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?

Those who run private schools know the competition is only going to get worse. Indeed, the past decade and a half has been something of a golden age for private schools, which have benefited from an explosion in the ranks of the upper middle class and the large number of baby-boomer offspring. (The “echo boom,” as it’s known, produced the largest crop of graduating high-school seniors in American history in 2008.) But the pool of grade-school-age kids is shrinking, and in such a world, you don’t want to be the private school that seems to have walked straight out of 1954.

Still, even with all the negatives taken into account, you can’t help looking at the way the world — and education — is changing and coming to the conclusion that this is not only smart, but necessary.

“The days of a teacher standing in front of a classroom and imparting wisdom to students are over,” the Haverford School’s Joe Cox says as we wind our way through the new lower-school building. The focus these days, he tells me, is on collaboration, hands-on learning and interdisciplinary stuff — all of which means classrooms need to be more flexible. (I keep my Better Map Theory of Education to myself.)

The classroom setup is just the beginning. One reason the Haverford School is emphasizing science is because that’s what colleges, businesses and society at large are saying is important as we move into the future. New labs will not only let average kids do more hands-on science; they’ll also allow exceptional students to run complex experiments over long periods of time.

Similarly, Cox and company have made a huge commitment to art studios in the new school — not so much to produce future Picassos as to fire up student creativity in every field. “You’re looking at right-brain future creativity,” he says. “The book we read last year as a faculty was Daniel Pink’s A Whole New Mind — a celebration of the right brain. Our art facilities are going to be top-notch. Those creative powers the kids need, the innovative powers, are going to be fueled there, and on the sciences floors.”

The final piece of the new educational puzzle is an embrace of all things global. In the past couple of years, schools like Haverford and Episcopal have offered Mandarin to kids as young as middle school, and Cox envisions a day when technology will bring the world to Lancaster Avenue even more than it already has. He notes, for example, that the school has begun to invest in sophisticated teleconferencing that may one day seem as crucial to a good education as Elmer’s Glue and poster paints were to generations of kindergartners. “I think in terms of, if you’re going to hire a Chinese teacher, you can hire a Chinese teacher in China,” he says. “Technology can help us down the road. The idea of distance learning, the idea of a real worldwide classroom, the idea of a Chinese class here sitting in front of a screen, talking to a literature class in Shanghai, and talking about Macbeth … that’s the kind of teaching for the future and global education that we want.”