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?

In 2001, the school’s board of trustees approved the preliminary step of buying 123 acres of farmland in Newtown Square. (Board members Brian Tierney and Brian O’Neill led a 90-day dash to raise the $20 million needed for the property.) The next year, officials made the dramatic announcement: They would move the school to a brand-new site on that farmland, 10 miles from the Merion campus.

When it came to designing the new Episcopal, Ham Clark says, there were two guiding principles. One was a focus on creating a campus where it was easy for faculty and students to interact. The other was that everything would be as good as, or better than, it was at the old campuses.

To make that vision a reality — and to ensure that the new Episcopal didn’t look like some run-of-the-mill public high school in suburban Phoenix — school officials commissioned four different architects to design parts of the campus. Among them was noted alum Robert Venturi, who designed a new chapel. (Venturi initially did drawings of a new EA chapel when he was a student at Princeton in the ’50s.)

The result of their work, and of two years of construction, is a rustic-looking campus that blends into the rolling countryside like some kind of newfangled farm — and contains better facilities than most small colleges and many small African countries. For starters, there’s the scope of what’s been built. In addition to Venturi’s chapel, the spire of which can be spotted as one drives down Route 252, there are four academic buildings (lower school, middle school, upper school and the science building); an athletic center (containing a 1,200-seat gym, a pool, a 4,000-square-foot fitness center, a dance studio, a wrestling area, squash courts, and a large fieldhouse for outdoor sports teams to use in inclement weather); and a campus center (home to two cafeterias, two theaters, the library, and oodles of study and social space). The buildings sit in a quadrangle, surrounded by more than 100 acres dotted with tennis courts, a track, and athletic fields. All this for Episcopal’s 1,200 students, ranging from 12th grade down to pre-K.

Just as impressive as the buildings are the high-tech bells and whistles. Every square foot of the campus has wireless Internet access; each classroom has an interactive flat-screen TV; every teacher will be equipped with a tablet PC, which can be plugged into said flat-screen TV to show whatever said teacher likes, from websites to student papers to selections from the school’s large, centralized video library. “Say you’re doing something related to the civil rights movement,” says Clark. “You can cue your ‘I Have A Dream Speech’ up and see Martin Luther King delivering that speech when you want.”

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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