Saturday saw the class of 2010 (19 students, 17 present) celebrate graduation at the Stillwater Meeting House. Friday was the annual almuni meeting at Stillwater, which is part of the graduation ceremony. Every year, the alumni meeting includes a roll call of classes. This year 13 out of the 21 from the 50th anniversary class (class of 1960) showed up and five from the class of 1940. We learned that oldest known living alumna is from the class of 1924, presumably 104, and still living independently.
When I watched commencement, the alumni meeting and, earlier in the year, Gym-Ex, I was reminded of how long it takes to build traditions and how they can't simply be replicated from scratch because they carry with them pieces of other times. I'm always impressed with the loyalty of the former students, and am glad the school has changed little and slowly, opting to keep to Quaker ways rather than embrace every new fashion.
I wish more Olneys could spring up around the country--small schools offering strong ethics, a safe community and excellent academics in a simple environment. In a time when many private (now called "independent) educational institutions (including many Quaker schools), have, like the rest of the country, followed the pattern of becoming the elite few separated from the deteriorating public sector, Olney is a refreshing reminder of an earlier time. The school offers a distinctly Quaker education in a setting that is still middle-class, not impossibly posh and elite. I really love that, and mourn that I don't know of more schools that follow this pattern.
Of course, Olney is still expensive, even with generous financial aid (though I imagine most people from the coasts would find, after aid, the entire cost of tuition and boarding less than the average Quaker day school) and the school has been pondering how to become more affordable. Perplexingly, the real cost of attending Olney has risen over time, even with salaries kept as low as possible (much compensation comes in the form of room and board) and a very careful eye on other expenses. The school will be having a summit in the fall to consider, among other things, ways to lower the cost of an education here. Those who can't participate in the summit can go to the Olney website and fill out a survey, and the school is looking for as much input as possible.
I sometimes worry that parents of potential students might be concerned that the school doesn't offer all the bells and whistles of an elite Quaker boarding school. We're struggling to put up the new activities center (gym) and in the meantime, parents drive past the old, disused tennis courts. I hope we can convey that something better is going on at the school--something more rare, more elusive, more difficult to find--than state-of-the-art buildings (though we hope soon to have a "green" gym).
While I have issues with the Harry Potter books, and know that Hogwarts is an over-used (and often false) comparison, Olney does have several things in common with the fictional boarding school. It's old, with a long tradition, and it builds strong community. Of course, it's Quaker and doesn't indulge in magic and occult. It's most like Hogwarts, to me, in not being visible to the average "muggle" eye: If you are looking for outward packaging or a particular kind of school, all you will see are old buildings and a school that doesn't offer 12 languages. It's as if it is disguised from the shallow and materialistic. But if you have the eyes to see ...
At graduation, we also saw our friend from Patapsco Meeting in Ellicott City, Ramona Buck, class of 1965. Johanna Danos, another Patapsco Meeting friend, whose son Elvin just completed his first year as an Olney student, arrived with her mother Helga, a healthy and glowing 83 year old who was much impressed, as I was, by the commencement address given by a recent humanities teacher.
As with most things in the "upside-down" kingdom, the school's financial struggles in the recent past (it almost closed a decade ago) are what have kept it true to itself. Now, however, with the economy down, the school could use more scholarship money as well as the rest of the funds for the new gym, but there's a trust that both will come as needed.
I hope the school will be more and more accessible...and that more people will be able to see that the school is an attainable goal for their children.