Margaret Bancroft: devoted to children with disabilities for the first time

Margaret Bancroft: devoted to children with disabilities for the first time

Margaret Bancroft was born in Philadelphia on June 28, 1854, the younger daughter of Harvey and Rebecca Bancroft. She attended the Philadelphia Normal School, and immediately upon graduation began her career as a teacher in Philadelphia. Bancroft’s intelligence, imagination, and dedication to her students set her apart as an extraordinary educator.

She was fiercely devoted to the children. A talented teacher that had a dream that would eventually give children with disabilities an opportunity to learn the skills that any child without disabilities could easily grasp.

In her decision to teach children with learning disabilities, at the age of 25, Bancroft announced to the school board that she would not return in the fall, and the board members tried to convince her to stay and that one man declared that it was selfish for such a talented teacher not to use her energy to teach children who, in his opinion, were more worthwhile. She then told the board members of her strong and devoted belief in the ability of every child to learn, and in the responsibility of educators and doctors to find out everything they could about all types of children. “Special children must have special schools,” she said, “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.”

In 1883, Margaret Bancroft founded the Haddonfield School for the Mentally Deficient and Peculiarly Backward. She also helped organize the woman’s club the Haddon Fortnightly in 1894 with the idea that this type of women’s organization outside the home would promote the educational, literary and social interests of its members. Under her influence, the medical profession began to awaken to their responsibility to help correct defects and disabilities in children. Admirers of her skill came to train and later became leaders in the field of special education. It is a testament to the longevity of Bancroft’s vision that the club is still active today. In addition, her legacy lives on through the Bancroft Training School which now serves as a nonprofit institution with residential and day care. Relocated to a campus called Owl’s Head, the school is now a year-round evaluation and treatment center. She championed the cause of children with developmental disabilities and fought for their right to adequate care and education until her death, on Jan. 1, 1912, at the age of 57.

Collected Papers

At the time that she began her work, these children were rarely given any special training, and little attention was paid even to their proper housing and care. The problem, like many of the social problems of the day, had existed for generations without attracting attention. Society had not yet awakened to its importance.

Miss Bancroft’s understood these children as few others have ever understood them, she saw their helplessness, their utter need, and she was filled with a great zeal to make the world see the problem as she saw it. She preached the gospel of freedom for subnormal children, freedom from neglect and contempt, freedom from inadequate teaching, freedom from physical defects and disabilities. The Collected papers of Margaret Bancroft on mental sub normality and the care and training of mentally subnormal children, have been gathered together in the belief that their publication in the form of a little book will be welcome to many.

Image courtesy of EasyStand at
Image courtesy of EasyStand at

About Bancroft School

Margaret Bancroft was a pioneer of special education and in 1883 Margaret left her teaching position to open one of the first special education schools in the nation. Margaret founded the Haddonfield Bancroft Training School for the multiply disabled. Under its original name as The Haddonfield School for the Mentally Deficient and Peculiarly Backward, the institution was founded as a way for Bancroft and fellow educators to develop innovate ways of teaching developmentally disabled children. Bancroft created a specialized program for the physical, mental and spiritual growth of each particular student. The founder valued the importance of proper nutrition, personal hygiene, exercise, daily prayers, sensory and artistic development and lessons suited to mental age. Students were also treated to different forms of recreation, which included trips to the circus, theaters, museums and concerts. It was renamed the Bancroft Training School in 1904. Margaret saw the need for a school that welcomed all children by combining adapted learning, qualified teachers and compassion. Margaret’s innovation has left a lasting imprint on the world of special education and has shown the importance of offering all children the opportunity to learn.

For nearly 130 years, Bancroft has been making a difference in the lives of many. Her teachings are well known for helping people with disabilities, achieve fulfilling lives while improving their function, activity and participation in society. Bancroft is a leading service-provider for children and adults with autism, other intellectual or developmental disabilities or those in need of neurological rehabilitation. The services provided, include special education, vocational training, supported employment, structured day programs, group home and apartment programs both on-campus and in the community, short-term behavioral stabilization services for children, and in-home and outpatient rehabilitation services.

Patrick Dwyer found that as a nonprofit organization, the school is solely committed to supporting people with special needs and their families, and nowadays, the school is the fifth-largest employer in Camden County, N.J., helping more than 1,500 people annually reach their full potential for fulfilling and productive lives. The campuses, group homes and apartments, day and vocational sites span Camden, Burlington, Gloucester, Middlesex, Ocean, and Salem counties in New Jersey, as well as Southeastern Pennsylvania and Delaware.