“A school system that is not costing a great deal these days is not worth a great deal.”
– The Centennial Anniversary of the Public Schools of Philadelphia: A Recapitulation, March 1918.
During the 18th and early 19th centuries, Philadelphia’s Quaker schools (Friends Select), and its Protestant church schools (Episcopal Academy) provided rigorous education for the sons and daughters of the well-to-do. In the meantime, the Roman Catholic archdiocese set up an extensive network of parochial schools. Sectarian private schools not only provided community and opportunity, but also reinforced cultural and class identity.
Although the city’s ethnic and religious communities were very good at taking care of “their own,” public education for all proved an uphill struggle for civic leaders. Girard College, a private institution, did provide education to the disadvantaged, provided they were “poor, white, male orphans.” Central High School, founded in 1836 and known as the “People’s College,” provided quality, non-sectarian secondary education for those who met the admission requirements. Some students, like future artist Thomas Eakins, were from middle class families. Others, such as future pharmaceutical magnate Dr. Albert Barnes, came from abject poverty. Girls High School, formed along similar lines, followed in 1848.
Although the Philadelphia School Board was formalized in 1818 (with Roberts Vaux as its first superintendent), it was not until the early twentieth century that the city implemented the comprehensive K-12 public education system we know today. By 1918, Philadelphia’s public school system boasted 230,000 pupils taught by 6,300 teachers, housed in over 300 educational structures.* That same year, school superintendent Garber chastised those who held the view that “there are two classes of society, a higher and a lower, and that it is a mistake to endeavor to break down the barrier between the two.”** Education, leaders like Garber argued, was the great leveler of American society, allowing those born in modest circumstances to rise into the ranks of the middle class and beyond. Philadelphia’s public school system, he concluded, should be the “inveterate foe of ignorance, poverty, disease, crime, and all forms of human waste and neglect…”***
During the booming 1920s, the School Board shifted into high-gear and built two co-ed high schools in West Philadelphia: West Philadelphia High School and Overbrook High School. The School District also started a revolutionary, three-year junior high school program that prepared grammar school graduates for the rigors of secondary education. Among these new schools was William H. Shoemaker Junior High School, located at 5301 Media Street in the Haddington-Carroll Park section of West Philadelphia. In contrast to adjacent, affluent Overbrook, this was a middle and working class district which grew up along the Lancaster Avenue trolley tracks. Originally a sleepy country village, Haddington exploded following construction of the Market Street Elevated rail line to the south. The majority of Haddington-Carroll Park’s residents lived in modest, two-story brick rowhouses. Family stores and manufacturing operations sprouted up along Lancaster Avenue. According to Margaret S. Marsh’s study of the area’s early twentieth century demographics, the mostly-white residents of Haddington-Carroll Park were clerks, bookkeepers, teachers, and small businessmen. As in neighboring Parkside, there was also a significant Jewish population. The proliferation of clubs and fraternal organizations created, as Marsh wrote, “‘instant’ community for the thousands of newcomers,” and “assured potential members of association with people of similar background.”**** At the same time, a growing number of African-Americans from the Deep South migrated to Haddington in search of work and opportunity. Not surprisingly, they often faced hostility and discrimination from neighbors and employers.*****
As a counterweight to social and racial segregation, schools like William H. Shoemaker Junior High (named for a prominent judge) provided a forum where various ethnic and religious groups could come together for the common purpose of education. Construction began in 1925 and was completed two years later. It was most likely the work of Irwin T. Catharine, principal architect for the Philadelphia School system between 1918 and 1937.****** Architecturally, it bore a strong resemblance to West Philadelphia and Overbrook High, with its neo-Gothic detailing, pointed-arch windows, and spire-topped towers. Inside, the school boasted a tiled grand staircase and a two story Georgian auditorium. Hallways were wide and spacious, classrooms steam-heated and lit by large windows. Shoemaker’s appearance may have been an homage to the “collegiate Gothic” of nearby Penn and Princeton, thus giving the middle and working class children of Haddington-Carroll Park a taste of the grandeur previously reserved for the privileged.
A photograph of the first graduating class of William H. Shoemaker Junior High School (1929) gives a rare glimpse into Haddington-Carroll Park’s past. The children are all in uniform: coats and ties for boys and blouses for girls. Not surprisingly, most of the children are white, but there are a few African-Americans standing in the rows. Looking at the area demographics at the time, it is clear that Shoemaker Junior High was sandwiched between two increasingly segregated neighborhoods. In 1930, Southern Haddington was over 43% non-white, a trend that would accelerate during the Great Depression. Upper Haddington-Lower Overbrook, by contrast, was only 7.5% nonwhite.*******
After World War II, institutionalized “red-lining” by insurance companies and “block-busting” by realtors, compounded by the departure of industry, transformed the area around Shoemaker into a segregated slum, with few economic opportunities for its almost entirely African-American population. Family businesses on Lancaster Avenue were shuttered and houses destroyed by neglect or arson, a trend repeated in urban areas throughout the nation. By the 1980s, a drug epidemic turned the streets surrounding the school into a war zone. The structure itself crumbled from deferred maintenance, and the Philadelphia Inquirer rated it as the second most dangerous junior high school in the city.********
In 2006, Mastery Charter Schools took over management of the school. Renamed Mastery – Shoemaker Campus, the school has staged a remarkable turnaround. According to Mastery’s website, violent crime has dropped 90%, and 100% of its graduates have been accepted to institutions of higher learning.********* Most of the building has been completely renovated and modernized, and is now completely air conditioned.
The un-renovated part of the school, about 30% of the building according to director of operations Dan Bell, is sealed off. Plaster dust coats chairs and desks. An old piano sits in the deserted music room. Mountains of old books cascade out of a storage closet. Mean-spirited graffiti is scrawled on the plaster walls.
While most of the school bustles with life, energy, and the promise of the future, these silent spaces bear silent witness to the grandeur, optimism, sadness, and pain of Shoemaker’s past.
*John P. Garber, The Centennial Anniversary of the Public Schools of Philadelphia: A Recapitulation (Philadelphia: Philadelphia Trades School, March 1918), p.15. Collection of the Free Library of Philadelphia, Cities P53-562-b.
**John P. Garber, The Centennial Anniversary of the Public Schools of Philadelphia: A Recapitulation (Philadelphia: Philadelphia Trades School, March 1918), pp.8-9. Collection of the Free Library of Philadelphia, Cities P53-562-b.
***John P. Garber, The Centennial Anniversary of the Public Schools of Philadelphia: A Recapitulation (Philadelphia: Philadelphia Trades School, March 1918), p.16. Collection of the Free Library of Philadelphia, Cities P53-562-b.
****”Philadelphia Public Schools Thematic Resources,” National Register for Historic Places Inventory — Nomination Form. December 4, 1986.
*****Margaret S. Marsh, “The Impact of the Market Street ‘El’ on Northern West Philadelphia: Environmental Change and Social Transformation, 1900-1930,” from William W. Cutler III and Howard Gillette Jr., The Divided Metropolis: Social and Spatial Dimensions of Philadelphia, 1800-1975 (Hartford, CT: Greenwood Press, 1980), p. 174.
******Margaret S. Marsh, “The Impact of the Market Street ‘El’ on Northern West Philadelphia: Environmental Change and Social Transformation, 1900-1930,” from William W. Cutler III and Howard Gillette Jr., The Divided Metropolis: Social and Spatial Dimensions of Philadelphia, 1800-1975 (Hartford, CT: Greenwood Press, 1980), p. 182.
******* Margaret S. Marsh, “The Impact of the Market Street ‘El’ on Northern West Philadelphia: Environmental Change and Social Transformation, 1900-1930,” from William W. Cutler III and Howard Gillette Jr., The Divided Metropolis: Social and Spatial Dimensions of Philadelphia, 1800-1975 (Hartford, CT: Greenwood Press, 1980), p. 184.
********Shoemaker Campus Information, http://www.masterycharter.org/schools/shoemaker-campus/about-shoemaker.html
*********Shoemaker Campus Information, http://www.masterycharter.org/schools/shoemaker-campus/about-shoemaker.html