Margaret Bancroft (1854-1912) founded the Haddonfield Bancroft Training School for the multiply disabled.

Special-education pioneer

Born: June 28, 1854, in Philadelphia

Died: January 3, 1912, in New Jersey

New Jersey Hall of Fame, Class of 2021: Public Service

Margaret Bancroft was just 25 when, defying convention, she left her teaching job in Philadelphia to start a school for children with developmental disabilities. The school, located in a rented house in Haddonfield, New Jersey, started with just one student. It would endure to serve generations of special-needs children.

Bancroft’s teaching career began immediately upon her graduation from Philadelphia Normal School. She quickly developed a belief that all children, not matter their developmental shortcomings, deserved a chance at education. When she left her teaching job, some warned her that she was wasting her time and talents, but Bancroft persevered.

Launched in 1883, Bancroft’s school—originally named the Haddonfield School of the Mentally Deficient and Peculiarly Backward—implemented unique programs designed to stimulate the physical, mental and spiritual growth of the developmentally disabled. By 1904, the school was renamed the Bancroft Training School.

When Bancroft founded her school, children with special needs were typically institutionalized or isolated from mainstream children. Bancroft believed that with individualized attention, special-needs children could learn skills and gain a degree of independence. Her program also emphasized proper nutrition, personal hygiene, exercise, daily prayers, and sensory and artistic development. Recreational activities included trips to the circus and the theater.

Bancroft biographer Sister M. Krista Mote quotes Bancroft as telling her doubters: “Special children must have special schools with well-trained teachers who use materials adapted to those children’s capabilities. They should not be abandoned to state institutions where conditions were appallingly inhumane.”

Bancroft’s work informed future programs for special needs children and adults. She also inspired many in the medical profession to help the mentally disabled and helped change societal beliefs about the special-needs population. Her Bancroft School eventually outgrew its Haddonfield home, but continues as a nonprofit serving individuals at need throughout New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware.