A century in Germantown

The Roots of Educational Inequality: Philadelphia’s Germantown High School, 1907-2014, by Erika M. Kitzmiller

5 minute read
The book cover. The upper half shows the classical façade of the school; the lower a crowded city protest for school funding.

We know how this story ends: In June 2013, Germantown High School—a near-century-old school once regarded as an academic beacon—closed its doors for good. But it’s critical to understand how the story began, as explored in Erika M. Kitzmiller’s new book, The Roots of Educational Inequality: Philadelphia’s Germantown High School, 1907-2014.

It was one of 23 schools permanently shuttered that year—closures that, according to Philadelphia School District superintendent William Hite and the School Reform Commission, were necessary in the face of plummeting enrollment, low achievement, and a persistent fiscal crisis.

The undoing of Germantown High School didn’t begin with the expansion of “school choice” and charters in the past two decades, or with the 2001 state takeover of Philadelphia public schools, or with the racial unrest of the 1960s, or even with postwar white flight to the suburbs.

Kitzmiller, a Barnard professor of education, tells a story that is both more nuanced and more grim, because it traces Germantown High’s demise back to its beginning in a system that never provided sufficient public funding and where inequities of race, class, and access were baked in from the start.

Seven years in Germantown

Kitzmiller is not from Philadelphia, but she spent a year shadowing principal Michael Silverman, who helmed Germantown High School from 2007-08, just months after math teacher Frank Burd was assaulted by two students who shoved him into a locker, cracking bones in his neck and back.

That incident catapulted the high school into national media and became emblematic of rising violence inside the city’s schools. Germantown teachers—both Black and white—told Kitzmiller that “such incidents were commonplace in the school, that these reckless assaults were tied to the poverty and hopelessness that existed in the school community and that I, as a white, upper-middle-class outsider, might not understand.”

Those same teachers, some of them Germantown High alums, also insisted that the school had once been a top-tier institution, a place that drew middle-class families to the area and lit the way for its graduates toward college, professional careers, and comfortable lives.

Kitzmiller remained in Germantown, studying and working, for seven years; she combed over school and district archives and interviewed dozens of former students, parents, faculty, and administrators, trying to understand what happened to the high school and what lessons its trajectory might provide.

What she found was a systemic legacy: longstanding racial segregation, fiscal uncertainty, and reliance on private funding that often served to bolster what Kitzmiller calls “doubly advantaged” schools—that is, schools that serve predominantly white, middle-class students whose families then augment those schools with financial resources, volunteer time, and social capital.

Double advantage?

Germantown High, at its 1915 opening, was one of those doubly advantaged schools. At the time, Germantown, on the city’s periphery, was a white, middle-class enclave, and parents who lived there felt wary of sending their children—particularly their daughters—into the poorer, browner, more immigrant-filled neighborhoods around Central High School (then all-male) and Philadelphia High School for Girls.

Those families waged a seven-year bid “to build a majestic neighborhood high school tucked neatly away in their quaint secluded community,” Kitzmiller writes. Germantown High taught Latin, Greek, botany, and rhetoric; some of its teachers held doctorate degrees, and its graduates went on to colleges including Harvard, Haverford, Wellesley, and Smith.

But the school was never an equal-opportunity arena. Educators routinely barred Black and female youth from extracurricular programs; Black students weren’t permitted to swim in the white YMCA pool the school’s team used for its practices and couldn’t attend the annual trip to Washington, DC because racist codes barred them from the hotel.

From its inception, the school relied on generous private funding—from families, local businesses, and students themselves, who ponied up fees for school activities—to supplement always-inadequate public budgets.

A century of changes

Kitzmiller, using a thorough blend of quantitative research (detailed breakdowns, across racial groups, of who took the more rigorous academic course at Germantown High versus the commercial or vocational tracks) and interviews, sweeps through a century’s worth of changing demographics, housing patterns, desegregation efforts, and racial strife.

She documents the effects of white flight (both to suburbs and to private, parochial, and charter schools), the increasing poverty of Philadelphia’s urban core, the dramatic cuts in state funding for the city’s schools, the growing inequities between majority-Black and majority-white schools, and the dwindling of local philanthropies such as Boys and Girls Clubs that once provided resources, mentorship, and support to low-income students.

But Germantown High wasn’t only the victim of larger economic and demographic changes, Kitzmiller says. It also suffered from choices made by administrators, superintendents, and mayors who often prioritized the needs of white, middle-class families over those of Black, poor, or immigrant students.

These portions of the book reminded me of the podcast Nice White Parents, which charts the disproportionate sway of white parents’ priorities and demands on a particular school in Brooklyn.

Except, in the case of Philadelphia, “nice” was not always the prevailing trait. During a tense community meeting about a busing plan in the mid-1970s, a white parent told the school board that if her child, who wished to be a lawyer, were bused to a Black school, “she may very well end up a cosmetologist. I will not send my child into gang territories in Black neighborhoods.”

The superintendent’s assignment

Kitzmiller’s deep and detailed history of Germantown High offers slim measures of hope: one school principal who truly prioritized faculty creativity and autonomy; teachers who mentored and encouraged Black students; students themselves, who called out inequities and demanded relevance from their school.

But the systemic fault lines remain in 2022: a system that still is not adequately funded; a handful of magnet “destination schools” that garner generous private donations while neighborhood institutions gasp for resources; a district rife with inequities of class and race.

"History is not inevitable but rather is shaped by human action and inaction,” Kitzmiller has written. Philadelphia’s newly appointed superintendent, Tony Watlington, should keep that in mind … and add The Roots of Educational Inequality to his summer reading stack.

What, When, Where

The Roots of Educational Inequality: Philadelphia’s Germantown High School, 1907-2014. By Erika M. Kitzmiller. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, December 2021. 316 pages, hardcover or ebook; $45. Get it from Penn Press.

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