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?

The new Episcopal now stands as the Versailles of Philadelphia private-school campuses. And yet the difference between it and what other schools are building is only in scale, not quality or ambition. Germantown Friends’ new science building, on which construction began last fall, will include, among other green features, geothermal heating and cooling and a “dashboard” in the lobby at which students can monitor the building’s energy use. Baldwin’s new athletic facility features a six-lane pool, a fitness center, and an indoor running track. And Germantown Academy’s master campus plan calls for new middle- and upper-school buildings as well as outdoor classrooms and wetland areas that will better connect students with the environment. Frankly, it’s impossible to look at what’s being built and planned and not find yourself in awe of the opportunities they present to kids. The driving mantra of the projects seems to be less No Child Left Behind than No Child Left Without Anything That Might Hinder His or Her Eventual World Domination.

“Clearly, I would say facilities are not the most important thing in a school,” says Ham Clark. “The key ingredient is the faculty. … ” His voice trails off, and he pauses momentarily. “But I look around at some of these facilities and say, ‘Wow.’”

IT’S EASY TO SEE all this as an exercise in extravagance and indulgence, particularly given that the knock on today’s kids is that few seem to know anything. In a 2006 survey, for example, 60 percent of teens couldn’t find Iraq on a map, and one-third couldn’t pinpoint Louisiana. (Which suggests that maybe the answer to our education woes isn’t jillion-dollar athletic centers or outdoor classrooms, but … how about maps? Would a few atlases kill anyone?)

The other dark view is that what’s going on here is less about education than the business of education. In this, there is undoubtedly some truth. After all, private schools compete for elite students not only with each other, but with strong suburban school districts like Radnor, Lower Merion, Upper Dublin and others. Prospective parents want to know what they’ll get for their 25 grand that they aren’t going to get for free at the public school down the street. A shiny new science building isn’t bad for closing the deal.

“I think there’s a little bit of both,” education consultant Mark Edwards says when I ask whether the building boom is being driven by mission or marketing. Based in Boston, Edwards has worked with several Philly private schools on their marketing plans, and he says it’s always touchy ground. On the one hand, private-school administrators are high-minded enough that the idea of “selling” their school is distasteful; on the other, they’re practical enough to know they’re competing in a marketplace. New buildings, Edwards says, represent an acceptable middle ground: good for education and for the institution’s image.