Sarah Stout’s official title in the Lower Merion School District is principal at Black Rock Middle School, the educational palace in Villanova that opens its doors on the old Clairemont Farm/Morris Clothier Estate along Montgomery Avenue this school year. But listen to her talk about the new space, and it’s easy to imagine her in sales. That’s how much she loves the place.
It makes perfect sense that Stout would have great affection for Black Rock—and not just because she draws a paycheck from the school district that spent $90 million (give or take) to build it. The place is new. It’s shiny. It’s built for the future. And it’s filled with the sort of features one might find at an independent school. The new building will feature multiple gyms and a theater with retractable seating. In the “heart” of the facility, students can congregate and socialize. Gone are traditional classrooms, replaced by flexible spaces for large-group and small-group instruction and student collaboration. The campus also boasts multipurpose and practice fields, a track, and tennis courts.
After nine school years in the district that included administrative stints at Lower Merion’s other two middle schools, Stout has the good fortune of opening the doors to Black Rock’s 1,100 fifth-through eighth-graders. “As we were thinking about the future of education, the World Economic Forum did a survey in 2019 about the attributes in future employees that future employers will want,” Stout says. “They found that collaboration, creativity and communication were most important. We know our students will have jobs that don’t exist yet, and we want to prepare our kids with hands-on, problem-based learning so they can take information and come up with solutions. This space was built to do that.”
Last decade, demographic studies conducted by Lower Merion determined that the township’s population was growing. In fact, it’s growing faster than any other township in the state. Families without children are moving out, and those with young kids are coming in. New apartments continue to create higher concentrations of families. Lower Merion’s two existing middle schools, Welsh Valley and Bala Cynwyd, were expanding and adding on, but they couldn’t handle the expected swell.
The idea for the new school was presented in 2016. After some wrangling over where it should go and what schools would feed it, construction began in August 2020. The finished product sits on 22 acres along Montgomery Avenue. It covers 208,000 square feet over three stories, with a name derived from the rocks on which the school sits—a tribute to the indigenous Lenni Lenape people who used the material to make tools and other implements.
“We know our students will have jobs that don’t exist yet, and we want to prepare our kids with hands-on, problem-based learning so they can take information and come up with solutions. This space was built to do that.”
—Black Rock principal Sarah Stout
While there’s plenty of 21st-century technology at the school, its design is the key. Unique classroom and seminar spaces allow for a curriculum that fosters collaboration. “If there is a rocketry lesson being taught, students can collect data from a launch that takes place during science class,” Stout says. “Then the math teacher can help students analyze data, and the computer teacher can instruct them how to use an Excel spreadsheet to present it.”
Black Rock Middle School presents an interesting chicken-and-egg scenario. Population growth prompted a need for the school—but more people are coming to Lower Merion for its schools in the first place. “When one thinks about Lower Merion and the things that draw people to living here, clearly one is the school district,” says Dan Bernheim, president of the township’s board of commissioners.
A few years ago, the prospects looked pretty good for a new middle school on the township’s eastern rim. The Archdiocese of Philadelphia was looking to sell the 75-acre St. Charles Borromeo Seminary, and Main Line Health had an interest in acquiring at least part of it. Bernheim’s meeting with attorneys had gone well, and he was confident that a deal could be brokered. “After the meeting, I thought we would all sing ‘kumbaya,’” says Bernheim, a managing shareholder at Philadelphia’s Wilentz, Goldman & Spitzer, which specializes in business and commercial litigation.
In the end, the deal never was consummated. Main Line Health bought all of the property and is planning a mixed-use medical, residential and commercial development. The school, meanwhile, moved across the township to a site that’s had its challenges. First, space is tight for athletic fields. The school board helped alleviate that with the purchase of seven acres from two private owners near Stoneleigh in Villanova.
The shortage could be eliminated in coming years. For now, the school will have to shuttle students to and from remote fields, which concerns Cheryl Masterman, co-president of the school district’s ISC Board. “Our township doesn’t have enough open space for the youth in the area,” she wrote in an email. “It’s inequitable that Welsh Valley and Bala Cynwyd have space for their teams to practice immediately after school, while Black Rock students will rely on busing to a practice field, cutting into their time, and then must leave early in order to get back to buses at school to take them home.”
Black Rock’s student population draws from Gladwyne and Penn Wynne elementary schools. That means longer bus rides for Penn Wynne kids, some of whom live blocks from the Philadelphia border. Over at Bala Cynwyd and Welsh Valley middle schools, renovations will take advantage of newly available space. “They’ll be able to retrofit each grade’s area to provide double classrooms and other improvements,” says Stout. “The principals there have been working on this for three years.”