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 thing is, this was in Lower Merion — and if ever there was an area that could afford new schools, it was the Main Line. So what will happen when school districts with fewer means need to upgrade for the 21st century? Even worse, what about those areas — Philadelphia, or Camden, or Chester — where the obstacles to learning aren’t just financial, but cultural: violence, absentee parents, lack of belief in education itself? How will those kids compete against the whip-smart Chinese?

The obvious answer is, they won’t, and the great story of our age — of a society gradually but permanently pulling apart — will beat on.

In 2005, Bill Gates gave a speech in which he pronounced American high schools obsolete and called for a revolution in our education system. “Our high schools were designed 50 years ago to meet the needs of another age,” he said. “Until we design them to meet the needs of the 21st century, we will keep limiting — even ruining — the lives of millions of Americans every year.” It wouldn’t be the first time we remade the education system. It happened when we moved from an agrarian economy to an industrial one. (In 1900, only five percent of the population graduated from high school.) There were similar tremors from the G.I. Bill and the Cold War.

The good news is, Bill Gates’s revolution is well under way at a private school near you — though almost exclusively there. And so it’s onward and upward with the Mandarin-learning kids in their shiny new digs. Maybe one day they can do what their parents never could, and figure out how to bring everyone else along in their wake.

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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