History of Norristown Area School District

The history of public education in and around Norristown goes back nearly two centuries. In 1834, the Pennsylvania legislature passed the Common Public Schools Act, which began the establishment of free public schools across the Commonwealth.  Prior to this act schooling was primarily a private affair, handled by private academies and church schools.

The Norristown School District (Borough of Norristown)

The Borough of Norristown enacted their own school board under this new law on September 24, 1834 and opened its first school on September 5, 1836 in rented rooms.  The first public school buildings erected by the district were the Church Street School and the Mill Street School in 1839.  In the same year, the district also set up a segregated school for African American students called the Colored School, which operated until 1883, after which students attended the schools closest to their home.  These early schools educated students of all grades in their walls.  The next schools built came as population in Norristown began to grown. First was the Oak Street School in 1849, followed by the Sandy Street School in 1851, Cherry Street School in 1852 and the Chain Street School in 1871.  Major population growth fueled by increased industry and immigration occurred in Norristown towards the end of the 19th century and into the first decades of the 20th.  This put a strain on the aging and undersized buildings of the district and resulted in several school buildings being constructed.  The DeKalb Street School opened in 1880, a new school building was erected on Noble Street (1888), while in 1894 the Hartranft School was built next to the Chain Street School (the two buildings were connected by a tunnel!). The first Winfield Scott Hancock School was built in 1898, and the current building replaced it in 1962.  The DeKalb Street School initially housed all grades, but after an expansion and renovation in 1899 the school now housed students in grades 7 through 12.  In 1901 the building was officially renamed Norristown High School.  Grades 7 and 8 were moved out of the high school building, along with grade 9 after the opening of new junior high schools.  The 20th century brought a flurry of school building.  Sandy Hill School made way for the Welsh School in 1906.  The Oak Street School was torn down to make way for the first J. K. Gotwals School in 1907.  The Markley Street School opened in 1915 in front of the district’s athletic field.  Both the stadium and school were renamed for Theodore Roosevelt in 1921.  The Washington School opened in 1922.  More population growth had the district further separating grades, with Norristown building two new junior high schools - Thomas Stewart JHS in 1925 and David Rittenhouse JHS in 1928.  The original Norristown High School building on DeKalb Street (renamed A. D. Eisenhower High School in honor of the first principal of NHS) was woefully overcrowded as the 1920s were nearing an end.  The hope for a new high school building came in the midst of the Great Depression, when Norristown was granted a New Deal WPA project to build a new senior high school.  This building, the new A. D. Eisenhower Senior High School, opened in 1938 and boasted modern facilities and space for 2,000 students in grades 10-12.

Education in the Norritons

Norriton Township operated schools in its own district from the early 1800s until the separation of Norriton into East and West Norriton townships in 1909.  Small schools in Jeffersonville, Port Indian, and Norritonville (on Germantown Pike) were operated.  After that, the two townships operated their own school districts for the lower grades, but paid tuition to the Norristown School District for secondary schools.  By the mid-20th century, East Norriton built and operated Penn Square School, Cole Manor Elementary (1957), and East Norriton Junior High School (1961).  West Norriton township built and operated the Burnside Elementary School (1926) and Marshall Street Elementary School (1957).

Creation of the Norristown Area School District

The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania ordered smaller school districts to merge into larger entities in the 1960s.  As a result, the school districts of Norristown, East Norriton and West Norriton merged into the Norristown Area School District in 1966. A new district administration building opened in 1968 on Whitehall Road, at the end of a large tract of land purchased to be the site of the new Norristown Area High School.  Paul V. Fly Elementary School opened in 1969, and Whitehall Elementary opened in 1992.  The new Norristown Area High School building opened on Eagle Drive in September of 1973.  This new building featured a 2,200 seat auditorium, cafeteria, large library, swimming pool and a television studio, and acres of athletic fields, among other new amenities.  Ninth grade came back to the high school in September of 1981 as the district population began to drop.  The former Eisenhower High School became first a junior high school, then a 9th grade building, and finally a middle school building.  Stewart and East Norriton also became middle school buildings at the end of the 1970s.  Rittenhouse Junior High School closed in 1981, as did Hartranft Elementary and Washington Elementary.  Burnside Elementary School closed in 1999.  Roosevelt School became an alternative campus of the high school in the late 1970s and remains the district’s oldest operating building having opened as an elementary school in 1915.

Educating in a New Century

The 21st century has seen continued modernization and improvements to the Norristown Area School District.  NASD moved 5th grade to middle school with the completion of a large addition and renovation to East Norriton Middle School in 2006.  Eisenhower became the Eisenhower Science Technology Leadership Academy in 2009.  Norristown Area High School saw a nine-room addition built in 2012, and a new artificial turf field on the NAHS grounds replaced Roosevelt Field in 2011.  The district’s latest building, the Musselman Learning Center opened in 2014 to house Kindergarten students.  Technology is been infused into all schools with additional computers, laptops, iPads, smartboards and other 21st century learning tools.  The district stands on the cusp of a 1:1 program with Chromebooks slated to begin at NAHS in the 2019-2020 school year.  The world is change, and the Norristown Area School district continues to grow and change to meet the needs of all students as it has throughout its long history!

Works Consulted:
McDonough, Richard A. The History of the Freedom Valley: Norristown. Valley Forge, PA: America
Responds with Love, Inc., 2007.
The History of West Norriton Township. Kittle Communications, 2009.
Celebrating East Norriton Township: 100 Years, 1909-2009. East Norriton Township, 2009.
Pennsylvania's Common Schools: A History of the State's School System. 2017,
www.pennsylvaniaresearch.com/pennsylvania-common-schools.html. Accessed 25
Feb. 2019.