While education is now a matter of national significance and locally managed through electoral politics, it was initially a religious pursuit coordinated by local communities. In Pennsylvania specifically, the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) established schools as early as 1689.
Those efforts expanded throughout southeastern Pennsylvania and especially into Chester County as early as the first decade of the 18th century. By the 1750s, Chester County Quakers had already established numerous schools under the guidance of the Kennett Monthly Meeting, including Friends schools in New Garden, Bradford, and Kennett Square. Quakers, however, were significantly affected by the American Revolution. As a result, the Society of Friends turned inward and limited admittance to their schools as a matter of self-preservation. Furthermore, the new United States Constitution was ratified with no educational mandate, thus making access to school a matter of proximity and luck, especially for families in and around Kennett Square.
The most common school established in Chester County in the years after the Revolution was the “dame school.” These schools were operated by local mothers who took it upon themselves to instruct their children and those of their neighbors. Several of these dame schools existed in and around Kennett for the better part of twenty-five years. Even still, no matter their dedication or success, these dame schools were fundamentally unsustainable, as indicated by the significant push for common school legislation in the first few decades of the nineteenth century.
From the end of the Revolution through to the 1850s, the commonwealth passed various laws, some more successful than others, attempting to establish – and fund – a baseline common education for children across the Commonwealth. By 1854 when the state passed legislation requiring public schooling for each Pennsylvania County, Kennett was well ahead of the curve.
In 1850, five years before the formal incorporation of Kennett Borough, the Kennett Public School opened at the intersection of Cypress and South Broad Street. By the end of the Civil War, the community found a more permanent home by purchasing the land on Mulberry Street for $1,450. In 1869, the more permanent “Kennett Public School” inaugurated the formal beginning of public education in Kennett Square.
As Kennett was building their own school building on the new land, the outlying communities of New Garden, Kennett Township, and East Marlborough were establishing their own schools, too. As with any other one-room rural school across the nation, attendance fluctuated, and young teachers rotated in and out. Much of the specific goings-on and records of these buildings around Kennett – as far as we know – are lost, and the more nuanced and documented story belongs to Kennett Square.
Much of that documentation begins in 1876, with the first recording of the Kennett Square School Board meeting minutes on Friday, June 2. The 145 years of meeting minutes document everything from the mundane to the extraordinary. Between the end of Reconstruction and the beginning of World War I, Kennett Public Schools began to formalize operations. Each step was proof of the success and growth of the entire school system. As the schools grew, a level of professionalization was needed to help the community, the school board and teachers navigate the challenges facing schooling in the new century.
Therefore, on October 8, 1917, W. Earle Rupert, a Princeton University and Pottstown Public Schools graduate, was hired as the first supervising principal and tasked with establishing a level of professionalization. Rupert was serious about the future, deliberate in his vision and quick to get started. However, his initial success was limited by the emergence of the influenza epidemic and the effects of World War I. Yet, those limitations paved the path forward for a complete transformation of the district from a rural outpost to an institution with national recognition.
School consolidation became routine in various parts of the country in the decades after the Civil War. It was thought to be an inexpensive means of solidifying public education, especially in a state like Pennsylvania, where education remained very arcane and disparate.
Consolidation came before the Kennett School Board on the evening of Tuesday, November 6, 1928, in a letter the board received from Pierre S. du Pont. Mr. du Pont wrote of his willingness to provide substantial money toward the district’s consolidation with its neighboring schools.
Despite the sincerity of the offer, the district didn’t respond for nearly a year.
By the time the board had begun to discuss the prospect of consolidation in earnest, the entire economic landscape had changed. The stock market crash in October 1929 threatened the feasibility of the whole project. Despite this, the four school boards had finally reached a decision point, and there was little turning back. On March 4, 1930, the consolidation vote was unanimous. While the political end of consolidation took well over two years, the construction of the consolidated school building took just one. Construction ended in November of 1931 and was quickly ready for students with, as the New York Times highlighted in February of 1932, “every modern feature of a city school.” Kennett had come a long way from dame schools to one-room schoolhouses to the building that was the nation's envy.
But the construction of the Kennett Consolidated School wasn’t – and isn’t – a culmination or a final product. Instead, the consolidation is a benchmark the community uses to measure success and guide its path forward. The move to consolidate is a standard, a testament to the community’s expectation for bold measures to achieve the best possible education in their community. So, each morning, as students ascend the granite steps of the old Kennett Consolidated School (now Kennett High School) or any of our other buildings, they’re entering a space of the highest quality reflective of the legacy of the people who came before them.
A former Kennett Middle School Social Studies teacher, Andrew Malkasian is the author of a new publication documenting the evolution of education in Kennett Square. The book will become part of Kennett High School’s Real Estate & Tourism Pathway Program.