The Rise and Fall of Philadelphia’s Schools

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Construction of West Philadelphia High School, 48th and Walnut Streets, April 11, 1912.

When school reformers look at Philadelphia’s situation in 2011, they see too many old and inadequate buildings. Half of the Philadelphia School District’s 257 schools were built before World War II. About one in ten is rated “poor” for condition; more than half only “fair.”

One hundred years ago, there weren’t enough buildings to educate Philadelphia’s 182,637 public school students. Crowded conditions would worsen as elementary school age students, which comprised 93% of the total, moved through the system. And Philadelphia’s population would increase by 300,000 between 1910 and 1920, adding new demand.

Educators here watched with envy as other American cities fixed their overcrowded conditions by investing in new schools. Chicago, for instance, had 33% more students but spent 250% more than Philadelphia on construction. In 1909, not one of a dozen other cities examined had schools as overcrowded as Philadelphia’s, where one-third of the students could only attend school part time for lack of classroom space.

School reform had been long in coming. In 1893, advocates finally overcame opposition and passed child labor laws. Two years after that, the State Legislature passed the compulsory school attendance laws. In 1905, lawmakers instituted the Pennsylvania’s Public School Reorganization Act and in 1911 they granted the Philadelphia School Board the power to raise or borrow funds needed to meet the community’s growing needs.

More than any other year, 1911 was special in the history of Philadelphia public education. Educators had the vision, understood the need and now had the power to implement reform and stake out an enhanced significance for schools. There’s “a new conception of the functions of the public school,” declared District President Henry R. Edmunds. “There was a time when the public school was regarded as being simply a place for scholastic instruction. … To-day, a multitude of interests are being cared for by the public school system which no one dreamed of…medical inspection, vocational training, music, physical training, social centers, open air classes, evening lectures to adults, school gardens and summer playgrounds. … There is a growing tendency for the community to regard the school as the center of much of its social life.” Of course, Edmunds added, “these things cannot be done without money, and that ultimately it rests with the people to pay the bill.”

And so, the people of Philadelphia paid for an enlarged and improved public school system. A remarkable period of construction, already underway, continued with a new head of steam. Ground breakings for scores of larger schools in dozens of neighborhoods, including this tract at 48th and Walnut Streets where West Philadelphia High School soon rose, and resulted in much-needed facilities. Never before had Philadelphians seen school construction on this scale. ( offers up more than 3,100 photographs documenting new construction between 1905 and 1915.)

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Construction Kenderton School, 15th and Ontario Streets, November 25th, 1907.

A century later, the space issue had flipped. Last year, the School District closed West Philadelphia High School and today it’s slated to be sold. The call for reform is as sharp as ever. The current number of students in District schools is 152,411 and is expected to decline by another 6,000 before the end of this decade. One-third of our classroom seats are empty. Scores of schools once were thought to be solutions are now the problems.

Recently, the Philadelphia School Board issued recommendations to “reduce the overall capacity of the District…through closure and consolidations… and aggressively dispose of surplus properties.” The first steps, over the next two years, would close nine schools including Sheppard Elementary; E.M. Stanton Elementary; Philadelphia High School For Business (originally built as Helen Fleisher Vocational School); and Levering Elementary. These closures would reduce classroom seats by 14,465, or 20%.

It’s a matter of supply and demand. In the 21st century we are bound to undo a significant amount of what the 20th century left behind. Future recommendations will doubtless result in additional closures. (The 98-year-old Horace Furness School, for instance, not on the current list, is now more than half empty.)

But it’s also a matter of debate and discussion. Closures evoke reaction from every quarter: reformers, bureaucrats, philanthropists, neighborhood activists, teachers, parents, students, and even preservationists, demonstrating that it’s not fast—or easy—to intelligently shrink a city.

[Note: Schedule of School District’s Facilities Master Plan Community Meetings.]