Public Services

Learning for the Real World


Late in the 19th century and early in the 20th, child labor reformers were busy trying to devise a plan for keeping the nations children out of the factories and in the schools for as long as possible. However, the things they were doing to extend the amount of time a child spent in the school system failed to keep all children in school. They wondered why, until the idea was presented that perhaps the children continually left school early because they did not understand the value an education in traditional academic disciplines (writing, math, or foreign language, for example) would have in their everyday lives after they graduated. What good did learning French do for the child who, after all, would be spending his days constructing buildings? From this idea, school administrators devised a plan. Perhaps the way to keep children in school until their teenage years was to offer vocational education, or more classes that prepared students to be successful in the work they would actually face after finishing school.


The idea of vocational, or industrial, education was introduced to Philadelphia by Murrel Dobbins, a member of the Board of Public Education. Soon after his introduction, an investigation was conducted in the city to discover what the most popular trades in the city were and to find a location for a new school. The Philadelphia Trades School then opened in 1906 in an abandoned elementary school at the corner of 12th and Locust Streets. The goal of the school was to create intelligent, skilled young men who were well prepared to enter the workforce upon their graduation.

Originally the school offered 13 trades, ranging from sign painting to sheet metal working. However, due to a lack of enrollment, only seven were offered in the day school. The trades offered to students during the day included: carpentry, architectural drawing, mechanical drawing, electrical construction, pattern making, and printing. Students spent half of their time studying these trades in the shop. The other half was spent studying academic subjects such as English and Mathematics, however these too were taught with the trades in mind. In these courses, teachers attempted to relate the skills being learned to their application in the work of the various trades. In the third year, the students participated in an internship program, working at various locations throughout the city.


Night classes were also offered by the school, and these became more popular than the daytime classes. The demand for the evening classes was so great that the city opened another school, the Northeast Manual Training School, to handle some of the overflow. Many other prospective students remained on a waiting list. In the evening school only the trades were taught. There were no classes for the academic subjects. However, the evening school did offer more trades than were taught during the day

Eventually, the Trades School was abandoned as the workforce continued to change. The courses offered by the Philadelphia Trades School were replaced by mechanical arts courses in Central High School and others.


  • Ash, William C. “The Philadelphia Trade School.” Annals of the American Academy of Political Science 33(1), Industrial Education. (January, 1909) 85-88.
  • Cohen, Sol. “The Industrial Education Movement, 1906-1917.” American Quarterly. 20(1). (Spring, 1968) 95-110.
  • Neville, Charles E. “Origin and Development of the Public High School in Philadelphia.” The School Review. 35(5) (May, 1927) 363-375.
  • Edmunds, Franklin D. A Chronological List of the Public School Buildings of the City of Philadelphia, PA. Philadelphia: Board of Public Education, 1934.