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 have seen the future of education, and it seems to have a lot in common with a Phillies luxury suite.

[sidebar]Okay, I’m exaggerating, but can you blame me? After all, the science labs here on the second floor of the Haverford School’s new Upper School building — which is where I’m standing on this muggy summer afternoon, ill-fitting hard hat on my head, thick dust clinging to my shoes — are somehow reminiscent of those luxe Citizens Bank Park skyboxes that companies shell out big bucks to occupy. Framed by magnificent floor-to-ceiling windows, the labs feature not only state-of-the-art equipment, but stunning views of one of the Haverford School’s athletic fields. About all that’s missing is a cupholder and a chilled beer — imported, of course.

“The science wing is really the jewel of the new school,” headmaster Joe Cox says, fixing his eyes on the field below and agreeing with me that the view is spectacular. A former Army colonel with a down-to-earth demeanor and self-deprecating wit, Cox, 62, has spent the past 30 minutes leading me on a tour of the new $43 million upper school, which faces Lancaster Avenue and adjoins the institution’s longtime signature building, more-than-a-century-old Wilson Hall (which is also getting a face-lift). And there’s been much to see: a sleek library/information center; a black-box theater; several plush student study spaces; and spacious classroom after spacious classroom, all opening onto wide hallways that Cox refers to as “streets,” since they’re meant to be informal gathering places for students and staff. The purpose of this new building — Haverford’s third major project in recent years, following a new gym and a new lower school — is simple: to bring education for the 960 boys who go to school here into the 21st century.

“We knew we needed to do something about Wilson Hall,” Cox explains, noting that the place was literally crumbling before the school’s eyes. “It was a building that served its purpose for 50 years, and was then past its prime for another 50 years.”

The Haverford School is hardly the only local private school that finds itself overrun with cranes and construction crews. Drive around to various prep campuses, and you’ll see one new building after another — from a science center at storied Germantown Friends to a performing arts center at Penn Charter to a gym at the Baldwin School to the mother of all private-school projects: Episcopal Academy’s new, much-buzzed-about $212 million campus in Newtown Square.

The cynical view is that what we’re seeing here is the rich getting richer — an upscale arms race perpetrated by the affluent yuppies who control the boards of most of Philadelphia’s elite schools. This is a generation, remember, that’s rarely found an indulgence it didn’t wish to bestow on its kids, or come across a high-end luxury good it didn’t fetishize. Indeed, if you’re feeling particularly snarky, it’s not hard to draw a direct line of descent from the BMWs these folks snapped up in the ’80s to the McMansions they built in the ’90s to now, at legacy time, the science buildings and campus centers they’re bankrolling. At long last, conspicuous consumption has come to our institutions.