School is Open!

Lucretia Mott Painting by Joseph Kyle
Lucretia Mott Painting by Joseph Kyle

When I tell people I’m a Quaker, they often respond with raised eyebrows and the question, “Really?” Their surprised tone makes me wonder what their image of a Quaker (or Friend) is. If it’s Lucretia Mott they think of, my purple glasses and colorful scarves don’t match up.

And if they’ve heard my gleeful belly laugh, that doesn’t fit with the stereotype of somber Quakers either. In fact, some people believe that “Quaker humor” is an oxymoron.

Matt Glendinning, Head of School at Moses Brown School is doing his part to change the dour Quaker perception. Along with the help of some of his colleagues at the Quaker day school in Providence, RI, Glendinning made a YouTube video to announce the school’s recent closure due to snow. Their remake of the song “Let It Go” from the Disney movie, Frozen, went viral with more than 30 million views as of Feb. 6. Jon Watts, who directs the Quaker YouTube channel QuakerSpeak, delighted in the video’s appeal and saw it as an opportunity to interview Glendinning about that—and Quaker education.

Not long after Quakers arrived in the U.S. from Britain in the late1600s, they started schools in Philadelphia for both boys and girls that supported spiritual, social, and intellectual growth. About 100 years later, an innovative thinker, philanthropist, and entrepreneur named Moses Brown founded the school that Glendinning now directs (and closes when the snow is too fierce). According to the school’s website and Glendinning’s interview, its program is shaped by the values of simplicity, peace, justice, stewardship, and integrity that guided early Friends.

Somewhere in the neighborhood of 85 other Quaker schools around the country offer education that combines academic excellence and spiritual depth. The Friends Council on Education supports Quaker schools to create learning communities centered on equality, diversity, nonviolent conflict resolution, and service. Teachers in Friends’ schools serve as facilitators of the learning process, using dialogue, reflection, and inquiry. Quaker schools also include weekly (or in some cases, daily) Meeting for Worship, an unstructured time of quiet that offers children of all faiths a powerful tool for spiritual growth.

Daily silence is among the practices that my writing friend (and Friend) Gretchen Klopfer Wing most values about her Quaker education. She attended Carolina Friends School (Durham and Chapel Hill, NC) from pre-school in 1965 through high school graduation in 1979. Gretchen’s parents, Martha and Peter Klopfer, were co-founders of the school. When the Klopfers reminisce about the school’s beginnings, they talk about being unable to conceive of sending their children to the segregated schools that existed in Durham at that time. So, they donated a piece of their property for its main campus, and have remained active on the school’s Board of Directors ever since.

“It’s hard to narrow down what I value most about my Quaker education,” Gretchen says. In addition to the practices of daily silence, listening and consensus decision-making, Gretchen also appreciates these elements of her experience at Carolina Friends School:

  • conscience and political awareness are essential components of education
  • community work (CFS has never had custodial staff; students take care of everything)
  • the independence of the curriculum and faculty, allowing for great variety in course offerings (for example, Gretchen took classes in Ornithology and Invertebrate Biology taught by a Ph.D.)
  • emphasis on service, independence, creativity
  • being fully known and valued by all of her teachers, her entire life.

That life-long sense of being known and valued will be in evidence in a few weeks when Gretchen returns to Durham for a visit. On March 10, Durham’s Regulator Bookshop will celebrate Gretchen’s launch of her young adult novel, Headwinds. As Gretchen likes to do for her author events, it will include a dramatic reading, this one featuring students and faculty from CFS Middle School.

Another writing friend, Samantha Updegrave, attended Friends’ Central School, outside Philadelphia, for middle and high school. She graduated in 1995, and several items on her list of what she values about Quaker education echo Gretchen’s. For example, the integration of learning and ethics in the curriculum.

“I think that largely came from strong spiritual traditions and roots that valued the collective and sought to instill personal responsibility and accountability in all our pursuits,” Samantha explains. “I was able to explore some big topics, make mistakes, and take risks. I was pushed and encouraged to think outside of my experience and self. And there was always a strong element of service.”

Samantha’s service provided valuable learning. “My senior project included volunteering at the Delaware County AIDS Alliance, a photography internship at the Philadelphia Weekly, and a 40+ page research paper examining the mother-daughter relationships in Jamaica Kincaid’s books as a metaphor for the colonizer and colonized. And I was 17!”

It’s no surprise that Gretchen and Samantha would have liked those opportunities for their own children, but they both encountered a roadblock. “Neither of our boys had the chance to attend a Friends school for the simple reason that there was none in Tacoma [WA],” Gretchen says, having settled in the Pacific Northwest after college. “They had a good public education, but they’ve always been a little jealous of mine.”

Samantha, who lives in Seattle, feels the same. “I wish Friends schools were more prevalent on the West coast. My son, who is 5 now and in a K/1 class, is in a school with similar values. They use anti-bias curriculum and focus on social justice.” And, at Samantha’s son’s school, just as at Friends’ Central, “They consider the whole kid in their teaching – academics and social-emotional well-being.”

I desired a Friends school for my children for all of the reasons Gretchen and Samantha appreciate the ones they attended. I, too, live in the Pacific Northwest, though, and when my twin son and daughter started kindergarten in 1986, there were no Quaker schools nearby. San Francisco Friends School didn’t open its doors to elementary students until 2002. And when my kids started high school in 1996, the closest secondary school was Wellsprings Friends School, nearly 400 miles away in Eugene, OR.

Both Gretchen and Samantha had some quibbles with their education. Gretchen found “…in sports, an emphasis on participation at the expense of honing skills, to the point that I never really learned to play any ball sports.” For Samantha, who transferred to Friends Central in seventh grade, the biggest struggle was to fit in academically. “I always had the impression that I was very behind. The kids already knew so much because they’d been encouraged to learn, and I’d come from this discipline-based public school…I wish I’d had more concrete support to get my confidence up to par with the kids around me.”

Neither of these Quaker school alumnae mentioned objections that some Friends raise about private schools, such as how private schools might negatively impact public schools. During early exploration of starting Carolina Friends School, the Klopfers encountered concern “…that an integrated independent school might interfere with the need for public schools’ becoming integrated themselves.” More recently, Larry Ingle raised questions in his Friends Journal article “Class Privilege and Schools Among Modern Friends” about how private (and expensive) Quaker education contributes to class privilege.Quaker school administrators, teachers, and boards, as well as parents, undoubtedly wrestle with these and other challenging questions.

Nice to know that the crew at Moses Brown maintains a sense of humor, though. If you’re ready for a good belly laugh, watch their now-famous snow day announcement. Who says Quakers aren’t funny?

4 thoughts on “School is Open!

  1. I’m glad you dealt with the question of Friends’ schools impact on public education. I didn’t mention it before, but we were very conscious, in the early days, of feeling like a real “island,” with almost no contact with any other school, public or private. That is much less true today, as CFS engages in league athletics (which it NEVER used to), and hosts an enormous Martin Luther King Day festivity which is attended by all kinds of public school folks (since that is a day off for them).

  2. Thanks for that update, Gretchen. People often express concern (which I share) about how public schools are affected when the energy of involved, committed parents is drawn away in support of private schools. It’s complex to balance a desire for strong, diverse public schools with personal needs of our kids. Hopefully, Quaker schools have a positive impact in their communities as well as in the lives of the students who attend.

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