Private (Independent) Schools


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)

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.

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)

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.

Chart showing enrollment figures in private schools for two school years.
Private schools enrollment comparisons for two school years. (Click to enlarge.)

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.

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)

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

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)

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

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)

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.

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)

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.

Copyright 2015, Rutgers University


Villa Maria Academy

Library Company of Philadelphia

Nuns belonging to an order known as the Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary opened Villa Maria Academy in 1872 for girls to receive an education that included strong Catholic values. The academy originally operated in West Chester, Pennsylvania, but by 1914 had moved to a larger campus (pictured here) in Frazer, Pennsylvania. As with other private schools in the Philadelphia area that focused on secondary education, the academy's campus shared resources with a higher education institution, Villa Maria College (today known as Immaculata University), starting in 1920. Villa Maria Academy relocated to Malvern, Pennsylvania, in 1925 as Immaculata University took over the rest of the Frazer Campus.

In the 1970s, higher attendance and growing interest in Villa Maria Academy secondary education programs forced the academy to split into the Villa Maria Academy Lower School and the Villa Maria Academy High School. The split improved the space, student-to-teacher ratio, and the amount of resources each child received, which created a stronger learning environment for students. Although the main educational tracks at both Villa Maria Schools are only for girls, the Lower Academy began to operate a coeducational prekindergarten program in 2012.

Aerial View of William Penn Charter School

Library Company of Philadelphia

This aerial view of William Penn Charter School, taken c. 1925-26 by the Aero Service Corporation, shows the school’s main building, as well as athletic fields and surrounding residences. The co-educational Quaker school was established in 1689 by Pennsylvania founder William Penn. Penn wanted his school to prepare the young students to be teachers, merchants, builders, and farmers, but also political and professional leaders. Penn wanted poor children to be able to attend the school for free, and as early as 1697 the Overseers established a fund to make this possible. The school was among the first to offer education to different religions, financial aid, education for girls, and education for people of all races.

The school moved to the location shown in the photograph, on School House Lane in the East Falls area, in 1920. Originally a downtown urban school, Penn Charter made the move to accommodate the differing academic and athletic needs of a growing student body from a region stretching from west and north of Philadelphia into New Jersey.

The Merion Campus

Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries

Named for its religious affiliation, the Episcopal Academy originated as an all-boys school founded in 1785 by Rt. Rev. William White of Christ Church in Philadelphia. It expanded and moved out of the original Old Christ Church campus to Juniper and Locust Street in 1846, to Merion in 1921, and has been located at Newtown Square since 2008. With Episcopal priests serving as four of its first five principals, the school originally offered a curriculum of classical languages, religion, and mathematics. The curriculum evolved over time, but Episcopal Academy continued to uphold its heritage by offering spiritual programs including chapel services which the students attend every few days. The school became coeducational in 1974.

Mount Saint Joseph's Academy

Library Company of Philadelphia

In 1858, the Sisters of St. Joseph established Mount Saint Joseph Academy in Chestnut Hill to educate and instill strict religious values in the female students who lived on the school's grounds. The academy would instill a fear of God into the girls that were about to enter polite society and impress upon them such values as modesty and chastity. The academy operated solely as a boarding school until 1911, when it began accepting both day students and boarders. Although the academy continued to teach strict values and sought to "recruit" its students into the sisterhood, the primary objective of the academy shifted to college preparation. In 1924, the Sisters of St Joseph opened a private college for women called Mount Saint Joseph College (later changed to Chestnut Hill College) on the same land as the academy. When the academy moved to a new campus in Flourtown, Pennsylvania, in 1961, Chestnut Hill College expanded into the academy's old buildings. The academy's campus, as seen in this 1915 photograph, was added to the National Registry of Historic Places in 1985.

Germantown Academy

Library Company of Philadelphia

In December 1759, a group of Germantown citizens who wanted to provide better education for their male children met to establish the Germantown Union School, known today as Germantown Academy. The first academy buildings were constructed in 1761 on modern-day West School House Lane and Greene Street, on land donated by physician Dr. Charles Bensell. This postcard from the 1910s shows the first schoolhouse (with belfry, right) and Alumni Hall (left), which served as the school's gymnasium. The academy in the early 1760s had separate curricula for English-speaking and German-speaking students, each with its own dean and different teaching methodologies. Until the twentieth century, the academy's expanding campus in Germantown was sufficient to provide a good education and extracurricular programs. When the middle-class families that lived in Germantown began to move into the suburbs in the 1950s, Germantown Academy saw a decline in enrollment and dissatisfaction among parents with the academy's aged facilities. The academy constructed a new campus in Fort Washington in 1965 and expanded to include coeducational curricula.

Chestnut Hill Academy

Library Company of Philadelphia

After a group of trustees founded Chestnut Hill Academy in 1861 as a private school for boys, the school initially occupied a one-story building on modern-day Rex Avenue that held fewer than fifty students. After briefly moving to Germantown Avenue in the 1890s, Chestnut Hill Academy began to operate out of the Wissahickon Inn in 1898. The Wissahickon Inn was a 250-bedroom hotel constructed in 1884 that was slowly losing business, and the academy used the empty rooms as boarding space for students and classrooms. The academy acquired the Wissahickon Inn in 1900 and began constructing new recreational and educational facilities around the inn as the number of students increased. This postcard from 1905 shows the Chestnut Hill Academy before changes were made to the exterior of the Wissahickon Inn.

As Chestnut Hill Academy expanded in the 1960s, the school began to develop joint agreements with the nearby Springside Academy to share educational and recreational resources. Initially, teachers moved between the all-girls and all-boys schools, but in the 1970s some high school classes became coeducational and students traveled between the schools. In September 2011, the schools announced that they were officially combining their resources and renamed the new school Springside Chestnut Hill Academy. Although the new school created coeducational high school classes and programs, elementary and middle school grade levels remained separated by gender. The structure that once was the old Wissihickon Inn still functions as the main entrance and middle school classroom building for the Willow Grove Avenue Campus of the new school.

Chestnut Hill Academy Library, 1956

Springside Chestnut Hill Academy

In the 1950s the library at Chestnut Hill Academy was a place for students and masters to gather and study. Dressed in coats and ties, the boys and their teacher in this image conformed to a dress code common in private schools at that time. The scene captures the school’s intent--that its students would follow their fathers into business or the professions.

Ironically, the three murals over the bookcase in this room were the work of a woman, the path-breaking artist and illustrator Violet Oakley (1874-1961), who was the first American woman commissioned to do a public mural. They depict Biblical themes, each with an appropriate spiritual message: David and Goliath (heroism), Christ among the Doctors (sacrifice), and The Young Solomon (service).

William Penn Charter School Football Game

Historical Society of Pennsylvania

As part of a well-rounded education, many private schools in the Philadelphia area give students a chance to express themselves outside the daily curriculum by participating in arts programs or sports leagues. The William Penn Charter School developed one of the earliest private school football teams, in the 1880s, and began a school rivalry with the Germantown Academy that has endured since 1886. In 1887, Penn Charter and Germantown Academy were founding members of the Interacademic Athletic Association (now known as the Inter-Academic League), which connected other Philadelphia-based private schools into an athletic conference. Penn Charter expanded its sports programs in conjunction with other private schools in the area to include baseball, basketball, track and field, hockey, soccer, tennis, field hockey, golf, and water polo. Since the 1980s, Penn Charter and Germantown Academy's sports rivalry has taken the form of an all-day, multisport event referred to as GA-PC Day, which culminates in a football game.

Private Schools Enrollment

This chart provides enrollment comparisons for school years 2006-2007 and 2013-2014 for a sampling of private schools, divided into sectarian and non-sectarian categories, as well as by boys, girls, and coeducational figures.

Sources: Pennsylvania Department of Education Private and Non-Public Schools Enrollment Reports, 2006-2007 and 2013-2014.)

Philadelphia Evening Bulletin, December 2, 1962. Bulletin Clippings Collection, Department of Special Collections, Paley Library, Temple University.

Related Topics


Time Periods



Related Reading

Academy of the New Church. Toward a New Church University, Bryn Athyn, Pa.: The Academy of the New Church, 1976.

Brown, Carol H. A Friends Select School History. Philadelphia: Friends Select School, 1989.

Chancellor, Paul. History of the Hill School, 1851-1976. Pottstown, Pa.: The Hill School, 1976.

Contosta, David R. St. Joseph’s: Philadelphia’s Jesuit University, 1851-2001. Philadelphia: St. Joseph’s University Press, 2001.

DeBare, Llana. Where Girls Come First: The Rise, Fall and Surprising Revival of Girls’ Schools. New York; Penguin, 2004.

Gormley, James J. A History of St. Joseph’s Preparatory School: 125 Years, 1851-1876. Philadelphia: St. Joseph’s Preparatory School, 1976.

Groome, Clark. New Beginnings: Chestnut Hill Academy, 1851-2011. Philadelphia: Chestnut Hill Academy, 2011. (This history exists only in an electronic format and can be obtained through Springside Chestnut Hill Academy.)

Latham, Charles. The Episcopal Academy: 1785-1984. Devon, Pa.: W. T. Cooke, 1984.

Mount Saint Joseph Academy Alumnae Association. Mount Saint Joseph’s Academy. Charleston, S.C.: Arcadia Publishing, 2009.

Neel, Joanne Loewe. Miss Irwin’s of Philadelphia: A History of the Agnes Irwin School. Bryn Mawr, Pa.; Agnes Irwin School. 1969.

Schatz, Judy. On This Same Ground: Voices from Three Hundred Years of Abington Friends School. Jenkintown, Pa.: Abington Friends School, 1997.

Starr, Emily Churchman (compiler), Springside School, 1879-1979: One Hundred Years of Tradition and Change. Philadelphia: Springside School, 1979.

Swayne, Kingdon. George School: The History of a Quaker Community. Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, 1992.

Additional Sources

Burstall, Sara A. The Education of Girls in the United States. New York: Arno Press, 1971.

Bonnie, Stephen A. “The Choice or Rejection of Coeducation in Philadelphia’s Earliest Schools: 1680-1700, 1880-1900, 1960-1980,” unpublished Ed.D. dissertation, Temple University, 1998.

Coleman, James S. and Tomas Hoffer. Private and Public Schools: The Impact of Communities. New York: Basic Books, 1987.

Contosta, David R. The Private Life of James Bond. Lititz, Pa.: Sutter House, 1993.

Contosta, David R. Suburb in the City: Chestnut Hill, Philadelphia. Columbus, Ohio: Ohio State University Press, 1992.

Contosta, David R. Villanova University, 1842-1992: American, Catholic, Augustinian. University Park, Pa.: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1995.

Donaghy, Thomas J. Conceived in Crisis: A History of LaSalle College. Philadelphia: LaSalle College, 1966.

Donaghy, Thomas J. Philadelphia’s Finest: A History of Education in the Catholic Archdiocese, 1692-1970. Philadelphia: American Catholic Historical Society, 1972.

Sander, William. Catholic Schools: Private and Social Effects. Boston: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2001.

Gowen, M. H. “The Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur: Philadelphia, 1856-1956,” Records of the American Catholic Historical Society 68 (March-June 1957), 32

Woody, Thomas. Early Quaker Education in Pennsylvania. New York: Arno Press, 1969.

Related Collections

Local historical societies have many materials pertaining to these schools. Among them are the Lower Merion Historical Society, the Germantown Historical Society, and Bucks County Historical Society. The Friends Historical Library at Swarthmore College has some Quaker school records (e.g. Friends Central School). The schools themselves often have archives, but access to them usually requires an appointment.

Related Places

The campuses of these schools are often impressive. Some of the oldest (e.g. Springside Chestnut Hill Academy) have historic buildings. The Academy of the New Church is across the street from the Bryn Athyn Cathedral, one of the most impressive structures in the Philadelphia suburbs. Others (e.g. Germantown Academy) are notable for their size and facilities.



Connecting the Past with the Present, Building Community, Creating a Legacy