Is St. Joe’s Prep Still a Power Factory?

It produced scores of the city's ruling class, including Michael Nutter, John Dougherty and Jim Kenney. But can it keep going?

Nutter is exactly right. That’s what the Prep aspires to do. And yet as admirable as the Prep is as an institution, its record in generating political leaders is undeniably mixed. Too many of the school’s powerful grads have been men for themselves (or their factions) and not men for others. Fumo in particular is a stain on the school’s reputation that just won’t wash out, which its leaders readily acknowledge. “We failed to help him do enough self-reflection to understand his weaknesses,” says Father George Bur, president of the Prep as well as an alum. A soft-spoken man, Bur doesn’t hesitate to examine the Prep’s shortcomings: “I often ask myself, ‘Why isn’t our city better?’ I mean, we’ve been here for 160 years. So why isn’t it better? I’m always a little embarrassed that we haven’t done a better job.”

One obvious problem—if we’re judging the Prep as a power factory—is its single-gender status. Philadelphia is a city starved for high-level female political leadership. To date, there has been only one credible female mayoral candidate in the city’s history. And the Prep, given its interest in producing graduates who will pull the levers of power, probably has something to do with that.

Another theory I heard in talking to alumni is that the Prep’s intense commitment to Philadelphia has infused the school with a parochial quality that is altogether rare in the world of elite private high schools. The Prep of old drew its students from a relatively limited area, and most of its graduates went on to Catholic colleges and universities located either within or not far from Philadelphia.

“The Prep absolutely has the potential to send kids to the same schools that Exeter does, but they’re not reaching out enough,” says attorney Conor Corcoran, class of 1995. I ask him, doesn’t the city benefit when its best and brightest stay here? “If you go to St. Joe’s Prep and then St. Joe’s University, and you live at your mom’s house in Fairmount, you’re not going to bring the perspective to the city that it needs in the 21st century,” says Corcoran. “And the Prep should know that.”

Given the insular nature of Philadelphia’s political class, this critique hits on something important. And yet, as I listened to Corcoran, his appraisal didn’t sit entirely right with me. And I think that’s because the Prep of 2013 isn’t the same school it was when the city’s current crop of leaders was coming of age in the 1960s and 1970s, or even when Corcoran was graduating almost 20 years ago.

That fact worries Jim Kenney a bit. His affection for the Prep knows no bounds. But like a lot of alums, Kenney has noticed that the Prep’s student body isn’t comprised of the same sort of kids he went to school with.

Philadelphians account for only about 20 percent of today’s Prep students. The rest are drawn from an ever-widening swath of Southeastern Pennsylvania and Southern New Jersey. Tuition has reached $19,275. That’s still a bargain compared to, say, Friends Select ($28,580 in the upper grades). But the Prep is now well out of reach for many working-class families, even with financial aid.

And yet despite that, much of what made the old Prep so special survives. On an unusually balmy December m­orning, halfway through Latin class, I looked around and realized the scene could have been almost any day in the Prep’s past,
as rows of boys in rumpled dress shirts and sport coats bent over the same text—
Caesar’s commentaries—that Prep students have devoured for decades.

Every student I spoke to was self-
p­ossessed and courteous, and almost every student appeared genuinely engaged in the classwork. The faculty today is short on Jesuits, but the teachers—many of them Prep grads—have embraced the best of the Jesuit philosophy, and the students say they are, as a group, approachable and deeply engaged in their students’ lives, while also extremely demanding. Indeed, sharp criticism is as common at the Prep as it is rare in the legions of schools where self-esteem is valued over competence. At a public-speaking class in early December, Prep basketball star Steve Vasturia delivered a monologue from the film version of A Time to Kill. He was terrific. His pacing was spot on; his delivery was clear and convincing. But he wasn’t perfect, and the teacher and fellow classmates said so: “Don’t drag your feet.” “Use your arms.” “You didn’t pause before saying ‘Thank you.’”

On an earlier visit, I watched as the dean of students berated one of his ch­arges—at length, and with real gusto—for some unknown offense, in full view of his classmates in the cafeteria. They didn’t blink. And, in fact, neither did the offending student. It seemed to me that the faculty has the same basic outlook as those tough Jesuits of old: These boys are here to become men, and that won’t happen if we treat them like kids.

Indeed, many of them are working longer hours than their parents. Most Prep students wake before the sun rises, spend an hour or so on the bus before even reaching 18th and Girard, and don’t get home until 11 or 12 hours later. These kids might sleep in the suburbs, but for four years, the city is where they work and play. Which means that even as the student body has changed, the Prep’s urban setting is as much a part of the educational experience as it always has been.

The new makeup of the Prep’s student body is significant, though perhaps not in the way some city-centric alums fear.

For Kenney and thousands of other working-class Philadelphia Catholic kids like him, the Prep was the only elite school that was remotely attainable. That’s just not the case for most Prep students today. These kids are more privileged and far more worldly and sophisticated than past Prep freshmen. The chances that these Prep grads will be infected by the parochialism that afflicts some alums seem greatly diminished.

Most Prep students today have other options—access to quality public schools, the means to pay for tuition at other equally elite (and closer-to-home) private institutions. And yet they and their parents choose the Prep. They choose it partly for the tradition, partly for the access to the regional power club, and partly for the exposure to Philadelphia itself, in all its gritty glory. Daniel Hilferty, the CEO of Independence Blue Cross, didn’t go to the Prep, but he wanted his sons to. “The fact that it is in that neighborhood, which is working-class and changing in a lot of ways, that was something that was very appealing for us and for our sons,” Hilferty says. “The school connects them to the fiber of Philadelphia.”

Virtually all prep schools are training grounds for the privileged. The old Prep was an exception: an elite school that wasn’t only, or even mostly, there to serve elites. That has indisputably changed. But the Prep isn’t an Exeter, not remotely, and thank God for that. Instead, it’s become the academy of choice for a certain slice of the regional elite—a slice that values access to power, that gives a damn about the City of Philadelphia, and that wants its sons to endure mandatory Latin and four years of being told their job is to be men for others. The power factory is still humming.