The William Penn Charter School has been in continuous operation for more than 325 years, since its founding in 1689, and proudly traces its origin and name to William Penn. Although it has changed names, locations and curriculum during that time (the original name was the Public Grammar School), Penn Charter's Quaker roots have remained constant.
Penn knew that the success of his colony depended upon an educated citizenry. He wrote to Philadelphians in 1689 urging them to organize a school on the banks of the Delaware River. The school that Penn founded was different from schools elsewhere. Penn wanted his school to offer a new kind of education that would prepare young people to be teachers, merchants, builders and farmers, as well as political and professional leaders. When the school opened in 1689 on the south side of High Street, now Market Street, the progressive curriculum taught science in addition to Latin, Greek and Hebrew.
William Penn's unique concept was to create a school that would educate not only to the wealthy but also students of limited means. Public charity was a basic rule of Quaker life, and Penn specified that poor children in Pennsylvania were to be educated for free. As early as 1697 the Overseers he appointed to govern the school established a fund so that the children of the poor could attend. Penn Charter has a long history of access and was among the first to offer: education to different religions (1689), financial aid (1701), education for girls (1754) and education for all races (1770). Betsy Ross, African-American abolitionist and businessman James Forten, and Roberts Vaux, the man who led the movement for a public school law in Pennsylvania, were all students of the original Penn Charter.
Penn Charter was originally a downtown urban school, but Mott Jones wanted a larger space, outside the city, where students could breath in fresh air and test themselves in athletic contests on fields of green. The search for a campus that could accommodate the academic and athletic needs of an ever-growing student body—from a broader and broader radius stretching west and north of Philadelphia and even into New Jersey—took more than 50 years. The school's relocation to School House Lane in 1920 was worth the wait. We have a green, wide-open 47-acre campus that is still in the city. That's appealing to a lot of different kinds of families who come here from around the region and feel comfortable.
Under the guidance of the Gurneyite Friends, a group of schools operating under the original 1711 Charter consolidated as a private all-boys college preparatory school in 1875. Overseers hired Richard Mott Jones, a dynamic education reformer, as headmaster and purchased a residence at 12th and Market Streets into a school house. From that location, Penn Charter grew quickly and gained a national reputation for excellence. Latin was again an important subject; students with interests in music, art, literature and science expressed those interests in extracurricular activities, including a mandolin club, debating society and creating writing.
Richard Mott Jones' daughters were Penn Charter students and, throughout the 20th century, girls enrolled in kindergarten and first grade. Penn Charter became fully coed again in 1980, and graduated the first modern coed class in 1992.