Building Inequality: The Constructed World of Philadelphia Area Schools
Michael Charles Clapper

About the research


NAEd/Spencer Postdoctoral Fellowship

Award Year



Saint Josephs University

Primary Discipline

This case study of Philadelphia area public and parochial schools describes how postwar school construction helped fundamentally transform American cities and suburbs. Faced with the rapid transformation of the old American metropolis – the surging growth of white suburbs and the relative economic decline of increasingly black central cities – planners had numerous opportunities to build new educational infrastructure. They might have employed new schools to integrate communities, to alleviate class or racial divisions within neighborhoods, even to revise the perception of education across metropolitan areas. As this project shows, however, even in the face of the daunting impersonal process of metropolitan change, the educational landscape of postwar America was not merely an expression of dynamics beyond policymakers’ control. New schools emerged from the complicated interplay between multiple stakeholders including planners, politicians, parents, teachers and activists. Assessing the institutions and individuals involved reveals how postwar school construction obscured or even legitimized injustices, hardened housing segregation, and embedded inequality into the metropolitan landscape.To recover the stories of individual buildings and their evolving significance to surrounding communities, this project utilizes historical GIS to analyze the sites of new facilities as well as the alternatives. Investigating demographic information and enrollment records from school districts and the Archdiocese highlights the critical role of schools in the making (and re-making) of urban and suburban spaces. Alongside oral histories, community group archives, and local newspaper accounts, this method contextualizes the developing meanings of schools for neighborhoods as well as the conflicts that all too frequently emerged over new facilities. And by fleshing out the tales of actual buildings, from the initial planning phase of tentative drawings and community meetings until their completion, this methodology centers school architecture as one facet of a complicated design process and demonstrates the significance of small, seemingly insignificant choices made about schools. Neither natural nor inevitable, the construction of postwar, metropolitan schools remains supremely important, since the resulting buildings and the larger educational landscape continue to shape the possibilities available to students, parents, and reformers.
About Michael Charles Clapper

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