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?

The new Episcopal now stands as the Versailles of Philadelphia private-school campuses. And yet the difference between it and what other schools are building is only in scale, not quality or ambition. Germantown Friends’ new science building, on which construction began last fall, will include, among other green features, geothermal heating and cooling and a “dashboard” in the lobby at which students can monitor the building’s energy use. Baldwin’s new athletic facility features a six-lane pool, a fitness center, and an indoor running track. And Germantown Academy’s master campus plan calls for new middle- and upper-school buildings as well as outdoor classrooms and wetland areas that will better connect students with the environment. Frankly, it’s impossible to look at what’s being built and planned and not find yourself in awe of the opportunities they present to kids. The driving mantra of the projects seems to be less No Child Left Behind than No Child Left Without Anything That Might Hinder His or Her Eventual World Domination.

“Clearly, I would say facilities are not the most important thing in a school,” says Ham Clark. “The key ingredient is the faculty. … ” His voice trails off, and he pauses momentarily. “But I look around at some of these facilities and say, ‘Wow.’”

IT’S EASY TO SEE all this as an exercise in extravagance and indulgence, particularly given that the knock on today’s kids is that few seem to know anything. In a 2006 survey, for example, 60 percent of teens couldn’t find Iraq on a map, and one-third couldn’t pinpoint Louisiana. (Which suggests that maybe the answer to our education woes isn’t jillion-dollar athletic centers or outdoor classrooms, but … how about maps? Would a few atlases kill anyone?)

The other dark view is that what’s going on here is less about education than the business of education. In this, there is undoubtedly some truth. After all, private schools compete for elite students not only with each other, but with strong suburban school districts like Radnor, Lower Merion, Upper Dublin and others. Prospective parents want to know what they’ll get for their 25 grand that they aren’t going to get for free at the public school down the street. A shiny new science building isn’t bad for closing the deal.

“I think there’s a little bit of both,” education consultant Mark Edwards says when I ask whether the building boom is being driven by mission or marketing. Based in Boston, Edwards has worked with several Philly private schools on their marketing plans, and he says it’s always touchy ground. On the one hand, private-school administrators are high-minded enough that the idea of “selling” their school is distasteful; on the other, they’re practical enough to know they’re competing in a marketplace. New buildings, Edwards says, represent an acceptable middle ground: good for education and for the institution’s image.

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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