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). (Author information current at time of publication.)

Copyright 2012, Rutgers University

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Related Reading

Annual Reports of the Board of Public Education of the First School District of Pennsylvania Comprising the City of Philadelphia, 1870, 1880, 1890, 1900, and 1910.

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

Friendly Beginnings: The Origins and Growth of Philadelphia’s Schools, 1636-1836. Catalogue of an exhibit Celebrating Philadelphia’s Century IV presented by the Overseers of the Public School Founded by Charter in the Town and County of Philadelphia.  Philadelphia: The William Penn Charter School, 1982.

Lowe, Benjamin, Y. “West Chester School to bear Rustin’s name.” Philadelphia Inquirer, December 17, 2002, B 13.

Kashatus, William C. A Virtuous Education: Penn’s Vision for Philadelphia Schools. Wallingford, PA: Pendle Hill Publications, 1997.

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