Best Schools 2009

When it comes to getting kids ready for the future, you never know where you’ll find great ideas. From writing to rocket-making, college counseling to cool cafeterias, here’s our roundup of local schools that are the best at what they do. (Feel free to crib their answers)

Nicole Curry, Phoenixville
Wacky works for Phoenixville Latin teacher Curry, who’s been known to wear togas and to rap — seriously, she kicks off classes with "When I say ‘salvete,’ you say ‘salve,’" to the beat of "Let Me Clear My Throat" — in order to get her subject across. Roman games, mythology-based journaling and classical art projects are all part of Curry’s curriculum, which has resulted in bronze, silver and gold medals for her students at the National Latin Exam.

Father Judge
In a sport — yes, sport — dominated by Southerners, the members of Father Judge’s all-female “super varsity” squad (made up, since Northeast Philly’s Father Judge is all boys, mostly of students from St. Hubert’s) don’t just stand out for their accents. They stand out for their seamless choreography of back handsprings, back tucks and stunts. The 36-girl team has won Top 10 status since it began competing in nationals in 2005. (Last year, the Crusaders took second.) Their theme song: “Philadelphia Freedom.” You go girls, indeed.

Moorestown Friends
The Jersey private school has your traditional clubs (debate, drama, model U.N., gay-straight); quirky clubs (barbecue, rocketry); Quaker clubs (peace, service); futuristic clubs (Japanimation, computer); and do-good clubs (Operation Smile, animal awareness). But it also has the “’90s Fad Club” to celebrate ephemera and phenomena like Pokémon and Crazy Bones, and “The Society for the Advancement of British Humor,” to play around with “British spelling and pronunciation of otherwise American-looking words” and, one imagines, to always look on the bright side of life.

Choir Director
Mark Thomas, Upper Perkiomen High School
You think the kids from American Idol have a rigorous touring schedule? In an average year, Upper Perkiomen’s choruses perform in 40 out-of-school locations (which have included Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, Chicago’s Orchestra Hall, and Europe), along the way collecting a Phelps-ian number of gold medals. Credit goes to down-to-earth music education doctorate Mark Thomas, whose global connections — he’s conducted orchestras and choirs in Prague, Vienna, and St. Petersburg, Russia — build international bridges for his students.

After-School Program
Boys’ Latin Charter School
School doesn’t let out at 3 p.m. at this Southwest Philadelphia all-boys charter. Instead, all 250 students fan out in the city for classes in fencing, Latin, golf, chess, lacrosse, mock trial, rocketry, jazz band and more. Last year, the program’s success inspired a before-school version, which produced the city’s first all-African-American high-school crew team; members placed in the Manny Flick and (for the most part) maintained honor-roll status.

Girls’ Basketball Coach
Bob Schnure, Downingtown East
Want your daughter to play on the area’s biggest stages for a high-school basketball legend-in-the-making? Make her a Cougar. In his 29 years as head coach at Downingtown, Bob Schnure has led his team to five state titles, 11 district championships and nearly 700 wins. Five years ago, Schnure hired former WNBA star Tina Nicholson as assistant coach, and since then, he’s landed his girls atop District 1 at Villanova’s Pavilion three times.

The Haverford School
At this Main Line boys’ school, mornings in the cafeteria (Café Teria?) begin with custom omelets and fruit-topped Belgian waffles. Noon brings major decisions, too: Organic salad or baked potato bar? Vegan stir-fry or fresh sushi? Dim sum or sautéed-to-order pasta? With a menu like this one, dinner at home — dinner at Georges, even — must be a letdown.

Theater Program
Germantown Academy
Bristol Township’s theater department may have been first to produce Les Mis, but G.A.’s circa-1894 Belfry Club — the oldest continuously operated high-school drama club in the country — has serious cred. (And not just because at its first time to the Cappies, the high-school version of the Tony Awards, Belfry culled 12 out of a possible 19 nominations and seven awards, including “Best Musical”). With three productions a year, plus classes in musical theater ensemble, drama and technical production, the program is intense. Says department head K. Richardson, “We’re not a big school — our talent pool is really small — but the kids are really smart, really hard-working. At G.A., that’s just the expectation.”

Language Program
The Episcopal Academy
Everyone is planning to teach Mandarin … next year. Newtown Square’s Episcopal has been doing it for an enterprising two years — which means when it comes to getting into an international program at Wharton, its students are already out ahead of yours.

Outdoor Classroom
Friends’ Central
Spring Mills sculptor Stacy Levy worked with architecture firm the Gund Partnership to develop the outdoor classroom beside Friends’ Central’s new science center in Wynnewood. It features Levy’s Watermap, a sandblasted self-draining map of the regional river basin; in rainstorms, the runnels and tributaries fill up and flow into the Delaware River in front of students’ eyes. “I want to make work that’s about the process of change in nature, rather than work that just imitates nature,” says Levy. Of course, it’s also just a cool place to hang.

Student Newspaper
Conestoga High School
Nationally recognized and award-winning, Conestoga’s seasoned student journalists learn to tackle serious topics — growing up gay, teen pregnancy, swine flu, illegal gambling — for their published-seven-times-a-year paper and even richer, ever-updating website,

Scientific Learning
Science Leadership Academy
Founded in 2006 in partnership with the Franklin Institute, this high-energy, high-tech public magnet school in Center City is attracting kids from around the city. Principal Chris Lehmann says that students learn via an innovative, inquiry-driven model inspired by scientific method. Every student gets a laptop, every freshman goes to class at the Franklin Institute, every sophomore and junior gets an individualized study plan, and every senior does an independent study. What’s more, the school’s engineering program has patents pending for a new way to produce biodiesel. Students also designed a solar water heater currently in use by Engineers Without Borders at a hospital in Sierra Leone. And oh, says Lehmann, “Our girls’ softball team rocks, too.”

Boys’ Soccer Team
Downingtown West
Soccer fever is finally sweeping the region — and West’s Whippets are ahead of the curve. This team may not compare to the Philadelphia Union (Chester’s new Major League Soccer franchise), or to the surprisingly victorious U.S. national team, but it seems to have a lock on the area’s high-school pageant, with two straight state final appearances and a recent number three national ranking.

Abroad Program
Truebright Science Academy Charter
Tiny, grades-seven-through-12 Truebright Science Academy Charter School in North Philly is only two years old, but for the past two summers, it’s sent students on European tours. The travelers, many of whom have never set foot outside their inner-city neighborhoods before, are selected by teacher nomination and, this past year, an essay on why they want to see the world. Students have bake sales to raise funds; parents pay only a cut-rate round-trip airfare. “Our vision of the school is that our students become productive global citizens,” says Truebright’s Andrea Giardinelli.

The Phelps School
That this Malvern boarding school for boys with learning challenges could qualify one team for the world’s biggest rocket competition is impressive. That last school year it qualified two teams — who placed 15th and 59th while attempting to send a raw egg exactly 750 feet into the air, then land it precisely 45 seconds later — is superior. This year, co-coaches Skip Turansky and Fred Kepner will become NASA-certified in high-powered rocketry and debut a physics class exclusively on the subject.

Pennsbury High School
Pennsbury’s biggest dance of the year has a national reputation as a “homemade” prom. And while it’s true that the entire student body decorates the gym, and also builds full-on floats for the pre-prom parade, and sometimes even creates crazy outfits from bubble wrap or FedEx boxes, the end result feels anything but DIY. Maybe that’s because prom night typically includes performances by the likes of John Mayer, Rick Seibold, Ryan Cabrera (pictured) or Asher Roth. No wonder alum Ann Shoket, who calls the fantastical tradition “legendary” and “authentic,” went on to become the editor-in-chief of prom-centric Seventeen magazine.

Football Team
North Penn
Our own little slice of Friday Night Lights. North Penn’s Knights brought home a state championship in ’03 and have proven more than capable of defending their 8,000-capacity castle in Lansdale. Every season heralds heated battles, double-digit win totals, and November playoff games to accompany turkey and stuffing.

The Baldwin School
Inspired by Frank Furness, built for sustainability, and more loaded than the Sporting Club (six-lane pool, indoor track, four courts for squash, five for tennis): If Baldwin’s months-old, 48,000-square-foot, absolutely pristine athletic center in Bryn Mawr were a private gym, you couldn’t afford to join.

Northeast High
Fifty languages and dialects representing 50 countries, the nation’s first nationally recognized Muslim Student Association, a pioneering gay-straight alliance, an IndoPak club that puts on fashion shows, and a super-strong ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) program: The Great Northeast’s great big neighborhood high is a great big example of kids getting along and moving up.

Springfield (Delaware County)
The secret to Springfield’s annual dance-a-thon success is actually no secret. The four-year-old event, modeled after Penn State’s, simply works exactly as it should. A few hundred kids form committees, beat bushes for pledges, convince local vendors to deliver hourly pizza and cheesesteaks, decorate the gym with streamers and JumboTrons, and dance until they can dance no more. Twenty-four hours later, they’ve raised $110,000 for childhood cancer care and research — more than any other student-led charitable event in Pennsylvania.

West Philadelphia Catholic
Home of Burr-Man, repping the school’s mighty Burrs. How, you might ask, does irksome plant material become a mascot? According to legend, Philly’s streets once teemed with kids in similar parochial-school uniforms; West Catholic kids were distinguished by the burrs from the trees alongside their school, which caught on their clothes. Hey, you go with what you’ve got. Now the alumni association can be found at, and the annual summer Shore reunion is Burrs at the Beach.

Boys’ Lacrosse Team
La Salle College High School
Three state titles in six years — and 24 All-Americans since 1993 — have made Wyndmoor’s La Salle the region’s pinnacle program. The Explorers, coached by former Philadelphia Wing Bill Leahy, feed multiple players to big-time Division I contenders like Loyola and Johns Hopkins year after year. Oh, and a number-one national ranking in 2008 doesn’t look bad on the team résumé, either.

Science Center
Chestnut Hill Academy
We know what you’re thinking: Another year, another private school with a $12.5 million science-and-tech center. But wait! This one is the area’s first LEED-certified school building, which, at 23,800 square feet — not counting the adjacent native species woodland arboretum and rain garden — is an impressive feat of environmental science in itself, what with its photovoltaic cells and wind turbine. As for the classes, the National Association of Independent Schools just named science chair Marty Baumbergerz “Teacher of the Future.”

Nicole Curry, Phoenixville
Wacky works for Phoenixville Latin teacher Curry, who’s been known to wear togas and to rap — seriously, she kicks off classes with “When I say ‘salvete,’ you say ‘salve,’” to the beat of “Let Me Clear My Throat” — in order to get her subject across. Roman games, mythology-based journaling and classical art projects are all part of Curry’s curriculum, which has resulted in bronze, silver and gold medals for her students at the National Latin Exam.

Kimberton Waldorf School
Lots of schools have a garden. Chester County’s KWS has a garden, a two-acre working plot in which students in grades six through 10 till, plant, weed, water and harvest fruit, culinary and medicinal herbs, plenty of vegetables, and “flowers for beauty,” says program director Celia Martin. Students do almost all the work in the biodynamic, raised-bed spread as part of the school’s gardening curriculum. The fruits and veggies of their labor get dried, frozen and canned — and incorporated into the school’s organic hot lunch program. And after every lunch, students collect and compost scraps, to be returned to the earth as part of, as they say at Kimberton, “the full cycle of food.” Yummy.

Public Speaking
Agnes Irwin School
The wisdom behind the 60-plus-year-old tradition of “senior assembly” at Rosemont’s Agnes Irwin is this: If you’re a teenager and you can face the student body for 10 minutes while you make a speech you wrote about, say, time travel, dog shows, synesthesia or Clark Gable, you can face anything.

English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL)

Seamless synergy: Lindenwold High School’s native Spanish speakers and Haddonfield High’s AP Spanish students come together, and, as of this year, Skype together, to promote understanding — literally. It works, too: In the past three years, Lindenwold’s growing numbers of native Spanish speakers have attained an impressive 89 percent on their English proficiency scores.

College Counseling
Young Women’s Leadership School at Rhodes
Public, girls-only Rhodes, in North Philly, accepts all neighborhood applicants and has a 95 percent or better rate of post-secondary-school acceptance. In a city where so few high-school seniors are accepted into college, such success is extraordinary. The key is a program called CollegeBound Initiative, which, according to counselor Sonia Szymanski, succeeds because of its high expectations, attention to “soft skills” (like how to speak to an admissions counselor), and assistance in practical matters, like helping a senior arrange — or even get to — a college visit.

Science Olympiad Team
Lindsay Lohan’s character in Mean Girls isn’t the only nerd to attain prom royalty. At this academically inclined Lower Merion school (number one in our ranking of the best public high schools), the coolest kids are the scientists. In fact, last year’s captain of the Science Olympiad team was considered such a stud, he became the first-ever “Mr. Harriton.” Royalty indeed.

Germantown Friends School
GFS’s culture is all about community, so much so that its stellar faculty offers extracurricular, writing-centric “Essentially English” workshops and invites sophomores, juniors, seniors and any adult — anyone — who signs up. It’s every kid’s revenge: Now parents get the same homework they do.

Boys’ Basketball Team
Lower Merion
First they had Kobe. Then they had the “Dawg Pound,” a raucous student cheering section. Now they have traveling tailgate parties, a highly trafficked website (, workouts with Bryant, and an exclusive line of Nike sneaks. Add a record of more winning seasons and state titles than any other program in the state, and you’ll understand why L.M. is the Duke of high schools.

Outdoor Learning
Wyncote Academy
If Al Ciccarone never told you he’s an avid outdoorsman, you’d probably guess it anyway. The Grizzly Adams look-alike is a master at giving kids with learning challenges confidence and chops via explorations of South Dakota’s Badlands, mountains in Wyoming, and Assateague Island — in all, 10 naturally adventurous trips a year.

Studio Art
Girls’ High
Architectural design and video production cleverly extend the art-rich curriculum at Philly’s preeminent public girls’ school, one of only a handful of schools nationwide to offer a full college scholarship for tuition and supplies to a graduate who plans to major in art.

Student Techies
Springside School
Love the Apple Store’s Genius Bar? Then you’ll also love iSite, the student-run tech group at this all-girls private school in Chestnut Hill. iSiters guide teachers and other students through the ins and outs of technology with small group sessions and private tutorials. So far, they’ve taught faculty members about new software, created a listening library of storybook podcasts for lower-school students, and run a school film festival.

The Hill School
Sure, the navy blue blazer and khakis at this Pottstown prep school are staples, but the varsity sweater with the big, blocky H certainly deserved its own page in The Preppy Handbook.

Vince Cotter, Plymouth-Whitemarsh
A master at collecting data, implementing technology, training teachers, communicating with parents, and, to be honest, tooting his schools’ horn, Vince Cotter has led PWHS’s move from the bottom of the Montco barrel to the top of the state. His timing couldn’t be more perfect, since his district is now known as the “new Main Line,” and Main Liners new or old wouldn’t have it any other way.

Student Leadership Program
This four-year-long class teaches a diverse group of students to spot signs of depression, bullying, drug and alcohol abuse, and other unhealthful practices among their peers, and then how to help mediate or find assistance. The idea takes the popular “Students Need Assistance Program” a giant step further toward prevention, and includes its own podcast-filled website ( for schools who wanna copy.

Each year, this midsize Montco high’s student body of less than 2,000 logs in a whopping 90,000 hours of community service. Abington’s full-time facilitator guides each student along a three-year “service learning” path, a graduation requirement that’s taken as seriously as any other.


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