Philadelphia's schools superintendent of the century

Philadelphia schools superintendent prospect Pedro Martinez (top right) spoke to district employees this week. One past schools chief was elected governor. ELISE WRABETZ / Staff Photographer
Philadelphia schools superintendent prospect Pedro Martinez (top right) spoke to district employees this week. One past schools chief was elected governor. ELISE WRABETZ / Staff Photographer
Posted: June 28, 2012

Sometimes history can give us perspective on a present problem. Take, for instance, the selection of a new Philadelphia schools superintendent, which is now down to two finalists.

Imagine if the city could find a superintendent who would prove to be so good for students and the district, and so widely respected, that he could be elected governor of Pennsylvania while running the Philadelphia School District.

There was just such a superintendent in Philadelphia a hundred years ago. His name was Martin Grove Brumbaugh.

As superintendent, Brumbaugh championed vocational schools, led the charge to give every school a playground, put his prestige behind the nascent Home and School League, and molded the new Pennsylvania school code according to his progressive ideas.

Brumbaugh was best known at the time for his rapport with teachers, having famously said, "I help schools most when I help teachers."

In his first annual report as city schools superintendent, Brumbaugh noted sadly that the schools were so crowded that students in class were sitting on bare boards, boxes, and window sills in dilapidated buildings. Afterward, he campaigned for "a decent school and a decent desk for every child in Philadelphia."

Oh, yes, and he also put an end to the then-time-honored practice of flogging students who acted up.

For an idea of some of the criteria we might look for in such a successful superintendent, here's a brief summary of Brumbaugh's resumé when he was chosen for the job:

He had a doctorate in English from the University of Pennsylvania, had studied at Harvard for a year, held two master's degrees, and had a bachelor's degree from Juniata College. At the age of 22, he had been popularly elected superintendent of schools in Huntingdon County, in central Pennsylvania. At 31, he had been installed as president of his alma mater, Juniata. He continued in that position — at the board's insistence — while he was teaching part-time at Penn (200 miles away) and even while he served as schools superintendent.

After a one-on-one interview at the White House, President William McKinley had appointed Brumbaugh the first commissioner of education for Puerto Rico, then newly acquired by the United States. Brumbaugh brought an American educational system to the island and modernized its schools, to considerable acclaim.

Brumbaugh was also the first professor of pedagogy (the science of teaching) at Penn. He had already published a half-dozen books by the time he became superintendent, several of which were considered classics in their fields. Their subjects included teaching methods for Sunday school (then at peak popularity), church history, Jesus' approach to teaching, and Pennsylvania German culture.

During his eight years as superintendent, starting in 1906, there were about 5,000 teachers and 172,000 students in the city's public schools. New waves of immigrants and their children, speaking a variety of languages, were flooding into the city every day. At a time of myriad challenges, he brought intellect, energy, and forthrightness to the task of doing what was best for Philadelphia's schools.

Then, in 1914, when the Pennsylvania Republican Party was seeking a gubernatorial candidate — perhaps in the mold of Woodrow Wilson, who had been a president of Princeton University and a professor of political science — they gave Brumbaugh a nudge. Seemingly without campaigning, by virtue of his popularity among educators and others statewide, he went on to a victory in the primary and general elections. He left the superintendent post to serve as governor in 1915.

At the time, the country was edging toward war with Germany, and here the commonwealth had elected a man who represented the best qualities of a large segment of its population: the Pennsylvania Germans. On top of that, Brumbaugh was a leader in the Christian Brethren sect, which from its inception had been known for observing pacifism as a core principle. Even so, he led the state in mobilizing all its considerable private-sector resources behind the nation's military might in that great "war to end all wars," while helping young men of pacifist principles find alternative service as conscientious objectors. Go figure!

Martin Grove Brumbaugh set a high standard indeed for future Philadelphia school superintendents.

Norman E. Donoghue II is a Philadelphia attorney and writer.

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