Feuds: The Drama Club

If it’s not cell-phone towers in Gladwyne, it’s Ardmore’s makeover. There’s always something roiling the vodka tonics in Lower Merion. Right now, soccer moms are hot under their Tory Burch tunics over which (top-rated) high school their kids will attend

“I have a friend whose son is at Belmont Hills Elementary,” says the Penn Valley mom who bought her house so her two young kids would go to Harriton, as their father did. She says that Lower Merionites have deeply held beliefs about which school will be a better fit for their kid. While she admits that Narberth parents might want their kids to be able to walk to LMHS — one of the main objections that residents of South Ardmore and Narberth have raised about being redistricted to Harriton is that they’ll have to be bused — her take is different. “If Gladwyne is the richest zip code in the country, you might not want your kids with those [Harriton] kids” who drive Lexuses, she explains. Conversely, she says, “There’s a lot to this debate, and there’s some prejudices in there. I know the one theme that’s huge to this is the people who are putting their children in the sheltered environment where no one is too far below them.”
It’s fair to guess that Lower Merion’s school board members weren’t thinking about the massive social intrigue they would unleash when they moved forward in 2004 with plans to reconstruct their two aging high schools. Perhaps naively, they thought improving the schools’ physical plants would be a good thing. They also decided that since studies show children in smaller school settings learn better, this would be a prime opportunity to balance the sizes of the two high schools. The eastern half of Lower Merion, which includes the quaint colonials and twin homes of Ardmore, Narberth, Merion and Bala, is much more densely populated than the streets of super-upscale Bryn Mawr and Gladwyne. So Harriton High, situated about four miles from Lower Merion High School in a bucolic spot in Bryn Mawr, drew mainly from its surrounding few miles of mansions and stone farmhouses. Since the 1970s, it has been smaller than LMHS in Ardmore, which is within walking distance for many students. (Most years, Harriton has had about 900 students and Lower Merion High School about 1,500.) LMHS has traditionally had a much stronger sports program, though Harriton has a much larger campus. In many parts of the township, including Ardmore and Narberth, students had a choice — they could pick either school.
Residents who live near LMHS — and who crowded school board meetings over the winter to literally scream till they were teary and blue in the face about their distaste for having their kids sent to Harriton — maintain that the debate wasn’t about what kinds of SUVs the kids at school drive; it was about convenience. And it does seem unfair: Working parents were counting on their kids being able to walk to school and get themselves home easily after classes or sports, and assumed their kids would go to high school with friends from the neighborhood.