Celebrating Women’s History Month: Margaret Bancroft

During Women’s History Month, we celebrate women who were Upstanders in their community and truly transformed our schools. Today we’re celebrating Margaret Bancroft, considered the pioneer of special education. She created the first private school for children with developmental delays and made specialized programs for her students, helping launch the field of special education.

“When the public awakens to this necessity for [special education] as it has for the deaf and blind, then and only then will we see the results which can be attained.

– Margaret Bancroft

Margaret Bancroft was born in Philadelphia on June 28, 1854, the fourth of five children in a Quaker family. She spent her early education at Philadelphia Normal Schools. After her graduation, she began her career as a teacher in Philadelphia, taking the first step in her long legacy as a special education pioneer.

At 29, Bancroft left Philadelphia to open what would become the Bancroft Training School, one of the earliest schools in the country dedicated to educating students with special needs.

Under the Bancroft Training School’s program, students got appropriate nutrition and personal hygiene and opportunities for exercise, prayer, and creative expression. Bancroft also provided adapted materials that were right for her students, facilitated by specially trained teachers.

In addition to her work as an educator, Margaret Bancroft was also involved in the Haddon Fortnightly woman’s club, a group founded to provide and advocate for educational, literary, and social interests for women outside the home. 

Margaret Bancroft’s Lasting Impact on SEL

Special education programs did not always exist. It wasn’t until 1975 that the government made special education programs mandatory in schools under the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EAHCA). Of course, children with disabilities still needed to learn prior to that law being passed.

In the 19th century, children with developmental disabilities were not given an education at all. Many of these children were either outright ignored or institutionalized in places where they were treated poorly. Margaret Bancroft recognized that these children needed a good education in the same way other children did and set out to change the status quo. 

By creating the first private boarding school for children with disabilities, Margaret Bancroft was doing two things. First, she acknowledged and prioritized her students’ basic social and emotional needs. Rather than casting them aside or consigning them to institutions, Bancroft created a space for them to receive needed care and attention. Second, she identified and devised an education program that met these students’ specific academic and social-emotional needs.

While she may not have called it this at the time, Margaret Bancroft was making an early case for the importance of social emotional learning. Today, schools across the country are incorporating SEL into their SPED programs as a way to more fully support students, and government mandates are in place to protect and affirm the rights of all students to receive a quality education. 

As we celebrate the impact of influential women leaders in education this month, we give gratitude to Margaret Bancroft. Join us for a deep breath of appreciation for her work, influence, and ever-growing legacy.

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