Westtown School

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History

Westtown School first opened its doors in May, 1799. It was founded by Philadelphia Quakers who wanted to preserve and pass on to their children the beliefs that were central to them. They raised the money to build a boarding school and purchased 600 acres of land in rural Chester County—a full day’s coach ride from Philadelphia—where they could provide a “guarded” education in a healthy environment away from the secular influences of the city. For many years Westtown was nearly self-sufficient, with the campus providing raw materials used in construction of its buildings and food for the people who lived and worked at the school.

Although they had separate classes until about 1870, the education Westtown offered boys and girls was much the same even in the early years of the school, reflecting the Quakers’ belief in the equality of all people. Students studied reading, penmanship, grammar, mathematics, geography and science. Boys learned practical skills such as surveying and bookkeeping, and girls had sewing class.

The rolling hills and farmland on which Westtown School was—and still is—situated lent itself to many hours of exploration and recreation for the students and teachers. Camp suppers, hiking, birding, sledding, and ice skating on the pond were among the activities enjoyed by students. One young student, Samuel L. Allen, who attended Westtown from 1852-53, never forgot the joy of coasting down the snow-covered hills at Westtown. While working in later years on sled designs for his manufacturing company, Allen sent models to be tested on the hills of Westtown. One of these sleds was the Flexible Flyer, patented in 1889.

The 1880s brought great physical changes to Westtown. The main building was replaced with a structure designed by architect Addison Hutton, which was completed in 1888 and is still in use today. During the 20th century, the student body and the curriculum both became more diverse. Visual and performing arts were added, for example, and non-Quakers, African-American, and international students were admitted. Westtown’s commitment to service became more explicit with the creation of the Work Program and Service Network.

In the 21st century, Westtown has placed renewed emphasis on environmental sustainability. Westtown facilities now include buildings utilizing geothermal heating systems and solar panels to offset electricity costs, for example, and school vehicles are powered by biodiesel. The school supports community-based agriculture by dedicating a percentage of its 600 acres to farmland, some of which supplies produce for its dining room. The new position of Environmental Sustainability Coordinator is responsible for developing new initiatives, including curriculum, that reflect the most current thinking about how to live responsibly on the earth. 

Westtown’s Esther Duke Archives is a state-of-the-art facility dedicated to collecting and maintaining materials relating to the people and history of the school. Students and historians alike use the Archives for historical research.

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