Erika Kitzmiller

Historian - Ethnographer - Educator

This story traces the transformation of an American high school over the course of the twentieth century.  In 1914, when Germantown High School officially opened, Martin G. Brumbaugh, the superintendent of the School District of Philadelphia, told residents that they had one of the finest high schools in the nation.  When it opened, this neighborhood high school, located in a quaint, suburban neighborhood on Philadelphia’s northwest corner, provided Germantown youth with a first-rate education and the necessary credentials to secure a prosperous future.  In 2013, almost a century later, William Hite, the superintendent of schools, announced that Germantown High School was one of 41 schools slated for closure due to low academic achievement. How is it that over the course of one century, Germantown High School, like so many other schools that serve low-income students of color, transformed from one of the finest institutions in the nation to the prototype of an urban school beyond repair?

My study, The Roots of Educational Inequality, is the first study to explore the political, economic, and social factors that contributed to the transformation of American high schools and the escalation of educational inequality over the course of the entire twentieth century.  This book links the history of a comprehensive high school to the history of its local community to its city, state, and nation. Through a fresh, longitudinal analysis that investigates daily events rather than focusing solely on key turning points, this study challenges conventional, declension narratives that suggest that American high schools have moved steadily from pillars of success to institutions of failures.  Instead, this work demonstrates that educational inequality has been embedded in our nation’s urban high schools since their founding.   My book manuscript argues that urban schools were never funded adequately.  Since the beginning of the twentieth century, urban school districts lacked the tax revenues needed to operate their schools.  Rather than raising taxes, these school districts relied on private philanthropy to subsidize a lack of government aid.  Over time, this philanthropy disappeared leaving urban schools with inadequate funds and exacerbating the level of educational inequality. 

This manuscript has been supported with generous support and fellowships from the University of Pennsylvania's Graduate School of Education, the School of Arts and Sciences, Harvard University's Hutchins Center, the National Academy of Education, and the Spencer Foundation.  It is currently under review with the University of Pennsylvania Press.