" ... Care be taken about the Learning and Instruction of Youth ..."
William Penn established a group he called "Overseers" to govern his school. Three centuries later, the board — known now as Trustees — is still responsible for the operation of Penn Charter.
Penn expressed his interest in education in his new colony early on, in his Frame of Government in 1682 and at meetings of the Provincial Council over which he presided. On Nov. 11, 1683, he proposed that “Care be taken about the Learning and Instruction of Youth, to wit: a school of arts and sciences.”
The founding of Penn Charter was the direct result of instructions from Penn to the Provincial Council of Pennsylvania, and the Council’s request for assistance from Philadelphia Monthly Meeting.
In 1708, Penn signed a charter taking responsibility for the school from Philadelphia Monthly Meeting and placing it in the hands of 15 trusted Quakers, a group he called "Overseers." (In 2021, the board officially abandoned the word "overseer" in favor of the word "trustee.")
In 1711, Penn signed another charter removing the requirement that the 15 board members be members of the Religious Society of Friends. The 1711 charter remains the legal basis under which the school operates to this day. Penn was specific about what the board should do and, for approximately 250 years, they personally did just about what he had directed, including paying bills, admitting students and compiling an annual budget. Since members served for life, there was always someone who knew the old ways of doing things and felt comfortable with them. Thus, they continued.
Today, board tasks are removed from detailed management. In 1989, 300 years after the school opened, Henry Scattergood summarized the board's tasks as follows:
"... probably the chief responsibility of Overseers is the selection of a Head and the support and guidance of that individual without 'meddling' in the daily operations of the School. It is clear, I think, that Overseers have final responsibility for finances, property, education policy, religious tone, and, in general terms, the quality of education and of life offered by the School. Of course, much of this is delegated to the Administration and Faculty, who must try to implement the policies set by Overseers."
In directing the course of the school, board members make decisions by consensus, in the manner of Friends. In 1973, the board added six more members, each to serve three-year renewable terms, bringing the total number of board members to 21.
Fifteen of those lifelong members can trace the lineage of his or her particular “chair” back to one of the original Overseers. For example, William B. Carr Jr. OPC ’69, who joined the board in 1980, holds the chair originally held by Thomas Master. Samuel Carpenter was the deputy governor of colonial Pennsylvania and is often called the first treasurer of provincial Pennsylvania. Among the original 15 board members, Carpenter was a partner and friend of William Penn and made the first recorded gift to Penn Charter. Sitting Trustee Caesar D. Williams Jr. OPC ’80 holds Carpenter’s chair.
More about the history of William Penn's school.