Philadelphia Reflections

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The Schools of School House Lane

{Union School founded in 1759}
Union School founded in 1759

The region of Philadelphia defined as Germantown is recorded by the last census as having about 50,000 inhabitants today, 40,000 of whom are of the black race. Germantown has always had an unusual concentration of schools of the highest quality, and here on one street alone there are four. School House Lane runs off to the West of Germantown Avenue, and was originally right at the center of town, the center of the action during the Revolutionary War. The most historic of the schools, the Union School founded in 1759, changed its name to Germantown Academy, and more recently picked up and moved to new quarters in Fort Washington. George Washington sent his nephew there, and its building served as a hospital for the wounded in the Battle of Germantown. When Germantown Academy moved out of Germantown, the Pennsylvania School for the Deaf moved into the vacated quarters. This school had been originally founded in 1820, and is one of nearly a hundred special schools for the deaf in the United States, operating as a quasi-public institution for about 170 students. A remarkable thing about all schools for the deaf is the high IQ of their students. Perhaps deaf underachievers are somehow filtered out by the struggle to adapt before they apply for admission, or perhaps there is something about being deaf that makes you smart. In any event, the average SAT scores of students from PSD, like all schools for the deaf, are always in the very highest ranks among secondary schools.

{Sklar School Entrance}
Sklar School Entrance

More or less next door to it, fronting on Coulter Street, is the Germantown Friends School(GFS), which enjoys and deserves the reputation of the most intellectually rigorous school in the Philadelphia region. There is little question about the Quakers of this school, founded in 1845, but relatively few of the students are now Quaker children. It's pretty expensive and quite uncompromising about its academic standards, but if you want to be accepted by a famous University, this is the place that can boast the most achievement of that variety. By no means all of its graduates become teachers, but alumni of this school do tend to gravitate to the top of academia. That could eventually put them on college admission committees, of course, and perhaps the admission process promotes itself. There can be little doubt that if most of a given college's admission committee happened to play the tuba, that university would soon fill up with tuba players.

{William Penn Charter School}
William Penn Charter School

Further West on School House Lane, is the William Penn Charter School. It's also Quaker, and while it doesn't work quite so hard at it as GFS does, it has plenty of social mission, a great deal more discipline, and plenty of competitive athletics. A minority of its students, also, are Quakers; but as a guess, most of its graduates are headed for disproportionate affluence anyway. The middle school is named for, and was donated by, the former chairman of Morgan Stanley back before Morgan Stanley sold itself to Dean Witter. This school was founded in 1689, and for a long time was located at 12th and Market Streets in Philadelphia, right where the famous PSFS building was built, the one that later converted to Lowe's Hotel .

Finally, near the crossing of Henry Avenue with Schoolhouse Lane, is the Philadelphia University. Since it was founded in 1999 it is the youngest of the schools on School House Lane, specializing in architecture and design, and seems headed for even broader curriculum. The University was formed by the merger of Ravenhill Academy for Girls, and the Philadelphia Textile School. The Textile School was itself formed during the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial, when local industrialists became concerned with how backward America seemed in its quality and design of textiles, compared with other nations which exhibited at that World's Fair. Next door, was once the home of William Weightman, a chemical manufacturer who was reputed to be the richest man in Pennsylvania. After his death, the rather grand estate became the site of the Ravenhill School for Girls, which was the school which could boast Grace Kelly for an alumna. That was natural enough since she lived just around the corner on Henry Avenue and could walk to school. The contrast between the two ends of School House Lane, Henry Avenue on one end, and Germantown Avenue on the other, is just astounding.

So there you have School House Lane. A few short blocks with three distinguished preparatory schools and a university. Plus, the site of three other famous schools which have either moved or merged. You might think Germantown was the home of myriads of school teachers, but that isn't exactly so. It's hard to say just what this complex anomalous situation proves, except to voice the opinion that it is somehow at the heart of what Philadelphia really is.

Note, kind readers have also sent me the names of six more schools on Schoolhouse Lane. Some of them may only be name changes, but the list includes Parkway Day School, Sklar School, Philadelphia Textile and Science, Germantown Stevens Academy, Germantown Lutheran Academy, Greene Street Friends School. (See Comments.)

 

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The Schools of School House Lane
Exclusive privates schools and colleges are usually to be found in isolated rural settings. But our oldest, best, and most famous schools are clustered together in a neighborhood that is far from exclusive.