Public Services

Public Education in Philadelphia: Central High School

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The founding of a free public school system in the United States is the result of much discussion over several decades. In the early 1800s, Philadelphia and the state of Pennsylvania debated and tested different ideas for establishing a public school system that would provide an education for those who could not afford the cost of independent or private schools. Various experimental schools were started and operated with varying levels of success. Finally an act passed by the state in 1836 provided authorization for the City of Philadelphia to establish a Central High School. On October 26, 1838, Central High School in Philadelphia formally opened with a first class of sixty-three students. At the time of its dedication, Central was only the second public high school in the country and was open only to male students.

The cornerstone for the new school building was laid on September 19, 1837 at the intersection of Juniper and Market Streets. Three stories tall, the building was shaped like a T and included an astronomical observatory. The roof of the first Central High School building can be seen in what is considered the earliest surviving American photograph, made by Joseph Saxton in October 1839.

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In 1839, Alexander Dallas Bache, the great-grandson of Benjamin Franklin, was named as president of the school and selected many of the first faculty members. Some of the initial courses included natural history, French, drawing and writing, mathematics, Greek, Latin, and mental, moral, and political science. The school grew over the next decade and celebrated two momentous events. On June 24, 1847, President James K. Polk and Vice President George M. Dallas visited the school and addressed the students, and on April 9, 1849, the state legislature granted the school the right to confer academic degrees.

By the early 1850s, changes in the neighborhood around Juniper and Market Streets and the need for additional space forced school officials to look for a new location. On June 28, 1854, a new school building on the southeast corner of Broad and Green Streets was dedicated. The building featured fifteen classrooms, an assembly hall, an observatory, and high ceilings to assist with ventilation. During this time, the school faced criticism regarding financial expenditures and the curriculum, especially the decision to teach certain foreign languages.

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The population of the school continued to grow throughout the second half of the nineteenth century. By the 1890s, classes were forced to meet in neighboring locations and plans were made for construction of a new school building. A lot was chosen on the southwest corner of Broad and Green Streets, and ground was broken on May 7, 1894. Due to several delays, classes did open in the new building until September 1900. Additional construction was finished later and a formal dedication held on November 22, 1902. President Theodore Roosevelt and several members of his cabinet traveled to Philadelphia for the dedication. The President spoke first in the school’s assembly hall to an audience made up of city officials, the faculty, and school alumni before then delivering a speech from the north balcony of the building to the students.

In 1939, the school moved again to its present location at Ogontz and Olney Avenues. In 1983, girls were admitted to Central High School after federal Judge William M. Marutani ruled that the single-sex admissions policy was unconstitutional.

When Central High School was founded in 1838, it was an innovative development in the use of free public education in Pennsylvania. By 1902 when President Roosevelt spoke at the dedication of Central High’s new building, he stated that there were over 170,000 public school students in the City of Philadelphia and that “it is, of course, a mere truism to say that the stability, the future welfare of our institutions depend upon the grade of citizenship turned out from our public schools.” In 1902, as it is today, many aspects of public schooling were fiercely debated, but the public school system had become accepted as necessary for the benefit of society.


[1] Anthe, Charles. “History.” Central High School.

[2] Edmonds, Franklin Spencer. History of the Central High School of Philadelphia. Philadlephia: J. B. Lippincott Company, 1902.,M1

[3] New York Times. “President Says M’Kinley’s Policies Have Triumphed.” November 23, 1902.