Public Education in Philadelphia: Philadelphia High School for Girls

The history of the Philadelphia High School for Girls, known by most Philadelphians as simply Girls’ High, can be traced back to 1848 when the city built what was called the Girls’ Normal School at the intersection of Chester Street and Maple Street, an intersection long since paved over and now covered by a parking lot at 8th and Arch Streets. It was a strange name for a school indeed and may cause one to wonder if there was also a Girls Abnormal School, but the name was somewhat misleading. “Normal” schools were schools that educated future teachers to work in primary and secondary education. When the Girls’ Normal School was established, it was not only the first secondary public school for women in the state of Pennsylvania but also the first municipally supported teacher’s school in the United States. Opened in February 1848, there were 149 students enrolled by June, a rather large number of students for any one school to have at the time. The continuing enrollment over the next few years meant that by 1854 the Girls’ Normal School needed a bigger building. In 1854 a new building was erected on Sergeant Street, now called Spring Street, between Ninth and Tenth Streets.

In 1859, the name of the school was changed to the more familiar sounding Girls’ High School of Philadelphia. However, this name change did not last long as the name was changed again one year later to The Girls’ High and Normal School in order to better emphasize that the school trained teachers but also offered classes in purely academic subjects.

As one of the few public educational institutions for women, enrollment continued to grow until the school once again needed a bigger building. In 1876, a new building located at 17th and Spring Garden Streets was erected. This building was designed to be a showcase of all the major comforts and conveniences of the day. The new building had forty classrooms, terraced lecture halls, and an auditorium capable of seating 1200 people, almost double the school’s student body of 640 at the time. The new building was so large that when it was completed, only Girard College and the University of Pennsylvania surpassed it in terms of land area used in Philadelphia.

In 1893, the High School and Normal School were separated into two distinct institutions with the Normal School moving to a building at 13th and Spring Garden Streets. It was also at this time that the building at 17th and Spring Garden was officially renamed the Philadelphia High School for Girls. In addition to the standard 3-4 year curricula, Girls’ High also instituted a three year curriculum that focused on business classes. This was unusual for the time as “business” was still very much a male-dominated sphere. In 1898, the school made another unusual choice when it started offering courses in Latin and science which were designed to prepare its female graduates for college and university-level education.

By the 1930s, the school had once again outgrown its facilities and in 1933 work began on a new building at the same location at 17th and Spring Garden Streets. This building was even larger than the last, but it was only twenty-five years later that the school had once again outgrown its facilities. Girls’ High moved to its current location at Broad Street and Olney Avenue in 1958, with the old building on Spring Garden Street becoming the Julia R. Masterman School. The Spring Garden Street building was also added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1986.

Today, Girls’ High remains one of Philadelphia’s preeminent educational institutions. As one of the city’s magnet schools, the school attracts academically gifted young ladies from all over the city. The school’s competitive admissions process and rigorous academic curriculum are not only meant to prepare its students for further college education (98% of Girls’ High graduates go on to college or university) but also to “equip students with the academic, social, emotional, and cultural foundations for success in an ever changing society.” This is evidenced by both the Code of Honor and the school’s motto “Vincit qui se vincit” – He (or in this case, she) conquers who conquers himself. The code and the motto were both adopted by the school in the early 20th century and remain a large influence on the school’s philosophy to this day. It is without a doubt that the Philadelphia High School for Girls will continue to play a major role in public education in Philadelphia for many, many years to come.

Sources:

Alumni Association of the Philadelphia High School for Girls.  http://www.ghsalumnae.com/index.html. (11 January 2011).

Greater Philadelphia Geohistory Network (1858-1860 Philadelphia Atlas). http://www.philageohistory.org/geohistory/. (18 January 2011).

M’Elroy, A. Philadelphia Directory1839: Containing the Names of the Inhabitants, Their Occupations, Places of Business, and Dwelling Houses; also A List of Streets, Lanes, Alleys, etc.; and The City Officers, Institutions, and Banks, and Other Useful Information. Philadelphia: Isaac Ashmead & Co., 1839.

The Philadelphia School District – Philadelphia High School for Girls. http://webgui.phila.k12.pa.us/schools/g/girlshigh/about-us. (11 January 2011).

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