My father's one claim to fame in the 1939 Northeast High School yearbook was that he was the shortest boy to graduate that year. At 63 inches, he was pictured in the yearbook shaking hands with the tallest guy on the basketball team.
A resident of Port Richmond, my father attended Charles Carroll Elementary School and John Paul Jones Academy before enrolling in Northeast in 1936.
In spite of the hardships imposed by the Depression, my father and his seven siblings, children of parents who never made it beyond fourth grade, all graduated from high school or business school. And note that during the same Depression, Northeast High still managed to produce a yearbook.
Throughout the 1930s, a decade marked by mass unemployment and bank and business failures that caused a falling tax base, Northeast High also supported a band, an orchestra, a glee club, and a drama club, as well as a stamp, an engineering, and even a Bible study club. The school could boast not only of having baseball, football, and basketball teams, but also offered track, swimming, gymnastics, soccer, and fencing.
Northeast High was built in 1901, in the heart of the manufacturing district at Eighth and Lehigh. Its original name - Northeast Training School - indicated its purpose: to educate boys to work in the nearby factories. Northeast produced several generations of workers who, like my father, were paid decent wages and raised their children in their own neat little row home until the bottom of the manufacturing industry fell out, destroying the neighborhood and impoverishing the next couple of generations of children. The school also produced my childhood optometrist and orthodontist, the sons of immigrants, many of whom entered elementary school unable to speak English.
In 1957, Northeast High picked up its name, its trophies, its mascot, and its high-performing "seats," and moved to Cottman Avenue, leaving the kids at Eighth and Lehigh behind. It took 30 years before the School District would build a new high school for the neighborhood left behind by the move.
The first-class public education that my father and others received in a comprehensive high school during the Great Depression is now in shambles. The School District that could finance a high school fencing team, a music program, and a yearbook during the dismal 1930s may not be able to provide schools with secretaries next year. The wonderful old buildings with marble hallways and Doric columns, gargoyles and Art Deco auditoriums, have been left to rot. A city that kept schools functioning during a severe economic downturn now can't provide the basic education needed to succeed in a 21st-century economy.
The schools are failing because Gov. Corbett, Mayor Nutter, City Council, and the superintendent are playing "chicken," a mean-spirited version of the game once played by my father and his friends in the schoolyard. The adults, however, aren't playing against each other. They are playing against vulnerable little children who may never recover once they have been knocked down by the educational, political, and economic currents that regard schoolchildren as something to be managed and manipulated like a hedge fund.
A city that truly cared for its children would find the money to provide them with a high-quality education. The School District of the 1930s serves as a precedent.