Class Acts: The $212,000,000 School

Led by Episcopal Academy and its new 120-acre campus, Philly’s elite private schools are in the midst of a billion-dollar building binge. Is it the rich getting richer, or the shape of education to come?

In 2001, the school’s board of trustees approved the preliminary step of buying 123 acres of farmland in Newtown Square. (Board members Brian Tierney and Brian O’Neill led a 90-day dash to raise the $20 million needed for the property.) The next year, officials made the dramatic announcement: They would move the school to a brand-new site on that farmland, 10 miles from the Merion campus.

When it came to designing the new Episcopal, Ham Clark says, there were two guiding principles. One was a focus on creating a campus where it was easy for faculty and students to interact. The other was that everything would be as good as, or better than, it was at the old campuses.

To make that vision a reality — and to ensure that the new Episcopal didn’t look like some run-of-the-mill public high school in suburban Phoenix — school officials commissioned four different architects to design parts of the campus. Among them was noted alum Robert Venturi, who designed a new chapel. (Venturi initially did drawings of a new EA chapel when he was a student at Princeton in the ’50s.)

The result of their work, and of two years of construction, is a rustic-looking campus that blends into the rolling countryside like some kind of newfangled farm — and contains better facilities than most small colleges and many small African countries. For starters, there’s the scope of what’s been built. In addition to Venturi’s chapel, the spire of which can be spotted as one drives down Route 252, there are four academic buildings (lower school, middle school, upper school and the science building); an athletic center (containing a 1,200-seat gym, a pool, a 4,000-square-foot fitness center, a dance studio, a wrestling area, squash courts, and a large fieldhouse for outdoor sports teams to use in inclement weather); and a campus center (home to two cafeterias, two theaters, the library, and oodles of study and social space). The buildings sit in a quadrangle, surrounded by more than 100 acres dotted with tennis courts, a track, and athletic fields. All this for Episcopal’s 1,200 students, ranging from 12th grade down to pre-K.

Just as impressive as the buildings are the high-tech bells and whistles. Every square foot of the campus has wireless Internet access; each classroom has an interactive flat-screen TV; every teacher will be equipped with a tablet PC, which can be plugged into said flat-screen TV to show whatever said teacher likes, from websites to student papers to selections from the school’s large, centralized video library. “Say you’re doing something related to the civil rights movement,” says Clark. “You can cue your ‘I Have A Dream Speech’ up and see Martin Luther King delivering that speech when you want.”