The Racialized History of Philadelphia’s Toxic Public Schools

Editor’s note: This is the fourth post in our theme for January 2022, Urban Environmentalism. Additional entries can be seen at the end of this article.

By Erika M. Kitzmiller and Akira Drake Rodriguez

The COVID-19 pandemic has spurred national conversations about the substandard conditions in our nation’s public schools. Research shows that indoor air quality and ventilation is key to mitigating the transmission of this deadly virus.[1] And yet we know, from testimonies given by educators, families, and youth, reports written by government officials, and articles published by investigative journalists, that thousands of public schools across the country currently lack the infrastructure and resources to meet the Center for Disease Control’s COVID-19 ventilation standards.

The toxic school conditions that exist today are intimately tied to class- and race-based inequities in the history of the built environment and historical inequities in school funding policies and practices. Evidence suggests that rural, suburban, tribal, and urban schools are all struggling, to varying degrees, with insufficient and outdated school facilities that increase educational and environmental injustices. Additionally, inequities are more likely to be found in schools that serve majority-poor, Black, and Brown youth.[2]

While the pandemic has ignited a new-found understanding about the importance of school facilities, the health risks associated with hazardous public school conditions existed well before COVID-19. In fact, if we look closely at the history of public schools and the built environment in Philadelphia, we can easily see that the shortcomings in our public school infrastructure stretch back to at least the early twentieth century.

Adult Literacy Class. Annual Report, Philadelphia Board of Public Education cited in William W. Cutler, III, “Public Education: School District of Philadelphia,” The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia

When Martin G. Brumbaugh assumed his role as the superintendent of Philadelphia’s public schools in 1906, he inherited a school system in total disarray. Philadelphia did not have enough schools to accommodate the ever-increasing number of children who wanted to enroll in their local public schools.[3]

To alleviate the fact that the city lacked the educational infrastructure demanded of it, Philadelphia children attended public school on shift schedules. In many public schools, officials split the enrollment—half of the students attended classes in the morning; the other half of the students attended school in the afternoon. In addition to the shift schedules, Philadelphia school officials also opened a series of makeshift annexes in abandoned city factories and warehouses that hardly met school safety standards.[4]

On September 12, 1907, local journalists with Philadelphia’s Evening Bulletin, the largest circulating newspaper in the city, documented the abysmal conditions inside the city’s schools and annexes. The article included interviews with several local public school teachers who felt that their substandard facilities presented several shortcomings to student learning and engagement.

One assistant teacher told reporters that “the worst aspect of this school is its lack of proper light. Even today when you see it under the most ideal weather conditions the light in those remote corners of the room is so poor that children cannot properly see the blackboard, and yesterday, with the term scarcely begun, many of the children were complaining of the strain on their eyes.” 

One winter she taught with no heat. School administrators closed the building for weeks because the classrooms were too cold for instruction. Teachers testified that their students, who were mainly poor, immigrant youth, lacked clean drinking water and adequate seats in their classrooms. In fact, hundreds of students sat on “aisle shelves” which were rough wooden boards that teachers put across two existing desks to accommodate their students.[5]

“Children Huddled in Dingy Schools,” Evening Bulletin, September 12, 1907, Free Library of Philadelphia Newspaper Division.

The superintendent engaged in a citywide campaign to persuade Philadelphia voters to approve a multimillion dollar school loan.[6] Brumbaugh stipulated that he planned to use the loan to build new schools across the city to accommodate rising student enrollments and to replace antiquated schools and annexes. Philadelphia voters refused to approve the loan, which would have provided every school child in the city with a seat in a modern, safe public school.[7] Throughout Brumbaugh’s tenure, thousands of Philadelphia children attended school in overcrowded and substandard classrooms.[8]

The problems intensified as enrollment surged. In the 1910s and 1920s, state and city officials instituted compulsory attendance laws that drove up numbers, especially in urban public high schools. The decimation of the youth labor market following the 1929 stock market crash drove student enrollment even higher. While Philadelphia’s population remained relatively consistent in the decade following the crash, public school enrollment soared, especially in the city’s high schools. In 1929, 32,223 students enrolled in Philadelphia’s public high schools. In 1939, that number had risen to 47,199.[9]

From 1905 to 1920 School District of Philadelphia officials cobbled together funds to build new elementary and high schools for the city’s expanding student body. But, as the map shows, school officials used these funds to build new public schools in predominantly white communities located far from poor, immigrant, and Black communities located in the city’s inner core.[10]

Philadelphia Public Schools Built 1905–1920 and Percentage of Black Residents by Ward, 1920. United States Census, 1920; “Locations and Cost of Buildings and Sites Owned and Rented,” in ARBPE-P, 1920.

As a result, white children were more likely to attend classes in modern, state-of-the-art school buildings with ample access to recreational outdoor spaces, while poor, immigrant, and Black youth continued to attend school in substandard, overcrowded school facilities that limited their educational experiences.[11]

Black advocates and families testified about these horrible school conditions and demanded that city and school officials address them. Dr. Daniel A. Brooks, a Black educator, testified that school officials had forced Black youth into the city’s outdated schools with facilities that did not promote learning. Classrooms in many Black schools were “gas-lighted with coal stoves” and had “out-door water closets” for the children to use. White children, in contrast, attended the city’s newest schools, which had electric lights and indoor plumbing.[12]

The inequities persisted. In the 1950s and 1960s, when the federal government allocated millions of dollars in urban renewal funds, school district officials in Philadelphia once again used most of these funds to build and remodel schools in majority-white communities, while Black youth attended school in toxic buildings with peeling paint, insufficient windows, and inadequate heat.[13]

In the postwar period, Philadelphia school officials embarked on an $80 million campaign to build and renovate its outdated infrastructure, 20 percent of which had been built before 1907. After the war, officials built dozens of new schools to address decades of neglect and postwar population shifts. Decisions about where to build these new schools maintained, and in some cases intensified, racial segregation. School officials built 19 of the 22 new public schools in racially segregated communities.[14] The new schools located in majority-white communities enjoyed better facilities, more windows, and more attractive grounds when compared with counterparts in majority-Black communities. The district’s racially motivated construction policies and practices promoted separate and unequal schools, even though the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision had declared them unconstitutional.[15]

In 1952, the Middle States Association of Schools and Colleges published a report that provided an evaluation of Benjamin Franklin High School located in the heart of North Philadelphia. The report highlighted challenges in the city’s racially segregated school system. Franklin had a nearly all-Black student enrollment (95 percent). The school had some of the lowest graduation and attendance rates in the city. The association also noted that the deplorable physical condition of the school had “a deleterious effect on the mental health of the students, the teachers, and the entire school community.”[16] In order to address these infrastructure inadequacies and meet the conditions necessary for academic learning, the association recommended that the board close the school and transfer its students to more modern high schools in the city.[17] Following this report, Philadelphia school officials approved the construction of a new high school building adjacent to the original Benjamin Franklin High School.[18]

As Philadelphia enters the twenty-first century, it has seen an increase in its population, and this population growth has been driven by immigration and the settlement of more affluent households in the areas surrounding the central business district. These dual processes of immigration and gentrification have also shifted the demographics—and in the latter case, the fundraising capacity—of public schools that were once facing declining enrollments and high teacher and staff turnover. 

The uneven development of public schools once again replicates some of the tensions from the postwar, urban renewal era, where schools and neighborhoods with relatively higher proportions of white, affluent families are invested in, while those in nonwhite, working-class and working-poor neighborhoods are neglected.

Between 2013 and 2018, when the district was facing the impossible task of reconciling high capital and operational expenses with decreasing property tax and state revenues following the foreclosure crisis, thirty schools with low enrollments in predominantly Black and Brown neighborhoods were closed.[19]

Efforts to “right-size” schools meant that many others were consolidated—either by sharing a facility with other schools or transforming K-4 schools into K-8 schools.[20] While these consolidation efforts and closures removed many students from “toxic schools,” they also created conditions of prioritization, austerity, and zero-sum efforts to improve some schools at the expense of others. Overwhelmingly, facilities with more affluent, and thus more involved and vocal parents and advocates, received capital and facility improvements first.

Parents and staff noted these differences during a 2019 school district meeting for the failed removal of asbestos at the facility serving Ben Franklin High School and the Science Leadership Academy (SLA). The former is a neighborhood high school that serves the majority nonwhite, low-income population of the city, while the latter is a special-admit school that serves more affluent and whiter youth relative to the district’s demographics.

During the summer of 2019, the failure to remove asbestos properly resulted in greater exposure to staff and students and the immediate closure of the schools for months at the beginning of the 2019-2020 school year. The district hurriedly moved students—placing SLA students in newer facilities and Ben Franklin students in older ones. As one observer noted, “I’m glad that SLA is there, but prior to SLA coming in, there was really no concern about the health of the children at Ben Franklin,” said Lou Williams, a 1972 Franklin graduate and a former Philly teacher.[21]

Solutions to these long-standing issues of unhealthy school facility conditions and the racially differentiated urban governance shaping these conditions are complex. The city enacted a ten-year property tax abatement in 2001, stymying the primary source of school district budgets. The state, for over five years, has failed to implement the fair funding formula that would account for municipalities with historically low property tax revenues and high student needs. And the district, following its state takeover between 2001 and 2017, operated on an emaciated administrative budget that allocated massive responsibilities to a relatively thin staff.

As a result, engagement with the community, students, teachers, and school administrators is surface-level, and has only eroded more during the pandemic, with the new, mayoral-appointed Board of Education decreasing speaking time at monthly public meetings from three to two minutes.[22] The Environmental and Occupational Health Director of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, a position created to oversee the health of public schools given the lack of federal oversight for public sector employees by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has been routinely denied access to either toxic school facilities or school district data on facility conditions.[23] 

Parents are forced to come to the school district headquarters in order to download and scan Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act (AHERA) inspections (mandated by federal law to be available on site for public access) in a district that has over eleven million square feet of asbestos in its 215 facilities.[24] 

In response, parents and advocates have created the #RingtheAlarm campaign, hosting art exhibits and town halls to draw attention to the toxic conditions of schools. Parent activists-turned-councilmembers Helen Gym and Kendra Brooks have held city council hearings demanding data and accountability from school district officials. And, more affluent parents, such as those at the magnet school Masterman (whose asbestos conditions in the 1980s prompted the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to sue the school district), hired environmental lawyers and pooled resources to create a fifteen-point plan for transparency and accountability around the remediation of public schools in the city.[25] Nonetheless, the district remains steadfast in its commitment to not only avoid deep parent, student, and staff engagement, but to continue its mission of closing school facilities in the most underserved and socially vulnerable communities.  

Currently, educational advocates, educators, families, and youth are testifying in Pennsylvania’s Commonwealth Court to secure adequate and equitable school funds for hundreds of school districts that have been shortchanged the funds that they need to operate their schools effectively.[26] The outcomes of this case have important implications for educators who for decades have been struggling to balance their budgets in the midst of shrinking local and state revenues. But, even if the plaintiffs win their case, the funds will not be enough to remedy the long-standing challenges in the state’s public school infrastructure. Fixing our nation’s public educational facilities will take long and sustained funding from the local, state, and federal levels, and, as history shows, it will require policies and practices that address the long-standing class- and race-based inequities that officials have both created and sustained for more than a century.[27] We have an opportunity to create a future where educators work and children learn in schools that promote safe and equitable learning environments, but doing this will require support from all levels of government and safeguards to ensure that the inequities that we have generated in the past are eradicated in the future.

Urban Environmentalism (January 2022)


Akira Drake Rodriguez is an Assistant Professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Weitzman School of Design.  Her research examines the ways that disenfranchised groups re-appropriate their marginalized spaces in the city to gain access to and sustain urban political power. She is the author of Diverging Space for Deviants: The Politics of Atlanta’s Public Housing, which explores how the politics of public housing planning and race in Atlanta created a politics of resistance within its public housing developments. Dr. Rodriguez was recently awarded a Spencer Foundation grant to study how educational advocates mobilize around school facility planning processes.

Erika M. Kitzmiller is a Term Assistant Professor of Education at Barnard College, Columbia University. Her research examines the historical processes and current reform efforts that have contributed to educational inequality today. She is the author of The Roots of Educational Inequality: Philadelphia’s Germantown High School, 1907 – 2014, which chronicles the transformation of one American high school over the course of the twentieth century to explore the larger political, economic, and social factors that have contributed to the escalation of educational inequality in modern America.

Featured image (at top):  Contemporary art on an exterior wall of the Universal Vare Charter School, formerly the Edwin H. Vare Junior High School, a historic junior high school building located in the Wilson Park neighborhood of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (2019), Carol M. Highsmith, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.


[1] Erika M. Kitzmiller and Akira Drake Rodriguez, “Addressing Our Nation’s Toxic School Infrastructure in the Wake of COVID-19,” Educational Researcher 20, no. 10 (Dec. 6, 2021): 1–5; Paula J. Olsiewski, R. Bruns, and G. K. Gronvall, “School Ventilation: A Vital Tool to Reduce COVID-19 Spread,” The Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security (2021).

[2] Akira Drake Rodriguez et al., “A Green New Deal for K-12 Public Schools” (Philadelphia: climate + community project, 2021), https://www.climateandcommunity.org/gnd-for-k-12-public-schools.

[3] M. G. Brumbaugh, “Report of the Superintendent of Schools,” Annual Report of the Board of Public Education, Philadelphia (1908), 57–59, Free Library of Philadelphia.

[4] “Children Huddle in Dingy Schools,” Evening Bulletin, Sept. 12, 1907; “School Board Finances,” Public Ledger, Sept. 25, 1907; “$5,000,000 Will Not Fill School Bill,” Public Ledger, Sept. 26, 1907, [all newspapers from Free Library of Philadelphia Newspaper Division].

[5] “Children Huddled in Dingy Schools,” Evening Bulletin, Sept. 12, 1907.

[6] “Educators Will Fight for Loan,” Evening Bulletin, Sept. 10, 1907; “Teachers to Work for $5,000,000 Loan,” Evening Bulletin, Sept. 12, 1907; “Fight for Passage of School Loan,” Evening Bulletin, Sept. 13, 1907; “Insist That Schools Need $5,000,000 Loan,” Public Ledger, Sept. 19, 1907.

[7] “Board Calls Off Fight on Loan,” Evening Bulletin, Oct. 9, 1907.

[8] Brumbaugh, “Report of the Superintendent.”

[9] Annual Report of the Board of Public Education, Philadelphia, 1929 and Annual Report, Board of Public Education, Philadelphia, 1939.

[10] Annual Report, Board of Public Education, Philadelphia, 1920; United States Census, 1920. Map created by Erika M. Kitzmiller and Jack McGrath.

[11] Vincent P. Franklin, The Education of Black Philadelphia: The Social and Educational History of a Minority Community, 1900-1950 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1979), 49.

[12] Franklin, Education of Black Philadelphia, 49.

[13] Lisa Levenstein, A Movement Without Marches: African American Women and the Politics of Poverty in Postwar Philadelphia  (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009), 126.

[14] Michael Clapper, “The Constructed World of Postwar Philadelphia Area Schools: Site Selection, Architecture, and the Landscape of Inequality” Ph.D. dissertation, University of Pennsylvania, 32.

[15] Clapper, “Constructed World of Postwar Philadelphia Area Schools”; Levenstein, Movement Without Marches, 130–31.

[16] Middle States, “Report of the Visiting Committee on the Evaluation of the Benjamin Franklin High School,” May 25, 1951, box 20, folder 26, Floyd Logan Collection; “Report on Franklin High,” Philadelphia Tribune, Oct. 9, 1951.

[17] “Ben Franklin Probe,” Philadelphia Tribune, October 13, 1951.

[18] Photograph, Benjamin Franklin High School, Philadelphia, Evening Bulletin, Sept. 6, 1958, https://digital.library.temple.edu/digital/collection/p15037coll3/id/62597.

[19] Erika M. Kitzmiller and Julia McWilliams, “Mass school closures and the politics of race, value, and disposability in Philadelphia,” Teachers College Record 121, no. 1 (2019): 1-44.

[20] Ariel H. Bierbaum, “Managing shrinkage by “right-sizing” schools: The case of school closures in Philadelphia.” Journal of Urban Affairs 42, no. 3 (2020): 450-473.

[21] Avi Wolfman-Arendt, “After Contentious Town Hall, Philly High Schools Could Be Closed Longer than Expected,” WHYY, Oct. 7, 2019.

[22] Kristen A. Graham, “The Philly School Board is Facing Legal Challenges to its New Public Comment Policy,” Philadelphia Inquirer, Mar. 19, 2021.

[23] Kristen A. Graham, “Mold Flagged by a Philly Teacher Will Be Remediated — After the Union’s Environmental Expert was Escorted out of the School” Philadelphia Inquirer, Sept. 17, 2021.

[24] Wendy Ruderman, Barbara Laker, and Dylan Purcell, “Dangerous Asbestos Levels Could Pose Risks to Students,” Philadelphia Inquirer, May 10, 2018.

[25] Kristen A. Graham, “Masterman Teachers Plan to Work Outside Because of Asbestos,” Philadelphia Inquirer, Aug. 25, 2021.

[26] Avi Wolfman-Arent, “School funding in Pa. is about to go on trial — here’s what you need to know,” WHYY, Nov. 8, 2021, https://whyy.org/articles/school-funding-in-pa-is-about-to-go-on-trial-heres-what-you-need-to-know/; Mallory Falk, “Pa. school funding trial kicks off with competing visions of ‘thorough and efficient’” WHYY, Nov. 12, 2021, https://whyy.org/articles/its-about-children-struggling-pa-school-funding-trial-kicks-off-with-plea-by-plaintiffs/.

[27] Akira Drake Rodriguez et al., “A Green New Deal for K-12 Public Schools” (Philadelphia: climate + community project, 2021), https://www.climateandcommunity.org/gnd-for-k-12-public-schools.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.