Snapshots of History

The Uncertain Future of Germantown High School

It’s been a little over two years since wrote The Rise and Fall of Philadelphia’s Public Schools. In that time, 23 underutilized schools have been officially slated for the chopping block and the Philadelphia School District has only fallen further. As Ken Finkel noted then, many of the institutions being shuttered were built before World War II. Now buildings which were once hopefully constructed to educate Philadelphia’s youth are meeting a far less aspirational end.

Germantown High School is one of those crestfallen schools. Just shy of it’s 100th birthday, the school at Germantown Avenue and High Street in Northwest Philadelphia was constructed during an era when there were at least as many horses at the build site as cranes.

Construction workers and horses begin construction on
Germantown High School in 1914.

At the time, the neighborhood was predominantly residential neighborhood with a smattering of textile mills. The school’s early offerings were heavy on trade-oriented training. A 1922 survey of public schools noted that the school potentially had one of the best machine shops in the city at the time, not to mention a host of other workshops, including a joinery shop, a patternmaking shop, and a forge shop.

The report, which details some of the curriculum standardization challenges facing Philadelphia schools at the time, later reveals that even in 1922 the school was underutilized. Though the school had two cookery units for home economics classes, only one was in use because there were not enough teachers to manage both, according to the document. Today, the report seems to offer eerie foreshadowing. Philadelphia Public School Notebook reports that Germantown High School is at least two thirds empty, with just a 31% utilization rate.

In 2011, the school became a Promise Academy — a model of “turnaround” school championed by then-superintendent Arlene Ackerman, who recently passed away. In 2012, the school had graduation rate of 47 percent and less than 20 percent of students in Germantown’s target neighborhoods attend the high school thanks to the rise of charter and magnet schools in the city. These factors, combined, with the age of the building, made it a ripe choice for the SRC.

Now the school has become a central focus of current students, alumni, and others in the community who have been fighting to keep it off the School Reform Commission’s shut down list, to no avail.

Germantown High School nears completion in 1914.

According to many recent reports, Germantown students will be sent to Martin Luther King High School, but a 40-year history of violence and mistrust between gangs hailing from the neighborhoods around the two schools has many concerned about the transition. In the early 1970s, the Philadelphia School District “paired” the two schools such that students attended King for 9th and 10th grades, then transferred to Germantown for 11th and 12th. It was a fated attempt to reduce crowding and extinguish the neighborhood rivalries, reported Philadelphia Public School Notebook, and the pairing quickly disintegrated.

Though the school gets national recognition for educating legendary comedian and actor Bill Cosby (who eventually dropped out), that’s not enough to prevent a shuttering that seems ever more inevitable.  What will become of Germantown High School? If you have an idea of a new use for this nearly 100-year-old institution, submit your idea at the Newsworks poll available here.