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?

And yet, to see all this new construction as merely the Neiman Marcusing of education is not only ungenerous, but misses something more interesting and more important: namely, the challenge of educating our kids to compete in the 21st-century global economy, and the educational revolution that (maybe! possibly! hopefully!) has begun to meet it. In truth, the Great Private Schools Building Boom of the aughts may be less about keeping up with the Joneses than about keeping up with the Chens and the Patels and every other overseas force determined to eat America’s lunch in the coming decades.

Which is not to say that some of what’s being built isn’t just eye-popping. Joe Cox looks down at one of the shiny chrome sinks inside the Haverford School’s new lab space and laughs. “This,” he says, “would make a pretty nice wet bar.”

PRIVATE SCHOOLS HAVE A LONG and significant history in Philadelphia. The oldest, Penn Charter, was founded by Billy Penn himself in 1689 (making it the oldest Quaker school in the world, if you’re scoring at home). Episcopal was born in 1785; the Haverford School in 1884; the Main Line’s most prestigious girls’ schools, Agnes Irwin and Baldwin, in 1869 and 1888, respectively. Literally for centuries, the region’s Best Families (or maybe the Almost Best, since the true elite have always gone off to boarding school) have entrusted their kids to these institutions, no doubt hoping that what they learned and those they met there would help ensure yet another generation of Bestness. And the roster of those who’ve walked through the various hallways is impressive, from Pierre S. du Pont (Penn Charter, 1886) to Thacher Longstreth (Haverford, 1937) to Brian Roberts (Germantown Academy, 1977) to M. Night Shyamalan (Episcopal, 1988).

It was in hopes of continuing to educate Philadelphia’s ruling class that Episcopal Academy — long among the elite of the elite, where today you’ll find the progeny of folks like radio host Michael Smerconish, Comcast exec Steve Burke and ex-Sixers coach Larry Brown — began having discussions about its facilities more than a decade ago. “Episcopal, in doing a strategic plan back in 2000 or so, had said, ‘We aspire to be in the top tier of independent schools around the country — we want to be one of America’s great schools,’” Ham Clark, Episcopal’s lean, salt-and-pepper-haired head of school, says one afternoon as we chat in the lower-school gym at the soon-to-open new campus. The problem was that the school’s physical plant — including both its Merion campus, which had been Episcopal’s home since 1921, and its satellite Devon campus, opened in the ’70s — were decidedly non-elite. The buildings were technologically outdated; there was no place in which the entire school could come together at one time; the athletic facilities had been stretched to the limit ever since girls were admitted in the mid-’70s.

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  • geoff

    The good news is that Bill Gate's revolution is well under way at a pubic school near you. I think you underestimate the public schools in around the world. There is nothing unique about what Episcopal or Haverford have done. There are public school districts in this country building out their own fiber optic networks. Everyday I participate in collaborative learning environments with children from all over the world over using 56k modems. They are building their own search engines and doing it in two and three languages. These are the children that will never leave their homes and be taking the jobs at Duane Morris or Glaxo Smith Kline that our kids where hoping to get. And what about the teacher? Not one mention of an equivalent investment in professional development. None of these fancy technologies are worth anything if the teachers don't know how to integrate them into the curriculum.

    This is a matter of just trying to keep up.

    And my wife and I have children at both these s

  • Lily

    When I first saw the new campus at my school, Episcopal Academy, I was astonished as anybody at how nice it was. I think everyone is aware of the singular opportunity we have with these facilities, and is extremely grateful for the opportunities we now have in athletics, technology, and physical space. I and many others have come to terms with going to such a nice school by treating it like an amazing gift, and I know that we should also increase our awareness of the conditions students have just 30 minutes away in Chester. At our old campus I have participated in many community service projects focusing on education, like tutoring. Students have run collection drives for school supplies in the past, and last year we raised money to build a bathroom in a school in Mika, Tanzania, in order for it to be able to stay open. There are students here committed to improving the educational environments of others, and this year I am going to try to increase the efforts, given the amazing improv

  • Christopher M.

    The anonymous Episcopal Academy student who observed the difference between her new campus and conditions of schools in nearby Chester, is astute. As someone who is working to improve one private school in southwest Philadelphia for 230 students, I am caught between feelings of inspiration, and sorrow. I'm inspired to continue motivating our support base to give towards our capital improvements campaign, which is 2.5% of the cost of Episcopal's. I'm also sorrowful at the prospect that the difference we make is tiny compared to the need in the city of Philadelphia. As I heard the mayor's Chief of Staff say just this morning, the quality of our young children's education will continue to determine the economic and social future of our city. Funds will not solve all our educational ills for the hundreds of thousands of school children in Philadelphia; however, it will provide a foundation upon which we can develop leaders across the region, and not only in the affluent outer rings of