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?

I nod and tell Cox this makes sense; when this generation of kids enters the workforce, their colleagues are as likely to be Chinese as American. He laughs, and it quickly becomes clear I’ve missed his point: U.S. students may not be working with the Chinese, but for the Chinese.

“You read all those statistics about how one-tenth of the smartest kids in China outnumber all of our students,” he says. “So you better be creative and innovative if you want to maintain where we are on that world stage.”

Episcopal’s Ham Clark has a similar view. “Historically, Philadelphia is a pretty parochial community. There are lots of people who were very comfortable going to a Haverford or Episcopal 30, 40 years ago, and who had the sense that their lives were going to be lived in Philadelphia and this region, and that you just needed to learn this world,” he says. “Our sense now is that no one is going to be well served having the sense that Philadelphia is their world.”

What both men say strikes me as at once empowering and poignant. Yes, part of what’s driving this building boom is the need for these schools to remain superior. But there is also a sense that unless we do this, we’re all going to be inferior.


THE MOST DISCONCERTING PART of what’s happening with private schools isn’t what they’re building, but how what they’re building puts their students far ahead of the poor schlubs at public schools — and how difficult it will be for the have-nots to close the gap. When it comes to new facilities, private schools are blessed with two advantages. The first is limited bureaucracy — at most schools, what the board says goes, like it or lump it. The second is a pool of alumni who are only too happy to underwrite whatever needs to be built. Public schools, in contrast, get bogged down in politics and community issues, and their new buildings are paid for by taxpayers, who aren’t always so willing to part with a buck.

There may be no better example of the dichotomy between public and private than the battle in recent years to build two new, state-of-the-art public high schools in Lower Merion. On one level, the war is understandable. While neither of the existing schools, Lower Merion and Harriton, is new (the youngest part of Lower Merion dates to 1963, and Harriton to 1958), neither appeared in danger of collapsing into rubble. Wouldn’t a little refurbishing be enough to keep them competitive?

Maybe in the 20th century, says school board president Diane DiBonaventuro. But in the new world, not even close. “The technology our kids are using and learning about in the classroom today was literally science fiction when those buildings were built,” she says. “If all we taught was English composition, you could fix that kind of stuff. But for what our kids are learning in school now, there needed to be more.” DiBonaventuro and her comrades eventually won out, though the fight took nearly a decade, cost several school board members their seats, and still simmers.

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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