Great High Schools

Profiles on exceptional local students, plus the latest information on 25 public and private schools.

Quick Study
Main Line students dish about school, cell phones and staring down the barrel at college.
By Scott Pruden

High school is an adventure most everyone experiences—one full of excitement and angst, successes and errors, and a few decisions that, in retrospect, we wish we hadn’t made.

 

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But viewing the typical high school experience from the vantage point of adulthood offers a skewed impression of what it’s like. We see it through the prism of what we’d have done then if we knew what we know now. We observe from a place relatively free of pettiness, pressures from adults and the eagerness to please others for the sake of popularity.

 

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Still, it could be argued there’s very little that’s typical about high school on the Main Line, whether it’s public or private. When the hard numbers are laid out for comparison, the student bodies of both are overwhelmingly Caucasian. Each school has its share of caring, intelligent, well-trained teachers and modern educational facilities that rival those at some small universities.

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It’s easy to see why. Consider that several of the towns that form the core of the “old” Main LineArdmore, Bala Cynwyd, Gladwyne, Haverford, Villanova—are some of the wealthiest in Pennsylvania. With a tax base so flush with wealth, public schools have no shortage of resources, and the nearly 40 private schools in and around the area draw from an extensive pool of willing and financially able potential students.

 

But statistics don’t tell the story of a teenager’s daily life during four very pivotal years. Neither, for that matter, do the pervasive stereotypes of Main Line students. The story is told instead in the structure of their lives, their challenges and successes, their hopes and aspirations.

 

To tell you those things, we’ll leave it to the kids.

Alexa Burchmore

Junior, Harriton High School

Alexa Burchmore would like to remind you that just because she’s from the Main Line hardly means she doesn’t work for what she gets. Asked to run down the stereotype of the Main Line girl, she ticks off the generalizations. “I think it’s probably rich and snobby; that you have all these designer clothes; that you don’t work for your money, and your parents just hand you everything in life—really spoiled and too big for your britches,” she says. “In most cases, it’s not true.”

 

It’s certainly not true of Alexa, who has a down-to-earth modesty and prides herself on the four-days-a-week babysitting gig she maintains to help earn money toward her first car. It’s all about priorities, she stresses. “Some people like to party all the time, but I’d rather earn my money,” she says.

 

Much of the rest of her time is occupied by school and pursuits like piano instruction, driver education classes (three hours each Sunday for 10 weeks) and SAT prep classes for two and a half hours each Saturday morning and some Wednesday nights from to For Alexa, it’s only the beginning. She admits to still being at a loss over what she’d like to study or eventually do professionally, but art has its appeal. “I love art, but I don’t think I could make it in the real world just focusing on art,” she says. Other academic interests include languages, psychology and marketing. “I’m just not settled on something I really want to do.”

 

That ambiguity only adds to the ever-present challenges that come with being a high school junior. “It’s just a lot of stress to have really good grades to show to colleges to say, ‘I am the student you want,’” she says. “I’m thinking there’s a lot of stress I see in my friends. They’re all doing all these honors classes, they focus on homework a lot—‘I have to study for this test right now. I can’t talk to you. I can’t do anything.’ So it’s pressure. There’s a lot of pressure from society that you have to do so great, and there’s pressure because you’ve stepped from a sophomore to a junior.”

 

The pressure is relieved a bit by Harriton’s social structure, which manages to avoid many of the pitfalls of high school cliques. Everybody will talk with everybody else. It’s not like the popular people just hang out with the popular people. It doesn’t matter what religion you are, what skin color they have. You just accept everybody for who they are and what they can bring into your life. You have to be open to all new kinds of friendships.”

 

Should those friendships include relationships with boys, Alexa admits to being ready but not having found the right guy—at least geographically. The potential has existed, particularly with a friend she met during her family’s time at the Shore this summer. But distance made things inconvenient. “Some people are really serious about dating and some people will hook up with other people and it’s not that big a deal unless you’re doing something really serious,” she says. “I would have a boyfriend if he was close, but you can’t take it too seriously.”

 

And whether it’s for maintaining a romance or just staying in touch with friends, Alexa says she and her classmates put tremendous value on their electronic lifelines—the computer and cell phone. Occasionally, though, even universal connectivity becomes tedious.

 

“Sometimes I think that some tools are really great because they connect us to people. I’m thankful for the Internet because I can e-mail my teachers or be updated on colleges,” she says. “But sometimes it’s too much. You just want to escape from all the technology.”

 

 


Blake Wexler

Senior, Conestoga High School

Had things turned out differently, aspiring comedian Blake Wexler would’ve been the kid who mocked the student government president. Instead, 17-year-old Blake is the student government president, constantly striving to maintain the decorum required of his office while still managing to slip in a joke now and then.

 

He admits he goes against the student government stereotype, which, he acknowledges, is a bit stiff. But running for the post of top student executive isn’t something he decided to do on a whim. His interest in student politics began in middle school and has grown through the years. “I have opinions on how to change the school for the better, and I thought I’d capitalize on that and use the fact that I make people laugh,” he says. “And for some reason, people seem to like me.”

 

On the other side of the coin is Blake the Comedian, who loves performing and hopes to make professional comedy his career. He’s already honing his act at local nightclubs, but is quick to note that he’s already seen how unpredictable the comedy world can be. And because he knows it’s unlikely to support him initially, he hopes to study television and radio or screenwriting and is targeting his college picks to coincide with “big comedy cities,” eyeing schools such as NYU in New York, Loyola Marymount in Los Angeles and Emerson College in Boston.

 

“Having a degree in something I enjoy like television, that’s just another thing that I could be involved in to supplement comedy,” Blake says. “I love entertaining people, and that’s a great outlet to do so. I could have just been the class clown, I guess, but I got a little more ambitious.”

 

While that ambition has driven Blake toward higher education, it hasn’t moved him to be quite as driven as many of his classmates, who he sees buckling under the pressure—both subtle and overt—to attend college. “Teachers, they’re sure to be politically correct and say if college isn’t the right path for you, that’s OK,” says Blake. “But basically it’s expected you’ll go to a pretty good school.”

 

The results of that pressure manifest themselves in a number of ways, he says, from students targeting “good” colleges with no real clue as to their career goals to others becoming physically ill in the middle of an SAT testing room. Blake says he could’ve easily let the pressure get to him, too, had he not seen his father go through a brush will illness last year. His dad has since recovered, but Blake confides it was a life-changing experience for him. “That taught me that there are more important things in life you should worry about, so I really don’t get stressed out about much anymore,” says Blake. “But I think that for most kids, it could drive them insane.”

 

There’s also a legacy, of sorts, he has fallen into—that of the last few Conestoga class presidents matriculating to the University of Pennsylvania. It’s another precedent Blake has no qualms about defying. It’s something he sees as nothing less than a blind pursuit of Ivy League glory. “There are a lot of kids who are shooting for the Ivy League schools, there are the kids like me and then there are the kids that don’t care either way,” he says. “I think my friends and I, we’re very passionate about our academics but we don’t feel like we need to go to an Ivy League school to succeed.”

 

 


Kristen Spady

Junior, The Agnes Irwin School

It’s easy for Kristen Spady to look back and see what she’s not missing. She remembers how many of her public school classmates in Philadelphia weren’t as interested in getting their work done as she was.

 

At Agnes Irwin, Kristen and younger sister Kiana (pictured with her sister above), who’s in sixth grade, carry on a family tradition of private education fostered by their parents’ desire to give their five children—one sister attends college while their two brothers attend The Haverford School—more opportunities than they had. Part of that included teaming up with the Steppingstone Foundation, which takes promising sixth graders and, using intensive coursework in addition to regular school assignments, prepares them for acceptance at private preparatory schools.

 

Our Best of the Main Line Elimination Ballot is open through February 22!