Historic Sites Snapshots of History

Philadelphia’s Central High School in Perspective

The original Central High School building, Juniper and Market Streets, c.1850.
The original Central High School building, Juniper and Market Streets, c.1850.

The effort of a free people to provide for the education of their children as a necessity for the maintenance of the their political institutions makes a story of interest and importance. Especially is this true when the movement meets with criticism and opposition, when its leaders are hampered by the absence of any general appreciation of the value of the issue, and when violent prejudice of race, religion, and class is aroused and must be overcome. 

-Franklin Spencer Edmonds, 1902

For some perspective about the dismal state of today’s Philadelphia public school system: a century ago, a high school education was a luxury, not a necessity.  According to a recent article in The Atlantic: “Teens didn’t create ‘high school.’ High schools created teenagers.'”  In the 1920s, only 28 percent of American children attended high school.    For the rest of America’s teenagers, adulthood began at 14. This meant getting a job to help make ends meet: helping their parents out on the family farm, stocking the shelves at the mom-and-pop, or learning a trade such as carpentry, shipbuilding, or baking.  For the very poor, work began even younger than that: rolling cigars or sewing garments in dark, ill-ventilated sweatshops; picking stones out of coal on conveyor belts (breaker boys); collecting full spools of thread in a textile mill (bobbin boys); selling copies of the Philadelphia Inquirer on street corners (newsies), or shoveling coal into the boilers of a foundry. Child labor was not formally abolished by the Federal government until 1938, with the passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act under the Franklin Roosevelt administration.

During the first half of the twentieth century, those students lucky enough to attend public high school went to classes in grand buildings that looked more like castles than schools.  West Philadelphia High School, completed in 1910, had an auditorium equipped with a pipe organ. In those days, a public high school degree was generally sufficient enough to propel a graduate into the white collar middle class.  The city’s Roman Catholic population turned to an extensive network of parochial schools to provide reasonably priced education to its youth.  St. Joseph’s Preparatory in North Philadelphia was one such institution that traditionally gave working class Roman Catholics a chance at a better life than their Italian, Irish, German, or Polish immigrant parents.

Yet a college education, public or private, was out-of-the-question except for the rich or exceptionally hardworking student. If a public school graduate gained admission to Penn or Temple University, they typically commuted to and from their parents’ house by trolley or elevated rail, and had to juggle jobs and family obligations in addition to their studies.  My grandfather, a 1926 graduate of West Philadelphia High School, paid for his undergraduate studies at Penn’s Wharton School with money earned from dance band gigs.

The city’s expensive preparatory schools–which catered to the Rittenhouse Square/Chestnut Hill aristocracy–were all but closed to the city’s burgeoning immigrant and African-American populations.  They were also the surest feeders to the Ivy League, with few questions asked.

Then there was Central High School, a magnet high school that was arguably one of the most powerful engines of economic mobility in the city.  Founded in 1836, it is the second-oldest continuously operating public school in the United States. Its first home was at the intersection of 13th and Market Streets, and started holding classes only just after the Philadelphia city fathers rather grudgingly conceded to fund a public school system.  Much of the push for free education for Philadelphia’s children came from Quaker activists such as Roberts Vaux, who objected that parents had to declare shameful  “pauper status” in order to send their children to a charity school.

Central High School building at North Broad and Green Streets, March 8, 1910.
Central High School building at North Broad and Green Streets, March 8, 1910.

Once established, Central High School gained the financial support of several of Philadelphia’s richest families, including the Whartons and the Biddles. Central’s first president was Alexander Dallas Bache, a distinguished professor at the University of Pennsylvania and grandson of Benjamin Franklin.  Over the next century, Central was housed in a series of grand structures until the 1930s, when it settled in its current Art Deco campus in the Logan section of North Philadelphia.  Its counterparts in other cities include Boston Latin in Boston and Stuyvesant High School in New York. An applicant had to pass a grueling entrance examination, but once in, he (it remained all-boys until a 1975 Supreme Court ruling) found himself surrounded–and pushed to excel– by the best and brightest students from all over the city.  For many, it was their best shot at making it into a top college, and then onward to a successful career, in Philadelphia or beyond.  The school’s alumni roster reads like a who’s who of Philadelphia’s meritocracy: linguist Noam Chomsky, artists Thomas Eakins, architect Louis Kahn, mayor Wilson Goode, and industrialist Simon Guggenheim.

Yet students who had grown up in tightly-knit neighborhoods, rigidly segregated by ethnicity and class, the transition could be just as difficult as it was thrilling.

To be continued… 

Rendering for Central High School's Logan campus, August 1936.
Rendering for Central High School’s Logan campus, August 1936.


Derek Thompson, “America in 1915: Long Hours, Crowded Houses, Death by Trolley,” The Atlantic, February 11, 2016,, accessed March 14, 2016.

Franklin Spencer Edmonds, History of the Central High School of Philadelphia (Philadelphia, J.B. Lippincott Company, 1902), pp. 7, 13, 35.

“List of Alumni of Central High School,” Wikipedia,,_Pennsylvania), accessed March 14, 2016.