Special Education Leader Spotlight: Margaret Bancroft


Special education has a long way to go before all of our students receive the education they deserve, but it’s come a long way from where it started!  One person we can thank for some of the advancements in special education is Margaret Bancroft, a pioneer in special education.

Bancroft was born in Philadelphia, PA in 1854.  She attended the Philadelphia Normal School and became a teacher.  When she was 25 years old, she left Philadelphia schools to open her own school in Haddonfield, NJ.  The school started with just one student!  Originally called The Haddonfield School for the Mentally Deficient and Peculiarly Backward, it was renamed in 1904 as the Bancroft Training School.

Her school was one of the first schools for children with developmental disabilities.  When she founded her school, children with disabilities were often sent to state institutions, where they were not educated at all—they were only isolated from other children and their families.  Click here to learn about the reform and closure of many institutions for people with disabilities.

Bancroft once said, “Special children must have special schools with well-trained teachers who used materials adapted to those children’s capabilities.  They should not be abandoned to state institutions where conditions were appallingly inhumane.”

At Bancroft’s school, nutrition, hygiene, exercise, prayer, and sensory and artistic development were emphasized.  Unlike the state institutions of the time, the well-being and growth of students was considered important.  Bancroft’s students also took field trips to places like circuses and museums.

Bancroft’s school rapidly expanded during her lifetime, and her legacy lives on.  The women’s club she founded, the Haddon Fortnightly, is still active.  The Bancroft organization now services children and adults with autism and intellectual and developmental disabilities.  It provides services like early intervention and at-home services, has a number of adult community living programs, provides transition services, has several rehabilitation service programs, and has a school, an early education program, and a residential program.  Bancroft works also inspired many in the medical profession to help children with disabilities, and helped changed societal views of people with disabilities.  Some of her writings are available here.

We are grateful for and inspired by the work of Margaret Bancroft, and hope that there are other world-changers out there to improve education for all children!