Education and Schools in the Wissahickon Valley Region

It's officially Back-To-School Season!!!!


It's honestly my favorite time of the year when I was young: going back-to-school shopping with my mom, buying new clothes for the new school year, prepping up for my classes, etc. I remembered back then I LOVED color-coding my notebooks and folders by subjects: red for math, blue for science, green for history, and yellow for english/language arts. I was a BIG fan of Five Star notebooks in my days!


My mini-statement on schools:


School to me is about having that in-person experience and learning from others you may/may not know. School is about learning life lessons from different subjects, ranging from history to science. Teachers shouldn't just simply teach and leave for the day. It's their job to make sure their students are doing well, and helping them succeed. They shouldn't give up on them.


In my opinion, schools should only be taught the BASICS: Math, Science, English, even History. Back then, EVERY student was taught the basics. Not just the basic subjects, but also life skills.


Let students navigate the world themselves. Don't tell them what to think. That's considered INDOCTRINATION!


Below would be Mr. Feeny's reaction on schools/colleges TODAY:

Learn this month why schools are needed, and why schools were so important to kids and families in the old days. Learn how the Wissahickon School District, somehow, came to existence.



The school district that occupies the Wissahickon Valley Region is the Wissahickon School District. It's unclear, to me, how the school district came to be. Back in the 19th century, there were a couple of schoolhouses that existed, then demolished, or reused as residencies. I thought it's best to go back in time, and find information about the first/early schools that were established in each township/borough, and possibly find any connection to how the Wissahickon School District formed.


Whitpain's Earliest/Oldest School:


Early education in Whitpain took place mainly at home. Wealthy families hired school masters to tutor their children and some of their neighbors' children. Some children were sent to Boehm's Church School, founded in 1760. The land was purchased for a schoolhouse, adjoining the church, by Philip Dotterra and his wife Jannegan. This was considered the earliest school in Whitpain Township. It was the custom of early German settlers to establish a "parochial school." Nicholas Korndoffer taught the school in 1777.


The first schoolhouse in the area was located along Skippack Pike and School Road where the present school bus garages are located. The school was taught by William Knox around 1766, possibly the year the school was established.


Ambler's Oldest School:


The first school in Ambler was situated on Forest Avenue and Spring Garden Street. It was established in 1881, and was an outgrowth of the Ambler Independent School District. The students from this school came from Lower Gwynedd, Whitpain, Whitemarsh, and Upper Dublin Townships. Like every schoolhouse during the 19th century, it was a one-story, one-room building. The school was built by Albert Beck, a well-known resident of Ambler in the 19th century. Today, the Ambler Senior Center is currently located on that site.

Ambler's oldest school: Forest Avenue and Spring Garden Street (Late 1890s)
North Pennsylvania Railroad 1886 Philadelphia - Bucks - Montgomery Counties, Ambler; J. D. Scott, Publisher

Lower Gwynedd's Earliest School:


The oldest schoolhouse in Lower Gwynedd dates back to as early as 1721 mentioned by Rowland Hugh and Robert Humphrey, who petitioned a new road to be built by their homes which were halfway between the Spring House and Upper Dublin line. It was recorded that Marmaduke Pardo was the schoolmaster at the school in 1729. Marmaduke Pardo came to Gwynedd from Pembrokeshire, Wales.


How Wissahickon School District came to be?


It seems to me that how the Wissahickon School District was formed took place in Whitpain than in Ambler and Lower Gwynedd. So how did the three townships come together?


Well, there were a couple schoolhouses that were built around the 19th century, and somehow only one particular schoolhouse changed it all. The schools were established based on the laws that were created. It was the idea about establishing common/public schools.


The schools that were standing during the 19th century were the schools located in Whitpain: Center School, the Ellis School, Centreville School, Sandy Hill School, and Mount Pleasant School. They were around when it was decided to adopt the new Common School System in May 1836.


This was considered the beginning of free education in Whitpain. Those 5 schools mentioned above were private, independent schools. In 1834, the first common school law passed the Legislature under PA Governor George Wolf (And no, he's not related to PA's current governor Tom Wolf. Who knows?).


The "School Act of 1834" was objected by people in Congress, thinking the system would be "unsuitable for the circumstances of the people." In 1835, the law was nearly repealed by a decisive vote in the Senate, but in the House, Rep. Thaddeus Stevens led the opposition, securing a majority to oppose repealing the law. In 1836, under Governor Joseph Ritner, the law was amended.


The law allowed the school districts in PA the option to accept or reject the system by a vote from the school directors, who were elected by the people.


In June 1834, the Trustees of the 5 schools in Whitpain agreed to adopt the Common Schools System for a trial period of 6 months. There were oppositions to this and it was coming from German residents who preferred to have their children educated in private or in church schools like Boehm's Church School. On March 19, 1841, the election on free education occurred, and 89 votes were in favor of the system, and 55 were against. Hence, the five schools in Whitpain were created:


Center, Ellis, Centreville, Sandy Hill, and Mount Pleasant


The Gwynedd Board of Directors opposed the State system since 1834. The opposition to adopt the new system lasted for 6 years until 1840, when the school directors voted to accept the State system. The four schools in Gwynedd opened in 1844, and they were:


Cedar Hill, Dager, Maple Grove, and Penllyn


In 1887 the Pennsylvania Legislature passed general laws authorizing the establishment of high schools. The school directors of Whitpain Township wanted a larger, modern school building. That was how the Whitpain Public School was formed, located on the northeast corner of Skippack Pike and School Road.

The school was designed by Victor H. Baker, and built by Walter Shaeff of Blue Bell. Local artisans, also from Blue Bell, helped out: Benjamin Franklin Famous and Henry Steinbright. The school was established in 1895. The money for the construction came from the teachers' own salaries. The first principal and teacher of the school was William D. Beyer.


The school housed high schoolers from grades 9-11th grade during the early 20th century. The first floor of the public school was used for 4th and 5th graders after the Whitpain Township Consolidated School building (1916), which is right next to the school, was overcrowded. It was basically used as an aid to the Whitpain Township Consolidated School. Students in 12th grade, from the lower end of the township, went to Ambler High School while the upper end of the township went to Norristown High School.


Ambler High School held its first class in 1892. It was located on Tennis Avenue and Hendricks Street. It closed down in 1971, and was demolished in 1978.

Ambler High School (Late 1930s)
Montgomery County 1927 Reading Main Line Vol 1, Plate 031 - Ambler Borough 1, Upper Dublin Township 1; Frank H. M. Klinge, Publisher

Due to high enrollment in the Whitpain School District, new schools were built: Blue Bell Elementary School (1957), Shady Grove Junior High School (1957)*, and Stony Creek School (1964).

*NOTE: Before Shady Grove Elementary School came to be, it use to be called the James School (1786), then Mount Pleasant School (1849), then the Shady Grove School (1855). The James School was located on the property of Dr. Thomas C. James. It was finally obtained by the Whitpain School District for public school purposes in 1837. In 1849, the school was renamed to the Mount Pleasant School. This school, located on the property of Albert Thomas, was sold, and a new school was built 1/2 a mile away from Skippack Pike and Lewis Lane. It was purchased by the school district from Jacob L. Rex and his wife Sarah. This building was torn down in 1971.

Shady Grove School (1960)
Atlas of Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, 1871, Page 031; G.M. Hopkins & Company, Publisher

The Whitpain Public School was built to succeed the one-room schoolhouses in PA. Unlike any typical school building during the 19th century, its architectural features were very unique. The building is currently used by the Wissahickon Valley Historical Society. It's currently listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 2006 along with the Franklinville School that was listed in 2014!


The Ambler Independent School District was established in 1881. Ambler was incorporated 7 years after the school district was established.


The Mattison Avenue School building was built in 1903 in Ambler, and it was only used as an elementary school. This building was demolished in 1967, and was replaced by the Mattison Avenue Elementary School on adjacent ground. Mattison Avenue Elementary School closed its doors in 2013. The school served kids from K-3rd grade.

Mattison Avenue School (1904)
Atlas of the North Penn Section of Montgomery County, Pa., 1916, Plate 26; A. H. Mueller, Publisher

Lower Gwynedd, meanwhile, didn't have much development with their schools, and they were considered small schools. But eventually, the entire school system, including Ambler and Whitpain, was incorporated into the Wissahickon School District.


I guess that would explain why families living in Lower Gwynedd sent their kids to schools either in Philadelphia or in surrounding communities like Plymouth Township or Norristown. They did that to find better education for their children. Can't blame them! #schoolchoice


Wissahickon Middle School and High School were built, possibly due to growing population and new development since it took place during the 1960s. The current location of the middle school and high school is on Houston Road.

Over time, group of supporters of education in Whitpain petitioned for school houses to be built.


Subscriptions for a new school in Blue Bell urged citizens to perform,

"the most important and dignified of all parental duties: to fit the child for acting his part wisely and worthily as a man, as a citizen, and as a creature of God."

Statement, 1800


The Wissahickon School District was established in 1966, and the philosophy of the statement of 1800 lives on:

"To provide an educational program that will enable its students to recognize and accept their rights and responsibilities as participants in a free society."

Today, the Wissahickon School District consists of...

  • Wissahickon High School

  • Wissahickon Middle School

  • Shady Grove Elementary School

  • Blue Bell Elementary School

  • Stony Creek Elementary School

  • Lower Gwynedd Elementary School

Ever since I graduated from Wissahickon High School (2015), the school became one of the best high schools in PA according to US News. As of 2020, Wissahickon is ranked #8 in PA's Best High School.


**For the rest of the posts for this month, dedicating to back-to-school season, I will try my best to talk about the teachers and students, or anything relating to education, in the Wissahickon Valley region.**


Bibliography:


Clement, Deana. "Throwback Thursday | Ambler High School." Around Ambler. Last modified November 30, 2017. https://aroundambler.com/throwback-thursday-ambler-high-school/.


Historical sketches : a collection of papers prepared for the Historical Society of Montgomery County, Pennsylvania. (Norristown, PA: Historical Society of Montgomery County, 1915): 207.


Hopkins, G.M. Atlas of Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, Page 031, 1871.


Jenkins, Howard Malcolm. Historical collections relating to Gwynedd, a township of Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, settled, 1696, by immigrants from Wales, with some data referring to the adjoining township, of Montgomery, also settled by Welsh. (Philadelphia: Howard Malcolm Jenkins, 1897): 290, 395-400.


Klinge, Frank H. M. Montgomery County 1927 Reading Main Line Vol 1, Plate 31, 1927.


Mueller, A. H. Atlas of the North Penn Section of Montgomery County, Pa., Plate 26, 1916.


Quattrone, Frank D. Ambler. (Charleston: Arcadia Publishing, 2004): 64, 67.


Scott, J.D. North Pennsylvania Railroad 1886 Philadelphia - Bucks - Montgomery Counties, Ambler, 1886.


Simon, John R. National Register of Historic Places Nomination: Whitpain Public School, Montgomery County, Pennsylvania. Blue Bell, PA: Wissahickon Valley Historical Society, 2006.


Walters, Susan. "History: Local: CHAPTERS LVI - LVII: Gwynedd & Hatfield Townships : Bean's 1884 History of Montgomery Co, PA." USGenWeb Archives. Accessed July 23, 2020. http://files.usgwarchives.net/pa/montgomery/history/local/mchb0056.txt.


Walters, Susan. "History: Local: CHAPTER LXXX : Whitpain Township: Bean's 1884 History of Montgomery Co, PA." USGenWeb Archives. Accessed July 23, 2020. http://files.usgwarchives.net/pa/montgomery/history/local/mchb0071.txt.


Whitpain... Crossroads in Time. (Montgomery County, PA: Whitpain Township Bicentennial Commission, 1977): 78-90.


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