Frankford: Celebrating 100 Years at Frankford High School

The front entrance of Frankford High School, which celebrates its 100th anniversary this year.]

Dr. Thomas Mills, the Frankford Alumni Association president, graduated from Frankford High School in 1948 with 477 other high school seniors. All but two of the 478 individuals were white males.

Terry Tobin, the alumni association’s financial secretary and treasurer, graduated from Frankford High in 1962. In his first year at Frankford, he witnessed the voluntary desegregation of the school.

Joe Farina, a first-year health and physical education teacher and a wrestling and baseball coach at Frankford, graduated in 2004. Frankford’s demographics during his last year there closely resemble the current statistics.

During the 2008-2009 school year, the most recent school year for which data are available, African Americans made up the majority of Frankford’s student population at 62.4 percent. At 9.9 percent of the student population, Caucasians ranked third. Latinos were second at 25.1 percent. The high school had 1,921 students enrolled that year, quite a jump from the 37 students who attended the Central High School annex its first year, September 1910, 100 years ago.

“I’m not sure how many staff, how many kids, realize what a big deal 100 years is and how much it’s changed over those years,” Tobin said. “How many high schools in Philadelphia are 100 years old? I know of Central, I know of Northeast High School. I’m sure there are a couple others but not many.”

The original building that Frankford High School started in during its time as a Central High School annex.

Frankford began as a Northeast branch of Central, which opened in 1838 and is the second-oldest continually operating public high school in the United States and the oldest in Philadelphia. At that time, Frankford High School held its classes in a nearby mansion before moving to its current location at 5000 Oxford Ave. in January 1916. After the move, the school changed its name from Central High School North to Frankford High School and added the color blue to the original crimson and gold Central High School colors to differentiate itself.

Frankford High School started as all-white, all-male institution but began admitting women in February 1916.

Almost 30 years later, though, Mills’ class still resembled the first one. One female and one Chinese male were the lone minorities among the graduates.

“The student population has changed markedly over the years, especially since my time there,” Mills said. “It’s been a big change, so that the culture of the school has changed along with it.”

Frankford High School class pictures from the 1940s.

Mills graduated in 1948 but was supposed to finish high school in 1946. He quit and joined the Army because of World War II, though, and had to re-enroll at the advice of a school counselor.

“She said, ‘Well, Tom, why don’t you come back?’” Mills recalled. “I told her, ‘Ms. Friedman, I can’t come back here. I’ve been in the Army. I’ve been overseas.’ She said, ‘Tom, we have young men here who are 19 like you and haven’t been anywhere!’ So, with her encouragement, I came back and graduated in June 1948. We’ve got 56,000 graduates, and I always tell people that they could have elected somebody other than a high school dropout for [Alumni Association] president!”

Mills credited Frankford’s English program with his success as a freshman at the Pennsylvania State University and then at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business. He graduated from Penn in 1953 and subsequently earned three graduate degrees – a master’s of business administration from Drexel University and a master of arts and a doctorate from Penn.

“I would say that during my time there, Frankford conferred a degree that was regarded as a bachelor’s degree because back then, very few people went to college,” Mills said.

Frankford High School memorabilia collected by the Alumni Association.

Very few minorities, if any, attended Frankford High School before the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954. Frankford voluntarily desegregated in 1959, Tobin’s sophomore year of high school. Back then, Frankford served only 10th-, 11th- and 12th-graders.

“The School District went to desegregation [in 1959],” Tobin said. “We had a lot of blacks and Hispanics in our class. It was voluntary, but for a school to be desegregated, I think 45 percent of the students had to come from outside the neighborhood, and that killed neighborhood schools. There aren’t any neighborhood schools anymore.”

A common thread from Mills’ Frankford days through those of Tobin, Alumni Association Vice President Susan Feola and Farina was the school’s neighborhood vibe.

Feola, a class valedictorian during the 1970s, was supposed to attend a different high school but traveled farther to go to Frankford.

“I really did love Frankford,” Feola said. “It meant a lot to me when I went there. The staff, teachers and students were so connected. Everyone took time with you and had an interest in you as an individual. My Frankford days mean more to me than my college years at La Salle University. My teachers at Frankford were excellent, maybe even better than the professors I had at La Salle.”

Tobin, meanwhile, continued what Feola referred to as the “generational pull of Frankford.”

“I grew up in Frankford,” Tobin said. “My brother and sister went here. It’s hard to put into words, but we’re always talking about Frankford and high school. I still keep in touch with people from when I graduated. That’s why I came back [after moving to the Far Northeast and helping out at Abraham Lincoln High School]. That’s why I’m so involved here now and have been for about 10 years. It’s that tradition that sticks with you.

“I got the Pioneer Award [an annual award given to two graduates who have demonstrated outstanding leadership, achievement and service] back in 2001,” Tobin added. “That was, to me, the most prestigious award I’ve ever gotten because it came from my roots. This is where I started.”

That same feeling still holds true for Farina and fellow first-year health and physical education teacher Ken Artur. Artur has lived two blocks away from the school for 30 years. His mother, father, aunts and uncles attended Frankford. He said that when he was a Pioneer, he would “put Frankford up against any other school in the city.” Farina grew up in the neighborhood and still sees the brothers and sisters of his current students when he walks around the block.

Joe Farina, a first-year health and physical education teacher, attended Frankford High School as a student before returning in his current capacity.

“I’m a neighborhood kid,” Farina said. “I had a family at home, and I had a family here [at Frankford]. I’m continuing high school, but I get to see it from the other side every day. I know this school in and out, and it feels like the walls talk here.”

Farina taught at West Philadelphia High School last year but applied at Frankford for 2009-2010.

“I love Frankford, and I got really lucky to get in here,” Farina said. “This is exactly what I want to do in the place where I want to do it.”

Many of Farina’s former teachers now roam the halls with him. He estimated that at least 25 current staff members are past Frankford alumni.

Notable past alumni include Joe Bonsall, a singer for the country group The Oak Ridge Boys; Bobby Higginson, a retired outfielder for Major League Baseball’s Detroit Tigers; and Jahri Evans, an offensive guard on the National Football League’s New Orleans Saints. Evans will receive the Pioneer Award this year, as he helped lead the Saints to a win against the Indianapolis Colts in Super Bowl XLIV.

“There have been a lot of famous graduates, and it’s nice to say you had some famous people graduate from here, but, to me, more important than that, God only knows the number of how many plain, good citizens and people came out of the school,” Tobin said. “I think that’s a credit to the background you’ve got here at the school.”

“There are so many opportunities here,” Farina added. “When kids say, ‘This school sucks,’ I tell them, ‘No, you suck.’ I know people who graduated and are successful and working.”

The front entrance of Frankford High School, which celebrates its 100th anniversary this year.

Frankford’s culinary arts program, which is run by Wilma Stephenson, has achieved well-known status after it was profiled by the 2009 documentary, “Pressure Cooker.” It will also be featured in an upcoming episode of the “Rachael Ray Show.”

But, the high school still has work to do with its students and their Pennsylvania System of School Assessment scores. More than 52 percent of 11th-grade Frankford students scored below basic in reading in the 2007-2008 school year, and 60.6 percent scored below basic in mathematics.

Frankford also had 615 suspensions during the 2007-2008 school year and has made the state’s persistently most dangerous list for the second year in a row. A school with an enrollment of more than 1,000 students is labeled persistently dangerous if 20 or more dangerous incidents occur there during a particular school year.

Despite this, Mills still sees Frankford High School as a beacon in the neighborhood.

“It’s a wonderful old building, and it has a lot of character with all the medieval trappings,” he said. “It was set on a high point, so no matter what direction you come, you come up the hill and see it. As a consequence, Frankford High School dominates the landscape. It’s really a landmark. It would be criminal to tear this place down. For 100 years old, it’s in good shape. If I ever get to be 100 years old, I don’t think I’ll be in as good shape as this building’s in.”


  1. My mother, Adele Ruby Thompson attended Frankford and graduated in 1938. She was one of only three blacks in the graduating class. I am researching my maternal ancestors and decided to find out if there is any info. the school might have about her. She was the first African American to win a city-wide spelling bee but I don’t know the year. I understand it was reported in the Phila. Tribune…. Can you assist me?

    Thank you !
    Yours truly,

    Andrea Edmonds

  2. To whom it may concern,
    I was a graduate of the class of 74. And I was lucky enough to see a copy of the book 100 years at Frankford High School. I was looking through the book and seen a picture of my brother Michael Barth class of 72.

    The picture of my brother is on page 75, he is picture #7 the baseball catcher. It has 1973 public league champions. Just for the record, it was 1972, because Mike graduated in 72. The public leagur championship, was an honor for Mike, as he hit a home run out of Veterans Stadium. He always had a good arm on him, and proved it that day. It’s out of here!!

    Mike was also into ceramics in Mr Goldsteins class, Mike won many many many awards of excellence in art for Frankford, He was a natural on the potters wheel.

    I would like to keep the record straight as Mike is not here to set the record straight, Mike passed away in 1984.

    Thank You for putting my brother in this book, as he was so deserving to be in it.
    Helen Barth Class of 74

  3. Hello community,

    Last year I reached out to you in search of dresses, shoes and accessories in order to host my very first mission Project Prom, and thanks to you we were able to collect over six-hundred dresses that were later distributed both locally and to a young woman’s shelter in Colombia. The success of Project Prom and the overwhelming support of the community is now calling for a second round. Please help support me and my initiative with Project Prom.

    The first phase of the project is the most important and also the most difficult, which is the collection of donations. The second phase is then counting the dresses collected and figuring out how big the distribution event should be and who our audience will be. Please be advised that all dresses are donated forward at no cost to a local young woman in need.

    Thank you for taking the time to read this,
    Maryelis Santiago
    (215) 203- 2030

    Pay it forward and please share.

  4. I do not know whether it’s just me or if perhaps everyone else encountering problems with your site. It appears as though some of the text within your posts are running off the screen. Can someone else please provide feedback and let me know if this is happening to them too? This may be a problem with my web browser because I’ve had
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  5. It just saddens me to see Frankford become such in a sorry state, I too looked at Frankford as a good school with many dedicated teachers. Today it’s a reflection of the neighborhood and the downfall of Philadelphia where parents don’t care. Sad indeed..

  6. Hi My Grand mother graduated in 1938. She was one of three African Americans in that class and is still alive at the writing of this email. Are there any other survivors from the class of 1938?

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