Increasingly, the area’s independent private schools are diversifying and adopting a pronounced worldview. We provide snapshots of 23 of the best.
PICK A SCHOOL
• Abington Friends School, page 2
• Academy of Notre Dame de Namur, page 3
• The Agnes Irwin School, page 4
• The Baldwin School, page 5
• Chestnut Hill Academy, page 6
• Country Day School of the Sacred Heart, page 7
• Devon Preparatory School, page 8
• Episcopal Academy, page 9
• Friends Select School, page 10
• Friends’ Central School, page 11
• Germantown Academy, page 12
• Germantown Friends School, page 13
• The Haverford School, page 14
• The Hill School, page 15
• Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy, page 16
• Malvern Preparatory School, page 17
• Merion Mercy Academy, page 18
• The School at Church Farm, page 19
• The Shipley School, page 20
• Valley Forge Military Academy, page 21
• Villa Maria Academy, page 22
• Westtown School, page 23
• William Penn Charter School, page 24
Every spring, seniors from Abington Friends hit the trail for three weeks to learn skills, help others and get a taste of the wider world. Journeys this past year took them to worksites ranging from a Germantown farm to the Reading Phillies, from building houses in New Orleans to building show- business careers at a Los Angeles talent agency. Under development this year, the school-wide Exploring, Connecting, and Committing to Opportunities program will seek to match students with service, competitive or cultural experiences farther afield—even as early as kindergarten.
The urge to reach out is part of the Quaker tradition. Head of school Rich Nourie calls it “full engagement in the larger community that surrounds us.”
Established by the Abington Friends in 1697, AFS remains on its original site and in the business of providing an education strong in both academics and personal integrity. And in keeping with Quaker values, programs such as SEED (Seeking Educational Equity and Diversity) sow the seeds of social justice.
Last year’s significant capital improvements and additions have bolstered facilities and made this venerable Villanova campus into something of an arts magnet. The new Harron Family Building houses the library, a gymnasium/fitness-center, a writing center that provides peer tutoring, the president’s office, and additional classrooms. Adjacent Cuvilly Hall, home to the performing arts program, upgraded its lighting and sound systems, giving school shows a blast of Broadway.
Recent years have seen the conversion of the Bascome-Trexler Fitness Center to a dance studio and the construction of the Josephine Connelly Arts Center for art/photography studies and music recitals. “[The arts are] the hottest thing going right now,” says the school’s communications director, Alicia Mendicino. “Parents and students made it a priority.”
Located on the former estate of an early 20th-century Philadelphia industrialist, the school has its roots with the Sisters of Notre Dame, who nurtured young women displaced by the French Revolution. That mentality persists in the modern school, where service projects begin with the sixth-graders.
Every senior at Agnes Irwin must deliver a 10-minute speech before an assembly of 300 at some point during the school year. “Public speaking, and the confidence that goes with it, are part of our concept of women in leadership roles,” says Anna May Charrington, director of communications at AIS.
The venue for developing communication skills shifts to a workshop setting, where, last year, 40-plus girls gathered to explore the elusive art of dialogue. “We need to learn how to engage in a respectful way with someone whose views are different,” says workshop coordinator Louisa Mygatt.
For Agnes Irwin’s robotics team—dubbed “Femme Tech Fatale”—actions speak louder than words. In two regional competitions, the locals finished near the top after spending weeks cutting sheet metal and wiring their robot to perform specific motor tasks. Meanwhile, middle-school students built functional robots out of Lego blocks.
It’s no surprise, then, that several AIS grads will be studying engineering in college. That’s in keeping with the new head of school’s emphasis on “a 21st-century skill set.”
275 S. Ithan Ave., Bryn Mawr; (610) 525-7600, agnesirwin.org. Grades preK-12, girls only.
Click to pick another school.
The world has changed since famed Philadelphia architect Frank Furness built the second Bryn Mawr Hotel in 1890, but the chateau-like structure still dominates the Baldwin campus. This year’s school-wide theme is “Becoming a Global Citizen,” something that the Baldwin chapter of Girls Learn International has been practicing for two years by promoting human rights and boosting education at a school in Pakistan.
Meanwhile, the foreign exchange program here starts in middle school; this year, students will go to a school in England for a few weeks. And every other year, 60 music students travel overseas and sing up a storm—the last trip to Scandinavia, next March to the U.K.
Stateside, lower-school students make a presentation during citizenship induction ceremonies in Philadelphia. “They see all these people who want to become Americans—it’s very moving,” says director of communications Leslie Pfeil.
Founded in 1888 as a preparatory school for Bryn Mawr College, Baldwin is all about creating a learning environment, plus opportunities for self-expression and critical thinking, that best suit girls, says Pfeil. Notably, a monthlong bioethics seminar, conducted last February by the school’s Science Department and featuring University of Pennsylvania expert Arthur Caplan, challenged students to voice opinions on complex issues.
Chestnut Hill Academy has a strategic partnership with adjacent girls’ school Springside. Middle-schoolers from both schools join forces for arts and community service projects, freshmen and sophomores share some classes, and academics become completely coed for juniors and seniors. The sequenced curricula recognize “how boys and girls learn differently at different stages,” says director of communications Deidra Lyngard. “It’s the best of both worlds.”
Meanwhile, a new world has sprung to life on the Chestnut Hill campus. The new Rorer Science & Technology Center practices what it preaches—rooftop wind turbines and solar cells provide alternative energy, a storage system collects rainwater for recycling, and a display screen gives students a readout on overall energy savings. “It’s a symbol of what it means to be environmentally conscious,” says Lyngard.
The Rorer building also houses the upper school’s seven-year-old robotics program, which sends mechanized creatures off to scholastic competitions each year.
While its stellar crew team finished second overall in last season’s regional competition on the Schuylkill River, distant waterways pop up on the CDSSH radar screen. With 21 schools stateside and 130 more overseas, the Sacred Heart Network spans the globe and promotes student exchange. “It’s an incredible opportunity all over the world,” says communications director Marilyn Whiteman of a program that will have a CDSSH student and an Aussie exchanging locales for six weeks this fall.
Meanwhile, other students will hunker down with an integrated humanities curriculum that includes community service. At CDSSH—founded as a Catholic school in Civil War Philadelphia but lay-operated since 1969—it starts in first grade with clothing drives and singing at retirement homes. “It makes them aware at a very young age,” says Whiteman.
When the headmaster speaks, students listen. Particularly when the talk turns to matter and motion. In addition to fulfilling the headmaster’s duties, Rev. James J. Shea teaches physics in the classroom. Two years ago, Devon Prep was the only Pennsylvania High School in the nation recognized by the College Board for excellence in the “B” level of Advanced Placement Physics. How’s that for synergy?
Devon’s overall AP program is a school strength, as is its Roman Catholic faith. Established by Piarist Fathers in 1956, the school cleaves to the Order’s traditions but promotes independent thought—and a healthy measure of interdependence. “It’s a family atmosphere,” says public relations director Rose Lombardo. “You can’t get lost here.”
Sometimes, though, you can get lost in celebration. The completion of last year’s fundraising effort that netted $40,000 for the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia triggered an all-night round of basketball in the gym. Previous beneficiaries have included St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital, and additional Devon community outreach has stocked needy North Philadelphia families with clothing and Thanksgiving meals.
Newly installed and consolidated on the high ground in Newtown Square, Episcopal Academy uprooted itself from its longtime Lower Merion location and another campus in Devon. The preK-12 coed school, which dates to post-Revolutionary Philadelphia, has found plenty of breathing room at its new digs.
What hasn’t changed is EA’s commitment to community service—and sometimes the community is far afield. In June, a group of EA students spent two weeks in a rural Kenyan village ravaged by AIDS, building latrines, painting schoolhouses and teaching children, many of them orphans. “We like to challenge kids in ways they’re not always comfortable with,” says Michael Letts, EA’s director of communications.
Another example of positive risk-taking is the Outward Bound participation required of all incoming freshmen for five days and nights in late August. Hiking together at sites like North Carolina’s Pisgah National Forest builds cohesion among the 30-plus students. Letts, who doubles as one of several student advisors accompanying the group, says there’s an extra dividend. “We know the students well before school even starts, and they know us.”
It’s the mind-body-spirit triad in action—an overview that informs chapel services open to all denominations. “We want students to think beyond themselves,” says Letts.
1785 Bishop White Drive, Newtown Square; (484) 424-1400, episcopalacademy.org. Grades preK-12, coed.
Click to pick another school.
Located on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in the heart of Center City, this Quaker school sits among skyscrapers and counts Fairmount Park and the Schuylkill River as part of its back yard. This environment provides students with “an uncommon diversity and richness,” says head of school Rose Hagan.
The students’ end of the bargain is to learn to read, write and research. FSS emphasizes these essential skills in a special program that supplements regular coursework from prekindergarten through senior year. Each grade focuses on specific activities and topics, with oral presentations part of a package that ranges from everyday class sessions to trips abroad.
The school’s Quaker model regards real leadership as a matter of responsibility rather than power. This plays out within the school’s “full range of reciprocal relationships with academic, historic, and cultural institutions in Center City,” says Hagan.
Led by science teacher Doug Ross, middle-schoolers during the past decade have been helping to restore the creek bed and landscape at nearby Morris Park. The effort exemplifies the community-service mentality at the two Friends’ Central campuses in Wynnewood (upper and middle schools on City Avenue, lower school on Old Gulph Road). “It gives them [students] an awareness of who they are in society,” says FCS’ director of communications, Rebecca Anderson.
At the middle school, that awareness claims 90 minutes every Wednesday for all students in a range of service projects, including hospital visits to children and the elderly, help with reading at the lower school, campus beautification and, well beyond the vicinity, raising money to build a water system in a remote village in Afghanistan. Upper-school students spend a week’s worth of service days each year on projects like Habitat for Humanity in inner-city Philadelphia and the Heinz Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum.
If the school’s multicultural curriculum underscores its service perspective, it also fits the emphasis on “individuality and questioning original thinking,” says Anderson. “We combine the Quaker foundation with high-powered achievement.”
For this school that traces its origins to monthly Friends’ Meetings in 1845 Philadelphia, that’s a nice blend.
The upper school’s Singing Patriots, who stage one concert per semester and mount a tour in springtime, have developed exchange programs with schools overseas, the common language being choral music. The group is one of the few high school choirs to perform the challenging Beethoven’s Mass in C.
GA has been ringing in school days ever since it opened its doors at its original Germantown site in 1761. It has long been a basketball hotbed, and last year’s 31-0 girls’ squad finished in more than one Top 10 national ranking. Two video wizards received the Main Line Student Film Festival’s highest honor. The school’s partnership with Philadelphia’s Project H.O.M.E. continues to benefit inner-city kids. Peer mentoring at the Writing Center pays dividends on the page. GA received the Pennsylvania State Modern Language Association’s Golden Globe Award, signifying excellence in language instruction.
When two GFS students—the only ones from Philadelphia among 48 across the country—spent two weeks in South Africa last June, it was indicative of the school’s perspective on both global thinking and multiculturalism. The locals joined peers in South Africa for the career-oriented program LEAD (Leadership, Empowerment and Development) Global, which gives high-achieving urban students an international focus.
Last year marked an increased emphasis on diversity at GFS, as the school spotlighted a new director of Multicultural Affairs, a rise in its percentage of students of color, and expanded programs for staff and faculty of color. Several student groups on campus promote ethnic awareness, and a parents’ alliance strengthens community bonds. “What seems special to me about GFS is its demonstrated commitment to diversity,” says the school’s director of multicultural affairs, Mirangela Buggs, who also lauds the school’s “Quaker commitments to peace and justice.”
Meanwhile, the school joins fellow Quaker institution Westtown for special projects on Martin Luther King Day of Service and continues its learning partnership with nearby Pennsylvania School for the Deaf. It also has just completed a “green” science center for the upper school, whose students have been taking physics, chemistry and biology classes in increasing numbers.
31 W. Coulter St., Philadelphia; (215) 951-2300, germantownfriends.org. Grades K-12, coed.
Click to pick another school.
One year ago, The Haverford School celebrated its 125th anniversary by unveiling a glass-and-steel upper school subsequently recognized as Mid-Atlantic Construction magazine’s “Green Project of the Year” and a Lower Merion Township “Go for the Green” award-winner. Renovated Wilson Hall, which dates to the dawn of the last century, connects to the new building in a dramatic statement of tradition informing the future.
The last several years have also brought a new lower school, a new athletic complex and a renovated middle school to this campus, whose Lancaster Avenue profile catches the eye of passing motorists. What remains constant is a focus on “the way boys learn,” says director of communications Maura Ciccarelli.
In the lower school, three-classroom suites with common rooms “allow kids to interact and teachers to collaborate.” The upper school has meeting “pods” and other spaces that promote informal projects, plus wider hallways that allow more elbowroom. “Boys like hands-on learning, sometimes spurred on by competition,” says Ciccarelli.
The school—which began in 1884 when professors at nearby Haverford College sought a secondary school for their sons—pays close attention to the effectiveness and relevance of its approach. Analyzing a play by Shakespeare, for example, may provide a context for learning how to make better decisions.
The written word—a much-diluted commodity in today’s world—has been given its own home at the Hill School. Installed for its sophomore year in a paneled room with a fireplace, the school’s Writing Center reinvigorates skills overwhelmed by bytes and blogs.
“There is nothing more fundamental to an education than being able to write clearly, concisely and forcefully,” says center director Tony Reid, a 1975 alum and longtime reporter/editor at the Washington Post.
In addition to challenging writing “fellows” with tough assignments and tight deadlines, the center serves as a resource for all students at this boarding school, offering a few dozen advanced-placement courses.
And numerous community service projects. Established by an alumni gift, the year-old Student Philanthropy Council awards grants to Pottstown-based organizations and area programs that have a local impact. Regular student outreach includes nursing facilities, elementary school tutoring and community cleanup. Recent fundraising efforts aided local residential fire victims and cancer research at Pottstown Hospital. “We have a close community feeling and are committed to being in Pottstown,” says Cathy Skitko, the Hill School’s communications director.
717 E. High St., Pottstown; (610) 326-1000, thehill.org. Grades 9-12, coed.
Click to pick another school.
When Akiba Academy became Barrack Hebrew Academy a year ago, the change was in more than name only. The school moved from its original Merion Station home to a 35-acre arboretum (the former American College campus) off of South Bryn Mawr Avenue and promptly filled some of that space with tennis courts, ball fields and a new gym. “It’s the first time we’ve had home playing fields,” says Beverly Rosen, director of communications.
The baseball team responded by winning its third Penn-Jersey League title in a row. (Boys’ tennis and soccer teams also won championships.) “People tend to think we graduate rabbis, but this is not the case,” says Rosen.
Barrack’s college prep program includes integrated Jewish studies and students whose religious identity ranges from reformed to modern orthodox. The school, which draws students from the Tri-State area, has adopted a trimester schedule that allows more 11th-graders to study in Israel for part of the year and provides a “21st-century approach to education,” says sophomore head of school Steven M. Brown, who arrived just in time to preside over the transition from Akiba.
Completed in March 2008 and situated at the center of campus, the redbrick Duffy Arts Center and its looming clock tower catch the eye. Inside, the 600-seat theater has been compared to Verizon Hall at the Kimmel Center, and the building includes state-of-the-art rooms for a range of fine and performing arts. “It creates a buzz,” says director of communications Jim Mack. “Kids who don’t even have an interest in the arts want to take classes there.”
Most of the students, however, do have such an interest—some 75 percent are involved in the arts. Student preferences, in fact, expanded the curriculum, which then required a facility to match.
Founded in 1842 by Augustinians (the new arts center is named for the late Rev. David J. Duffy, longtime headmaster and president until his death in 2006) as a prep school for Villanova, Malvern emphasizes community service as part of a “solid value system,” says Mack. The two-week senior service program has global reach, and closer to home, organizations like Philabundance have benefited from the school’s participation. “That’s part of our balanced mission,” says Mack.
Merion Mercy has acquired a new look this decade, thanks to its first significant capital project in 50 years. The chapel, student center and administration offices are all new, as are exercise facilities, meeting rooms and many classrooms. Plus, the library and music center have been renovated.
What hasn’t changed is the point of view. Ever since the Sisters of Mercy set up shop on these grounds in 1884, the school’s hallmark has been its commitment to the less fortunate. An extensive service-outreach program sends scores of current MMA students across the country. “We like to work with the person who seeks out service,” says Eileen Daly Killeen, MMA’s director of admissions.
Last year brought the school its share of academic and athletic laurels, and the school was the regional winner in a prestigious science competition sponsored by Toshiba Corp., the Philadelphia champion of a national Shakespeare competition and a gold medalist in a national literary contest. And the student body is as varied as its achievements.
Killeen cites MMA’s ethnic, geographic, and socioeconomic diversity—almost half of its students are from Philadelphia and New Jersey—and MMA draws from a cross-section of academic abilities. “We’re a school for all seasons,” she says.
511 Montgomery Ave., Merion Station; (610) 664-6655, merion-mercy.com. Grades 9-12, girls only.
Click to pick another school.
With a large percentage of minority students from a variety of ethnic groups, this Exton-based boarding school (20 percent day students) celebrates its diversity. “Our school looks like the world, and that’s fueled by affordability,” says Bart Bronk, director of admissions and a 1996 alum.
Church Farm also offers small class sizes (an average of eight students) and two faculty members in each residential “cottage.” “They’re the Swiss Army knives of our faculty,” says Bronk of the cottage crew that coaches sports, subs for regular teachers and gives lessons that go beyond the classroom.
Founded in 1918 by Rev. Dr. Charles W. Shreiner, the school retains its Episcopalian identity but not the self-sustaining farm that students worked in the ’20s and ’30s. Shreiner’s son and grandson succeeded him at the helm, and, in July, for the first time in the school’s 90-year history, someone other than a Shreiner became the regular headmaster. The sense of family, however, remains unaffected.
1001 E. Lincoln Highway, Exton; (610) 363-7500, gocfs.net. Grades 7-12, boys only.
Click to pick another school.
When The Shipley School’s Shakespeare Theater Program staged a modern version of King Lear last spring, it raised the bar on what many scholars consider the master’s most demanding play. But that daunting prospect did not deter the student thespians. The Bard is big at Shipley. “There’s a cross-section of students involved,” says Melissa Cardona, the school’s assistant director of communications. “You wouldn’t expect that.”
Shipley also places community service center stage, capping scholastic careers by putting seniors to work in places of need. A troupe from the Class of 2009 journeyed to West Virginia and shared billing with Habitat for Humanity.
When the three Shipley sisters founded the school for girls in 1894, the horizon consisted solely of Bryn Mawr College. New destinations (and boys) have since been added. A course in global studies combines economics, history, math, science and literature, and diversifies even further by collaborating with other courses, such as digital arts. After all, the word is interdisciplinary—a concept Shakespeare and his multifarious characters would certainly embrace.
Monday afternoon is drill time at the school’s parade field on Eagle Road in Wayne. Banners wave, drums beat, and mounted cadets join the marchers-on-foot. During the fall and spring, cadets in full regalia parade on Sunday afternoons, attracting more than a few spectators.
On New Year’s Day, the show crosses the ocean. Last Jan. 1 marked the eighth time that the regimental band played in the London Day Parade. The regimental choir is also booked for the next trip.
“We’re a college preparatory school with a military tradition,” says Jennifer Myers, the school’s communications director. “The majority of students do not go on to careers in the military.”
Some VFMA grads do go to West Point and Annapolis and Valley Forge Military College (established in 1935, seven years after the academy). Many more attend other universities, and seven have made it to the NFL. According to recent figures, students from 38 states and 31 countries were attending the academy and college combined.
Once labeled locally as a place to straighten out wayward youth, Valley Forge has dispelled that reputation. “We’re regimented but caring,” says Myers. “It’s about removing distractions so [students] can go to the college of their choice.”
“We put women in their place,” says Sister Patricia Spingler, stating the aim of this girls’ high school dating to 1872 and steeped in the Roman Catholic tradition of the Immaculate Heart of Mary.
The words may be tongue-in-cheek, but the goal is not—three 2009 grads have entered the Naval Academy (not the first from Villa Maria), and a high-tech science curriculum challenges girls to excel in a field that failed to attract previous generations. Indeed, women’s “place” in the world is shifting. “We want to give them opportunities for leadership,” says Spingler, a vice principal.
Chemistry courses at Villa Maria now offer virtual labs that stimulate inquiry and eliminate hazards. On more conventional fronts, the National Council of Teachers of English has declared Villa Maria a Center of Excellence, and the Malvern school has been named Chapter of the Year by the international Tri-M Music Honor Society.
Spingler reports that 40 percent of students take music courses, and many play more than one instrument, while a busy athletics program finds 60 percent of students playing on at least one school team. The numbers add up to success in both areas.
When the 2008 Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction, Dominican-American writer Junot Diaz, lectures on campus this fall, he will be the latest in a distinguished line hosted by Westtown’s Shoemaker Events Program. Speakers and performers come from all different fields—last term’s events featured congressmen Jim Gerlach and Joe Sestak, and previous visitors included Coretta Scott King and national poet laureate Robert Frost.
And when the show is over, students interact with the guests, an opportunity prized by this Quaker school that dates to 1799 and boards all of its juniors and seniors. The Quaker tradition, after all, is to watch and listen (carefully), and then speak if moved to do so.
The emphasis on values is exemplified by an annual examination—complete with outside consultants— of student attitudes regarding substance abuse, including steps to bolster prevention. The school sees it as a community-wide effort and proof that pacifist teachings provide plenty of room for action. That perspective also finds expression in student service outreach on behalf of sister school Heritage Academy in Ghana, and new academic courses in ethics, computer applications, ecology, and Mandarin.
William Penn wanted his school of “arts and sciences” to accommodate both the wealthy and students of limited means. That concept continues to inform Penn Charter, which distributes an annual $4 million in financial aid to maintain socioeconomic diversity. Elementary students then take advantage of instruction tailored to their learning style, as Penn Charter teachers base methods on child development research.
So classic becomes contemporary at Penn Charter, the oldest Quaker school in the world. Children learn Spanish beginning in kindergarten. Older kids evaluate adolescent angst in The Catcher in the Rye by making connections with such classics as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. “Our teachers honor tradition and embrace innovation,” says Sharon Sexton, the school’s director of marketing communications.
Long an InterAc powerhouse, Penn Charter is about arts and academics as much as athletics, Sexton says. And she reminds us that, while the school’s East Falls location is on the other side of the Schuylkill, it is not a world away. “The river seems to create a mental barrier, but Penn Charter has lots of great kids from the Main Line,” she says.