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?

I nod and tell Cox this makes sense; when this generation of kids enters the workforce, their colleagues are as likely to be Chinese as American. He laughs, and it quickly becomes clear I’ve missed his point: U.S. students may not be working with the Chinese, but for the Chinese.

“You read all those statistics about how one-tenth of the smartest kids in China outnumber all of our students,” he says. “So you better be creative and innovative if you want to maintain where we are on that world stage.”

Episcopal’s Ham Clark has a similar view. “Historically, Philadelphia is a pretty parochial community. There are lots of people who were very comfortable going to a Haverford or Episcopal 30, 40 years ago, and who had the sense that their lives were going to be lived in Philadelphia and this region, and that you just needed to learn this world,” he says. “Our sense now is that no one is going to be well served having the sense that Philadelphia is their world.”

What both men say strikes me as at once empowering and poignant. Yes, part of what’s driving this building boom is the need for these schools to remain superior. But there is also a sense that unless we do this, we’re all going to be inferior.


THE MOST DISCONCERTING PART of what’s happening with private schools isn’t what they’re building, but how what they’re building puts their students far ahead of the poor schlubs at public schools — and how difficult it will be for the have-nots to close the gap. When it comes to new facilities, private schools are blessed with two advantages. The first is limited bureaucracy — at most schools, what the board says goes, like it or lump it. The second is a pool of alumni who are only too happy to underwrite whatever needs to be built. Public schools, in contrast, get bogged down in politics and community issues, and their new buildings are paid for by taxpayers, who aren’t always so willing to part with a buck.

There may be no better example of the dichotomy between public and private than the battle in recent years to build two new, state-of-the-art public high schools in Lower Merion. On one level, the war is understandable. While neither of the existing schools, Lower Merion and Harriton, is new (the youngest part of Lower Merion dates to 1963, and Harriton to 1958), neither appeared in danger of collapsing into rubble. Wouldn’t a little refurbishing be enough to keep them competitive?

Maybe in the 20th century, says school board president Diane DiBonaventuro. But in the new world, not even close. “The technology our kids are using and learning about in the classroom today was literally science fiction when those buildings were built,” she says. “If all we taught was English composition, you could fix that kind of stuff. But for what our kids are learning in school now, there needed to be more.” DiBonaventuro and her comrades eventually won out, though the fight took nearly a decade, cost several school board members their seats, and still simmers.