cost to attend one of them was about $1,000 per year, far more than what most families could pay. Although the decision to go coeducational was often divisive, it was no longer advisable or even feasible for them to deny access to half the school-age population. Over the next forty years many increased their enrollment, even as their tuition grew by as much as 2500 percent.

germantown-academyThe oldest nonsectarian private school to survive into the twenty-first century is Germantown Academy. Established in 1759 as the Germantown Union School, it was initially located in the place for which it was named. It moved to a new suburban campus (Fort Washington) in 1965 and became coeducational. The Hill School in Pottstown, Montgomery County, was founded as a boarding school in 1851. Its founder, the Reverend Matthew Meigs, was a Presbyterian minister, but the school was never affiliated with that denomination or any other. Originally known as “The Family Boarding School,” its board of directors renamed it the Hill School—a reference to its elevated site—when academic excellence and college preparation became its primary mission. Originally for boys only, the school was a latecomer to coeducation, admitting girls for the first time in 1998. The Haverford School, on the other hand, chose to remain for boys only. Founded in 1884 as the Haverford College Grammar School, it acted as a feeder for the college for many years. It was under the care of the college’s board of managers until 1916.


Chestnut Hill, an elite residential neighborhood in northwest Philadelphia, has been home to two selective private schools since the mid-nineteenth century.  Opened in 1861 as a school for boys, Chestnut Hill

[caption id="attachment_16250" align="alignright" width="300"]black and white photo of library with students and a teacher at Chestnut Hill Academy, c 1956 This library scene at Chestnut Hill Academy, circa 1956, conveys the ambiance at private schools of the era. (Chestnut Hill Academy)[/caption]

Academy was loosely tied to the Episcopal Church and even explored merging with Episcopal Academy. Boarders were expected to attend Sunday services at neighboring St. Martin-in-the-Fields Episcopal Church until 1934 when the Depression forced the boarding department to close. Thinking that this fashionable neighborhood needed a girls’ “finishing school,” two southern women, Ann Bell Comegys and Jane Erwin Bell, founded Springside School in 1879. After occupying several sites in Chestnut Hill for nearly eighty years, it moved in 1957 to the front lawn of Druim Moir, the former home of multifaceted entrepreneur and real estate developer Henry Howard Houston. By then, its student body had become more diverse thanks to the gradual modification of its neighborhood orientation. Almost half its students now lived outside Chestnut Hill, but these girls often had trouble fitting in. Because the two schools were adjacent, they increasingly entered into joint ventures, beginning in the 1960s, and finally merged completely in 2011, becoming Springside Chestnut Hill Academy.

Nonsectarian Schools for Girls

Nonsectarian private schools for girls appeared in the Main Line suburbs at the end of the nineteenth century. Educating them meant limiting their exposure to some of the subjects taught to boys, such as science and math. It also meant a curriculum that featured languages, art, music, and the social graces. Florence Baldwin founded the institution that bears her name in 1888 as an unofficial preparatory school for the academically rigorous Bryn Mawr College. One year later the Shipley sisters located their new school across the street from Bryn Mawr College to drive home the point that they, too, intended to prepare young women for college, not just marriage. Both schools accepted boarders as well as day The Agnes Irwin Schoolstudents for many years but eventually closed their boarding departments.  Shipley went one step further, becoming coeducational in 1984. The Agnes Irwin School, which opened its doors in 1869, has never admitted boys. Like so many of its counterparts, it moved out of Philadelphia, settling in Wynnewood in 1933 and then in Rosemont twenty-eight years later. Like Springside eventually did, these three schools downplayed high society, stressing higher education instead.

[caption id="attachment_15792" align="alignright" width="300"]A black and white photograph of a group of high school kids playing football on a field. They are dressed in uniforms and small helmets. There is a small crowd in the background. William Penn Charter School and Germantown Academy began their athletic rivalry with a football game in 1886. By the 1980s, their rivalry took the form an all-day, multisport event referred to as GA-PC Day, which culminates in a football game. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)[/caption]

The adoption of coeducation by many of these private schools in the second half of the twentieth century leveraged their commitment to college preparation. It reinforced the idea that academic achievement was their prime consideration. But even those schools that remained single-sex had to have a demanding curriculum. They supplemented languages, science, and mathematics with opportunities for self-expression (e.g. the performing arts) in a robust extra curriculum. Some added community service (aka service learning) because many colleges looked for evidence of this in applicants. Informed by federal legislation (Title IX), others introduced a girls’ sports program, or expanded it, building on their long history of boys’ interscholastic competition. The athletic rivalry between Germantown Academy and Penn Charter dates to 1886. All of these improvements have required constant fund-raising.

Along with coeducation, minority recruitment, and the elimination of religious restrictions in admissions, the focus on college preparation helped to make selective private schools more alike than different. Even those for girls operated by Catholic religious orders were not able to resist this trend. All of these schools survived, despite their high cost, because they had some important advantages.  Their facilities were outstanding and their reputations excellent. Like all private schools, they were less subject to government regulation, freeing them, for example, from state teacher certification requirements and the standardized tests imposed by federal law. They set their own academic standards. Such private schools have been criticized because they do not participate in the grand democratic experiment that public education represents. But they offer to those who can afford them an attractive alternative to the public schools—especially those in Philadelphia, Chester, and Camden—that many regarded as failing.

David R. Contosta is the author of many books and articles on Philadelphia history, such as Philadelphia’s Progressive Orphanage: The Carson Valley School (1997). William W. Cutler III has authored many publications on the history of education in Greater Philadelphia. His most recent is “Outside In and Inside Out: Civic Activism, Helen Oakes and the Philadelphia Public Schools, 1960-1989,” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography CXXXVII (July 2013), 301-324.

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.

School Naming

Family names and place names were almost the only names one needed to know when America was composed of small, homogeneous communities. Often interchangeable, such markers signified social and cultural status. But they ceased to be sufficient when America became more diverse and the family less communal. An institution like the school needed a name of its own, and over time the people of eastern Pennsylvania, southern New Jersey, and northern Delaware named schools in many different ways.

In Philadelphia some schools acquired both functional and family names. Those operated by the Overseers of the Public School are a case in point. Chartered by William Penn in 1701 and again in 1711, the Overseers ran a system of schools for more than one hundred fifty years, naming each for the clientele they served: boys and girls, blacks, paupers, and birth-right Quakers.  In 1874 this system devolved into a single college preparatory school for boys--the William Penn Charter School (Schoolhouse Lane near Wissahickon Avenue).  Other schools took the name of a religious denomination. For example, the leaders of Christ Church, Philadelphia (Second Street above Market) called the school they founded in 1785 Episcopal Academy. The development and growth of public education changed the way schools were named. The process could be systematic because the number of schools was so great or patriotic because citizenship was an important educational aim. But these criteria did not come into play quickly or evenly.

In the nineteenth century some schools in the Philadelphia region were still identified by location. One-room schoolhouses carried just a place name because they were often the only public ones in their area. Private academies sometimes did the same because they relied on local patrons. But when cities like Camden, Chester, Wilmington, and Philadelphia began to have many public schools at different educational levels, something more was needed.  In Philadelphia soaring enrollments necessitated naming public elementary schools by number as well as level. For example, schools for children in grades one through three were numbered consecutively and called “primaries.” High schools that had once been an afterthought, with no separate identity, occupied their own buildings and acquired instrumental names. Philadelphia's first two high schools were named that way—Central High School because its original home was near Centre Square and Girls High and Normal School because it educated young women, training many to be teachers. The same criteria were used to name the three neighborhood high schools—West Philadelphia High School, Germantown High School, and Frankford High School—that opened between 1911 and 1915 and the magnet schools the district organized in the second half of the twentieth century (such as Engineering and Science in North Philadelphia).

Civic Leaders and Patriots

Public schools in Philadelphia often were named for civic leaders or famous patriots. Benjamin Rush and Patrick Henry were memorialized at public schools in Byberry and Bustleton respectively. By 1900, the list of men so honored included many civic and military leaders—Mayor Morton McMichael (a combined primary and grammar for girls at Thirty-Fifth and Fairmount), General Ulysses S. Grant (a grammar school for girls and boys at Seventeenth and Pine) and General George G. Meade (a grammar school for girls and boys at Eighteenth and Oxford).  It was not uncommon for schools in Philadelphia to be named for industrialists and school board presidents such as Matthias W. Baldwin (a combined grammar and primary for boys and girls at Fifteenth and Porter) and Edward T. Steele (a primary for boys and girls at Sixteenth and Cayuga).  Leaders in the city's largest black neighborhood named a primary school on Lombard Street above Twentieth for their martyred colleague, Octavius V. Catto.  (Camden also named a school for Catto, the Octavius V. Catto Community Family School at 3100 Westfield Avenue, but did so much later.)

Martin G. Brumbaugh, Philadelphia's third superintendent, endorsed the practice of naming schools for famous Americans in 1909. Complimenting the board of education for naming schools Emma Willard, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Zachary Taylor, William Penn, and Grover Cleveland, he proposed to name a series of new schools for "all those heroic men who in 1776 affixed their signatures in this city to the Declaration of Independence."  Although this proposal was never implemented, such patriotic sentiment found its way into general practice. By the middle of the twentieth century public high schools in the city were named for Benjamin Franklin (Lower North Philadelphia), George Washington (Bustleton), and Abraham Lincoln (Oxford Circle). After the district's population of African Americans and Latinos increased greatly, public schools were named for Roberto Clemente (a middle school in Juniata Park) and Martin Luther King Jr. (a high school in East Germantown).

Suburban Tributes

Suburban public schools have also been named for community leaders. For example, an elementary school in Haddonfield, New Jersey, bears the name of the town's namesake, Elizabeth Haddon (1680-1762).  Often suburban high schools were named for their location (for example, Upper Darby High School, Abington High School, and Cherry Hill High School, East and West), although this became less common as charter schools attracted students from different neighborhoods and school districts.

Roman Catholic high schools often bore the names of saints (Pope John Paul II), church heroes (Archbishop John Carroll) or local church leaders (Archbishop Patrick John Ryan). Founded in 1890, Roman Catholic High School at Broad Street and Vine was so named because, as the first of its kind, it symbolized the educational aspirations of the church in the region. Elementary schools were usually named for the parish that sponsored them, but beginning in the mid-1990s some of these names were modified or even lost because declining enrollments forced many parishes to close their school or combine it with one or more others nearby. Since 1996 such “regional” elementary schools have become more and more common.

School naming has provoked controversy from time to time.  When the School District of Philadelphia moved Northeast High School to a new building on Cottman Avenue near Roosevelt Boulevard in 1957, it angered many North Philadelphians by allowing the school to take its old name to its new location. Those still living near where the school had been (Eighth Street and Lehigh Avenue) accused the district of stealing an important part of their heritage.  The school board in West Chester, Pennsylvania faced opposition in 2002 when it decided to name a new high school—the town's third—after Bayard Rustin, who graduated from West Chester High School in 1932.  It was not Rustin's close association with the civil rights movement that alarmed some district residents but his sexual orientation and his willingness to do time in federal prison rather than serve in the military during World War II.  Both incidents demonstrate that naming a school has been sometimes a political act with divisive consequences.

William W. Cutler III is Professor Emeritus of History at Temple University whose research and teaching focus on the relationships between education and American Culture.  His books include Parents and Schools: The 150-Year Struggle for Control in American Education (University of Chicago Press, 2000).

Public Education: The School District of Philadelphia

In 1837 the Philadelphia Board of Education—then known as the Board of Controllers—embraced “universal education” and opened the city’s publicly supported and publicly controlled schools to all school-age children, free of tuition.  The board proudly proclaimed: “the stigma of poverty, once the only title of admission to our public schools, has . . . been erased from our statute book, and the schools of this city and county are now open to every child.” By the beginning of the twenty-first century, however, many Philadelphia parents had opted for suburban schools, charter schools, or home-schooling, and the School District of Philadelphia had become in many ways what it had originally been—a system for poor and disadvantaged children.

Publicly funded and publicly controlled education in Philadelphia originated in 1818, when alarming changes in the commonwealth's largest city prompted the Pennsylvania General Assembly to establish the “First School District of Pennsylvania.” Poverty and crime were spiraling out of control as the city's size increased and its economy expanded. No longer intimate and communal, Philadelphia was becoming what historian Sam Bass Warner once called a “private city.” Turning to the free market in 1802, the legislature provided for the city's poor children to be taught in private schools at public expense. When this approach to the dual problems of diversity and disorder proved to be inadequate, it authorized the creation of a pauper school system and the election of a Board Controllers to organize and oversee it.

The board's first president, Quaker reformer Roberts Vaux (1786-1836), soon decided that something more was needed, and in 1827 he formed the Pennsylvania Society for the Promotion of Public Schools, by which he meant schools that would be tuition free and open to all children. His vision became a reality through the common school laws of 1834 and 1835 and the Consolidation Act of 1836, which opened Philadelphia's public schools to all school-age children. With this step, the city joined the common school movement—most often associated with Horace Mann (1796-1859)—that was spreading beyond New England to institutionalize and standardize the way most children were educated. In Philadelphia, these public schools grew quickly, so quickly that they enrolled 17,000 within two years. To manage such numbers, the controllers divided students into three ability groups. In October 1838 they also opened Central High School for boys, locating it on Juniper Street below Market, then the western edge of the developed city. 

[caption id="attachment_4382" align="alignright" width="300"]Photograph of the Philadelphia Normal School Philadelphia Normal School, Thirteenth and Spring Garden, educated hundreds of teachers for the Philadelphia public schools. (Annual Reports, School District of Philadelphia)[/caption]


Basic Education Only

In the nineteenth century most Pennsylvanians did not want anything more than a basic education. Moreover, Philadelphia's economy sustained many workers who had little, if any schooling. Central High School prospered because the middle class perceived its diploma to be a hedge against downward mobility for their sons and perhaps a stepping stone to business or the professions. The Philadelphia Girls Normal School (later renamed the Philadelphia High School for Girls), which opened in February 1848 in a building on Chester Street previously occupied by the district's Model School, offered the daughters of the middle class an opportunity to acquire an advanced education.

Many alumnae of Girls Normal became teachers. Women were preferred for this occupation because they were supposedly better with children, especially the very young, and, more importantly, because they were willing to work for much less money than men. But most taught for just a few years because they had to resign if they wed. They also were at the mercy of the prevailing political winds. Some even had to pay to obtain or keep their positions. Interchangeable or not, they still had to be replaced when they departed because the demand for their services was great and growing. By 1867 two-thirds of all Philadelphians between six and twelve years of age attended a school operated by the district, whose enrollment in December1870 stood at nearly 89,000. The district expected its teachers to have more than a basic education, but most started while still in their teens, having been schooled for no more than five or six years.

Although Philadelphia public schools were open and free to all for most of the nineteenth century, they were not integrated. Prompted by a wave of black crime and a decline in total enrollment, the controllers opened a primary school for African Americans on Mary Street in 1822. When they opened another on Gaskill Street four years later, it was designated for girls and the other for boys; the practice of sex segregation was widespread then and remained common in the district until the twentieth century. In 1828 both moved into a school at Seventh and Lombard Streets—a location then becoming the heart of Philadelphia's black community—after the district erected a new building for its white students. Such subtle discrimination became more overt over time, peaking in 1854 when the state legalized the separation of the races in all public schools if twenty or more African American pupils could be educated together. By the time this law was repealed in 1881, segregation had become entrenched in Philadelphia.

Power Largely Decentralized

Power over urban public education was largely decentralized in the mid-nineteenth century. The controllers may have been responsible for collecting and distributing revenue in Philadelphia, but an elected board of directors managed the public schools in each ward in the city. Composed of local business and civic leaders as well as politicians, these boards hired teachers, chose principals, and perhaps most important of all, erected buildings. At first, each ward board chose its own representatives to what became known in 1850 as the Board of Education, but in an attempt to improve the selection process the state legislature gave the right to make such decisions to the judges of the Court of Common Pleas in 1867. For the next forty years civic leaders and professional educators made numerous attempts to weaken the ward boards, even proposing to abolish them altogether. Justified as modern and scientific, these reforms attracted powerful backers, but they struggled to win acceptance. It took revelations of corruption to convince the Pennsylvania legislature that reform was needed. In 1905 it passed a “Reorganization Act” that entrusted a more efficient but less democratic board of education with the power to run the system. Transformed into advisory bodies, the ward boards eventually disappeared.

More than twenty years before the Reorganization Act, centralized control of public education received a boost when the school district hired its first superintendent.  Because of opposition by the ward boards, Philadelphia lagged behind other cities in this regard even though its enrollment was rapidly growing, swelling by almost 18 percent in the 1870s. James A. MacAlister (1840-1913) assumed the post in 1883, having been persuaded to leave the same position in Milwaukee. MacAlister came prepared to reform the Philadelphia public schools, as did his successors Edward Brooks (1831-1912) and Martin G. Brumbaugh (1862-1930). MacAlister and Brumbaugh believed the curriculum should include industrial education—a subject that many traditionalists like Brooks believed did not belong in the public school curriculum. While MacAlister was superintendent, the district opened two manual training high schools, Central Manual Training (on the corner of Seventeenth and Wood Streets) and Northeast Manual Training (on Howard Street below Girard Avenue), and the James Forten Elementary Manual Training School for African Americans (on Sixth Street above Lombard).  

[caption id="attachment_4385" align="alignright" width="300"]photograph of a literacy class Early in the twentieth century, the School District of Philadelphia expanded its curriculum to offer adult literacy classes. (Annual Reports, School District of Philadelphia)[/caption]

During the administrations of these three superintendents the district expanded and diversified its curriculum. High schools started teaching modern foreign languages, basic science, and American history. Astronomy was even included in the Central High School course of study, and the school built an observatory when it moved to the northwest corner of Broad and Green Streets in 1900. The district’s evening division offered citizenship and literacy classes for immigrants and African Americans. Physical education also made its appearance in the curriculum. The district assumed responsibility for boys' sports in 1912, more than thirty years after some students had formed their own interscholastic athletic teams. The introduction of physical education for girls in 1893 led to the formation of girls' teams that competed on an intramural and, briefly in the 1920s, an interscholastic basis.

Distinguished Superintendents

The district’s first three superintendents were distinguished educators and strong leaders. When he left the district in 1891, MacAlister became the first president of the Drexel Institute of Science, Technology, and Industry (later Drexel University). While Brooks was superintendent, he served on the influential Committee of Fifteen appointed by the National Education Association to reform the elementary school curriculum.  Brumbaugh, who helped devise and implement the Reorganization Act, turned his eight years in Philadelphia (1906-1914) into a successful run for the governorship of Pennsylvania. Taken as a whole, the work these superintendents did convinced Philadelphians that their school district needed an eminent man at the helm and centralized, professional leadership.

[caption id="attachment_4389" align="alignright" width="300"]photo of a crowd gathered for the laying of the cornerstone of the school district's administration building A crowd gathered in 1931 for the laying of the cornerstone of the school district's administration building at Twenty-First and the Parkway, 1931. (PhillyHistory.org)[/caption]

Although public money had paid for public education in Philadelphia since the days of Roberts Vaux, the school board seldom spent freely because it was never fiscally independent.  In 1904 it spent less than its counterparts in thirty-three other American cities. A reform law passed in 1911 gave the board the power to borrow money but not levy taxes, a limitation that was reinforced by the state Supreme Court in 1937. Given these constraints, the School District of Philadelphia usually pinched pennies. Controlled by its business manager, Add B. Anderson (1898-1962), the district balanced its budget for more than thirty years by concentrating on basic instruction and compelling its teachers to accept very low salaries. This strategy may explain why unionization did not take a firm hold among the city's teachers until Anderson was dead and Richardson Dilworth (1898-1974), once the mayor, took over as school board president. The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT), which came into existence after the American Federation of Teachers expelled the Philadelphia Teachers Union for radical activity in 1941, struggled to have an impact for more than two decades. When the economic and political climate finally changed in the 1960s, the PFT mounted a successful membership drive and became the exclusive bargaining agent for all the district's teachers. Empowered in this way, it took full advantage of Act 195, adopted by the state legislature in 1970, that allowed public employees to strike in Pennsylvania.

Six Strikes in 11 Years

Between 1970 and 1981 the PFT went on strike six times—job actions that greatly improved its members' salaries, benefits, and working conditions but also dramatically increased their employer's expenses. The school district’s budget more than doubled, from $312 to $711 million, during those years. At the same time, the city's slow transition from an industrial to a service economy weakened the tax base. A rare combination of slow growth and hyper-inflation further compromised the district's financial situation. The Board of Education was forced to raise class size and furlough teachers, angering parents as well as PFT leaders. It even resorted to carrying deficits over from one budget year to the next, prompting questions about its fiscal leadership.

Local tax dollars have never been enough to pay for public education in Pennsylvania. Outside money, whether from the common school fund established by the state in 1831 or some other source, has always been needed by local districts. In the mid-1920s the state provided about 14 percent of all the funds spent on public education in Pennsylvania. This figure nearly quadrupled by the mid-1970s before falling back to barely one-third of the total at the end of the twentieth century. Because some school districts have fewer resources than others, the state began making differential appropriations as early as 1921, when a minimum salary law classified school districts by size of enrollment. The smaller the district, the larger the proportion of salary costs that would be offset by the state. This formula disadvantaged the School District of Philadelphia, which had the most students, but even so, its budget gradually became dependent on both state and federal money, especially after the courts and Congress mandated that some students receive more help than others.

Reformers in the 1960s attempted to equalize educational opportunity. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (1965) committed the federal government to providing funding for schools with many low-income children, and the Bilingual Education Act (1968) forced public schools to reconsider how they educated students whose first language was not English. Soon thereafter, the federal courts began to issue rulings in favor of equal access to public education for children with disabilities. The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, the defendant in a suit filed by the Pennsylvania Association of Retarded Children, faced the charge that its public schools did not treat children with mental disabilities fairly. Settled by mutual consent in 1972, the suit justified equalization subsidies that helped Philadelphia and many suburban school districts cope with the extra costs associated with educating culturally disadvantaged, mentally disabled, and low-income students.  These subsidies drove the state's share of the Philadelphia school budget from 32 to 58 percent between 1967 and 1973 and kept its share of that budget at more than 50 percent until 1992, when a slow decline began that was reversed, if only temporarily, in 2008.

The Racial Divide

In the mid-twentieth century equal access was just as big a problem for African American children as for those with disabilities. Before and after World War II, record numbers of southern blacks migrated to Philadelphia. Confronted by pervasive discrimination, they settled in neighborhoods that soon became almost completely segregated.  Not surprisingly, the public schools in those neighborhoods also became segregated. Responding slowly to the Supreme Court's landmark decision, Brown v. Board of Education (1954), the School District of Philadelphia did not adopt a non-discrimination policy until five years later. In 1963 a committee appointed by the Board of Education recommended that school boundary lines be redrawn and a school building program be developed to promote integration. But lacking the political will to implement such controversial plans, the board soon faced a discrimination suit filed by the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission. It remained unresolved for many years. In 1983 Constance Clayton, the first African American to be named the district's superintendent, tried to convince the commission to withdraw its suit by preparing and implementing a “modified desegregation plan” that depended heavily upon voluntary compliance. It met with widespread approval, but many white Philadelphians shunned the city's public schools anyway, especially in blue collar neighborhoods, and by 2010 white children comprised only 20 percent of the district's student population. These demographic realities convinced the commission in 2004 to substitute the fair distribution of resources within the system for desegregation as the principal condition for a settlement.

When Clayton became the superintendent in 1982 the reputation of the school district had sunk to a very low level. Philadelphia was not alone in this regard; by then public schools in many cities were perceived to be failing. Some reformers proposed a return to public control at the neighborhood level, arguing that parents, not bureaucrats, knew what was best for their children’s education. New York City implemented a limited decentralization plan in 1968, but Philadelphia took a different path in part because of Richardson Dilworth. He favored making the school board smaller and more accountable to the mayor, changes that were adopted by referendum in 1965.

Dilworth's leadership of the board proved to be no more transformative than that of his predecessors. Mark Shedd (1926-1986), hired by Dilworth to run a school district then enrolling nearly 280,000 children, embraced innovations like the Parkway Program, an experimental high school that gave a few students unprecedented freedom of choice in selecting courses and teachers.  He also created a resource center for African American studies and ordered that black history be taught in every high school in the city, but this order fell on deaf ears and remained unfulfilled for nearly forty years. Shedd ran afoul of the city's ambitious Police Commissioner, Frank L. Rizzo (1920-1991), who considered the superintendent to be a soft-hearted liberal. When Rizzo was elected mayor in 1971, Shedd decided to leave, joining the faculty of his alma mater, the Harvard Graduate School of Education.  His successors, Matthew Constanzo and Michael Marcase, were no match for the district's political and financial problems. After three years on the job Costanzo became the superintendent in Haddonfield, New Jersey; Marcase lasted longer but fell farther, leaving after seven years to teach educational administration at Temple University.    

Calm Under Clayton

Clayton brought more than a decade of relative calm to the Philadelphia school district, stabilizing its budget and restoring its image. She mandated a standardized curriculum based upon the idea that all students could learn all subjects and all disciplines.  She took a special interest in struggling students. Programs in such fields as business, health, and electrical science were embedded in some of the city's comprehensive high schools. With the assistance of the Pew Charitable Trusts, "small learning communities" also were created in these high schools.

But Clayton did not solve the problem of equal access or contain the costs of the district’s operation. The superintendents who followed her—David Hornbeck, Paul Vallas, and Arlene Ackerman—stressed improving student achievement, but each burned out within a few years. Hornbeck won few converts when he angrily accused the state legislature of malpractice for under-funding education for low-income African Americans. Vallas may have had no choice when he downsized the district, selling its elegant administration building on Twenty-First Street and expelling violent students, but he alienated many allies, especially African American teachers and principals. Ackerman's attempts to win them back were so heavy-handed that she lost credibility with the power brokers she needed to remain superintendent.

By the time Vallas arrived in 2001, the Board of Education had ceased to exist, replaced by what came to be known as the School Reform Commission (SRC).  Made possible by the Education Empowerment Act (2000), the SRC brought an end to local control of public education. Too many appeals for more money had finally convinced the governor and the legislature to assert state control. The district would be run by a committee of five, three chosen by the governor and two by the mayor. The idea that the city’s public schools should educate every child also faded. In competition with private schools, charter schools, and suburban school districts, enrollment in the School District of Philadelphia dropped by more than 45,000 students in just four years, from about 207,000 in 2006 to about 160,000 in 2010. At the same time, its proportion of low-income students reached more than 70 percent.

The SRC governed the School District of Philadelphia for seventeen years (2001-18). During that time it never enjoyed the full support of the city’s politicians or the district’s parents and teachers. Two of the three superintendents it hired–Paul Vallas (b. 1953) and Arlene Ackerman (1947-2013)–left abruptly and under a cloud. The SRC often offended politicians by running deficits, parents by closing schools, and teachers by laying off employees and canceling its contract with their union. After being elected mayor in 2017, James F. Kenney (b. 1958) called for the return of local control, and in 2017 the SRC voted itself out of existence, effective June 30, 2018. Under a new board of education appointed by the mayor, the School District operated once again under familiar rules.

With unreliable sources of income and students among the neediest, by the second decade of the twenty-first century the School District of Philadelphia resembled the educational system that Roberts Vaux rejected when he first called for reform in the 1820s.  That system relied on parental initiative, similar to what the proponents of vouchers advocate to solve the problems of public education in the twenty-first century.  Perhaps Vaux would not understand everything about modern education, but he would certainly grasp the meaning of these numbers and this proposal for the school district he created. They belie his vision for a publicly supported, publicly controlled system of schools open to all and free of tuition.

School District of Philadelphia Superintendents, 1883-2013
James MacAlister, 1883-91
Edward Brooks, 1891-1905
Martin G. Brumbaugh, 1906-14
John P. Garber, 1915-21
Edwin C, Broome 1921-38
Louis Nusbaum (acting), 1939
Alexander J. Stoddard, 1939-48
Louis P. Hoyer, 1948-55
Allen H. Wetter, 1955-64
C. Taylor Whittier, 1964-67
Mark R. Shedd, 1967-72
Matthew W. Constanzo, 1972-75
Michael P. Marcase, 1975-82
Constance Clayton, 1982-93
David Hornbeck, 1994-2000
Diedre Farmbry, 2000-2 (chief academic officer)
Paul R. Goldsmith (interim chief executive officer), 2001
Paul G. Vallas, 2002-7
Arlene C. Ackerman, 2008-11
Leroy D. Nunnery (interim chief executive officer), 2011-12
William R. Hite, Jr., 2012-

William W. Cutler III is Professor Emeritus of History at Temple University whose research and teaching focus on the relationships between education and American Culture.  His books include Parents and Schools: The 150-Year Struggle for Control in American Education (University of Chicago Press, 2000).

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