A Brief Historical Overview
By R. W. Granger
William Penn Charter School, a Friends school for students in pre-kindergarten through grade 12, was originally founded under the auspices of the Monthly Meeting of Friends (Quakers) in Philadelphia in 1689. It stands today as the oldest continuously running Friends school in the world. William Penn Charter School proudly traces its origin and name to William Penn and the establishment of the original “Friends Public School” in Philadelphia. Although William Penn Charter School has changed names, locations and curricula throughout its five-century span, Penn’s original vision for education and the school’s Quaker roots remain constant.
In 1689, William Penn, the Governor of the Province of Pennsylvania, wrote from England to Thomas Lloyd, President of the Provincial Council of Pennsylvania and respected member of Philadelphia Friends Meeting, instructing him to set up “a Public Grammar School” in the city of Philadelphia.
Penn’s desire was for a public school to prepare children to be active, moral citizens for a participatory democracy. Lloyd’s responsive actions implementing Penn’s vision led to the establishment in 1689 of a grammar school to teach reading and writing. The school quickly grew and, in 1697, Provincial Lieutenant Governor William Markham granted a charter, in response to a petition from the Friends Meeting, to form a Free School where “the children of the Poor were taught free of expense.”
William Penn signed the three subsequent charters for the school: 1701, 1708 and 1711. Penn signed the first of his three school charters on October 25, 1701, the very same day that he signed a charter for the City of Philadelphia. Penn’s first Charter of 1701 gave the Philadelphia Friends Meeting the power to select and remove Overseers (trustees) of the “Friends Public School,” as the Meeting deemed necessary. Penn’s second charter of 1708 introduced an important organizational change in that it separated the care of the school from the Philadelphia Friends Meeting and entrusted the care and control of the school to the original 15-member group of Quaker Overseers as a corporate body. Penn’s third and final charter of 1711, under which our present Overseers continue to operate, expanded the membership of the Overseers to include non-Quaker members.
Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, the corporation ran multiple schools and pioneered important educational initiatives based on concepts of public charity and inclusion.
The corporation established free tuition to the poor in 1697, financial aid through scholarships in 1701, schools for girls in 1754, and schools to educate students of all races in 1770. Distinguished persons associated with the Friends’ Public School include the Headmaster Charles Thomson, secretary of the Continental Congress, and students: Betsy Ross, American flag-maker; African-American abolitionist and businessman James Forten; and Roberts Vaux, the man who led the movement for a public school law in Pennsylvania. In 1777, student Samuel M. Fox published the first school newspaper in America and Europe while British troops occupied the City of Philadelphia and were billeted in his own school building.
In 1875, under the guidance of Friends, a group of schools operating under Penn’s 1711 charter consolidated as a private all-boys Latin and math college preparatory school. The school opened beside the Twelfth Street Meetinghouse at 12th and Market in Philadelphia. Here, the school expanded, and its reputation rose to national prominence by the turn of the 19th century. The original public school roots had lasting impact. Throughout the 20th century, students of all faiths and economic backgrounds came together at the renamed and reconstituted William Penn Charter School.
The search for a campus that could accommodate the expanding academic and athletic needs of an ever-growing student body from an ever-broadening geographical area took more than 50 years. In 1903, William Penn Charter School acquired Pinehurst, a 35-acre property, from the estate of Clementine Cope. Since then, the campus in East Falls has become a Philadelphia landmark, preserving green, open space in the city. Its academic excellence, coeducational and diverse student body, generous financial aid, and beautiful setting make today’s William Penn Charter School an appealing learning community to a wide variety of families from more than 100 zip codes in metropolitan Philadelphia.
By erecting a marker to honor the rich and distinguished contributions to education made by William Penn Charter School, its staff, trustees, students and families for five centuries, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania is promoting a long-overdue public awareness of the school’s importance to the evolution of our diverse, and interconnected, history and culture as Philadelphians, Pennsylvanians and Americans.
(Text: R. W. Granger, Archives Assistant, William Penn Charter School, 2015)