Monday, June 1, 2009

Quaker education

I'd like to talk about Quaker education. What makes a school Quaker?

I recently heard a prominent Quaker who is not in education mention Quaker schools as the face of Quakerism for the wider world. He cited a school started by non-Quakers in a major city and called a Quaker school. In this city, he said, the school IS the face of Quakerism, because the meeting for worship there is so small. Ironically, the most visible Quaker institution in that city is run by non-Quakers.

This Quaker went on to wonder: If schools, because of their visibility and good reputations, are the chief means of Friends' evangelism should the Quaker community do more to support them? And should Quakers do more to encourage Quaker attendance at these schools, which are largely filled with non-Quakers? And should they do more to encourage Quaker staffing, another area dominated by non-Quakers? (In both cases, the small size of the Friends denomination is a limiting factor.)

I'm an interested and undoubtedly biased party, as for the past year, all three of our teens have attended Olney Friends School in Barnesville and my husband works as technical coordinator (aka compute geek) for Olney. I have been impressed with both the quality of the education and the values of simplicity, integrity and community practiced at the school. I'm also saddened at the struggle it and other small Quaker boarding schools have in attracting students. I believe many Quakers and others are missing out on the opportunity for a rich educational experience.

Reasons I have heard for Quaker children not attending Quaker schools:

1. Desire to support public education. (This was a model my husband and I operated under for years.)

2. Expense. Quaker day schools in the Baltimore/Washington area, from which we come, are prohibitively expensive for the average person, especially if you have more than one or two children.

3. Exclusivity: I have heard of at least one Quaker who was turned down for a Quaker day high school because, although he was a decent student in the public schools, he did not score high enough on the school's entrance exam. I have also heard--without having any personal evidence--that some Quaker schools have lost much of their distinctiveness and become more like other private schools catering to the rich.

4. Stigma attached to boarding school. Helicopter parenting not amenable to sending children away from home.

I've watched my children thrive in a Quaker school environment. What I like about my children's school is that it is NOT dripping with every amenity. Simplicity is emphasized. Students have genuinely small class sizes--4, 5, and 6 students is normal, though some rare classes go as high as 19--and students get a well rounded education that includes raising chickens, collected maple syrup sap and tending to goats as well as a college preparatory curriculum. The school holds meeting for worship daily for 15 minutes at the beginning and end of the day, and in addition, has two longer meetings for worship each week. I've also found during the past year, that, contrary to popular opinion, it's good for many teens to have the independence from parents that a boarding school provides. The school builds service into its life and emphasizes living to serve.

A key factor enriching the life of the school is the tradition. From GymEx, a gymnastics event that goes back to 1910 to self governance committees, the school draws from a deep history of ideas and inspiration.

I would hate to see this or any other rooted Quaker school fail in the current economic climate. I imagine it would be impossible to replicate overnight the more than century long history that makes a school like Olney what it is.

Quakers schools, like other schools, are faced with the tricky prospect of pricing and resort to the common practice of offering a "list" price that is higher than the real price most parents pay. This is done to help underwrite aid to needy students. I wonder what would happen if Quaker schools went back to traditional Quaker business practice and offered a list price that was the real price of education, did not negotiate, and used endowments, scholarships and other donations to support financial need. Honestly, this would take a huge leap of faith as I don't see how that model could work. But it has worked for Quakers in the past.

The Jewish community has a strong tradition of fundraising to support Jewish schools. Should the Quaker community do more to support its schools? Should it do fundraising to be able to offer more scholarships to Quaker students? How important is a Quaker school education to Quaker children and the world at large? Should Quaker schools lower costs by sticking to values rather than going after every amenity? That seems obvious, but how then do we get parents to look past packaging?

Finally, why do you or don't you send your children to Quaker school?


Marshall Massey (Iowa YM [C]) said...

This Quaker went on to wonder: If schools, because of their visibility and good reputations, are the chief means of Friends' evangelism should the Quaker community do more to support them?Perhaps someone should have asked this Quaker: “Is it the purpose of Quakerism to keep the schools alive, or is it the purpose of the schools to transmit Quakerism?”

My impression is that very few Quaker schools transmit Quakerism as Olney does.

If Quakerism is not transmitted by the schools, what purpose does it serve, from an evangelical point of view, for the meetings to devote themselves to the schools as “the chief means of Friends’ evangelism”?

Diane said...

Interesting comment! and yes, if the schools are not transmitting Quaker values, that's a problem. I imagine though that most Quaker schools would say they are transmitting Quaker values, if imperfectly.

Irene McHenry, FCE, PYM said...

In a study done by Philadelphia Yearly Meeting's Committee on Friends Education several years ago, we found that, indeed Friends schools do transmit Quakerism for the Religious Society of Friends. 67% of the survey respondents (hundreds) noted that Quaker education in some way initially connected them to the Religious Society of Friends. As anecdotal data, I know 10 heads of Friends schools who became convinced Friends after discovering Quaker education.
Yes, I agree, that we need more fundraising to support Quaker children in attending Friends schools as they contribute to the richness of the Quaker mission of the schools.

Anonymous said...

I'm a Methodist who went to a Quaker college (Guilford). Before that, I knew next-to-nothing of the Friends. During college, I grew to understand Quakerism and am fond of it--I attended silent meeting on campus many times. IMHO, anyone who goes to a Quaker institution will become aware of, and steeped in, Quakerism. Simply put, the entire experience teaches about the Friends. I did not take a religion class, the Quaker values that underpinned everything were sufficient. School administration (consensus-building) takes longer but achieves a truly good result. In the secular business world, they call it getting "buy in". Everyone pulls in the same direction, or at least doesn't impede those who do. I cannot begin to count the ways in which my Quaker education has positively affected my life. It does behoove the meetings to support quaker educational institutions, but given their exclusivity (due in large measure to the stellar educational opportunity they provide), they often can charge enough to support themselves financially.

Ted M. Gossard said...

A lot of good from this tradition is what I'm picking up here, and a shame that it seems to have so little hold. Quite interesting that non-Quakers set up Quaker schools.

I love the idea of silence and of waiting on God. We need to do more of that. And of an integrated, holistic education.

Where I live in Reformed country there is quite a bit of help for students, and education is a definite priority that they get behind monetarily, it seems.

Thanks, Diane, for sharing this.

Anonymous said...

I have one daughter at a Friends high school and one in a public middle school. When it came time to choose a high school, we went for the Quaker school because the public high school has over 3500 students, which is patently insane, IMHO. Yet we never considered any other private schools, just the Quaker school near us. Why? Because we weren't interested in an "elite" or "prestigious" prep school, we wanted a parochial environment which would be grounded in Quaker values. The culture of my daughter's high school is steeped in the testimonies and values of Friends, while also maintaining a high standard of academic rigor.
I keep hearing about these Quaker schools that are Quaker in name only, but I see little evidence of this. Meanwhile, the "values" of my younger daughter's middle school have deteriorated since her older sister went there--more standardized testing, more busy-work homework, fewer field trips for learning, more rules about dress code, clubs, and personal behavior. I see very little original thinking in the teachers and the curricula of the public school system, and nothing but encouragement and positive support in the Friends schools I know and have visited.
I have always been a vocal suporter of public school education, and never would have imagined that I would be saying any of this.
I also want to add that my family is NOT wealthy, not even close. We receive a generous amount of financial aid, and I assume get some preference as a Quaker family.
I wish Quakers would stop stereotyping Friends education as "elitist" and "too expensive." Yes, private schools cost a lot, but as I say, there is financial aid for families who need it. And the only thing that's elite is the amazing, top-notch teachers and academic opportunities which await our children at Quaker schools. Some of the parents may be snobs, but the schools themselves are just the opposite: welcoming, tolerant and diverse.

Chris M. said...

Thank you for your very apt questions and discussion of the issues that Friends education raises in the 21st Century.

My two sons are in the local K-6 (eventually K-8) Friends School. In fact, it may be the big-city school mentioned in your post. The schools wears its Quaker values "on its sleeve" -- giant banners are hung on the outside of the building with words like simplicity, peace, equality & service on each. They hold meeting for worship weekly. Staff, board, and parent association committees begin and end with silence.

The school could do more to highlight Quakerism per se, but the experiential foundation is solid, from what I've seen. I know it's the intent of the board of trustees to continue to do more around Quakerism in the coming year. Your queries are worth sharing with them.

Hystery said...

If there were Friends' schools near us (and there aren't), I would love to send my children. However, since the tuition is just shy of our family's annual income, I would never be able to. Even with financial assistance, it would be a devastating financial burden on us. So much for the testimony of equality.

Jennifer said...

I don't know of any Friends schools near us (we're in Austin, TX), and we're just not interested in boarding schools, no matter how wonderful the school might be. Maybe that's because I come from the lower middle class (though my husband and I are now probably upper middle class), so it's just never been on my radar screen as an option. Possibly could be part of our Texan culture... I don't know many... (any?) people personally that have sent their kids to boarding school.

Homeschooling has been our choice, and one that I think fits perfectly with living our Quaker faith everyday as a family. I am interested in the particulars of Friends schools, but mainly in looking for ways that I can incorporate more into our life-learning style. Someday down the road, we might consider a school, but it's unlikely at this point.

For those Friends you mentioned who feel that supporting public schools is the more 'righteous' choice, John Taylor Gatto can be interesting reading: He was named New York City Teacher of the Year three times, and New York State Teacher of the Year once.

I *do* think Quaker schools are worthwhile, but it has been my impression in the past that they have been run by non-Quakers for non-Quaker children. Coming from a conservative branch Meeting that is very small, I long for more spiritual community for my children.

Diane said...


I hear you on the cost. With three children in a high-priced area (where we used to live) a Quaker education felt--and was--prohibitive. And when we both worked full time, we had a good income, but even so, Quaker schools would have taken a huge chunk of our take home income. I wrote a piece once arguing that Quaker schools should lower tuition to a point the average family could afford and cut, cut, cut the amenities to focus on core Quaker values--such as equality.I even argued that their ought to be a sliding scale based on income. That would get rid of the people who want to use Quaker schools as prep schools--and maybe encourage more Quaker participation--parents would actually have to sacrifice, not money, but some amenities, for their faith. Well, I'm being utopic here ...

Hystery said...

I like your ideas. I'm geographically too far away from any Friends' schools to be able to send my children, even if I could afford them. I also resonate with Jennifer's comments. I do very much wish there were Friends' online schools and programs available to those of us who educate our children at home and/or who are living too far away from brick and mortar Friends' schools to even consider them.

Tom Smith said...

My hope to facilitate some aspects of a Friends school on-line has led at least establishing a web-site, but due to circumstances, some of which are in my control, this has been VERY slow in developing much of anything. There is a Facebook group Virtual Friends School which has gone essentially nowhere. June and July do not appear to be offering much time to work on these, but I would welcome any input.

The group Family Life and Parenting has generated some discussion and to those who follow that group I appreciate that "dialogue."

Anonymous said...

We are Friends who have put two children through Quaker schools in the early to mid 90's. We are still paying ed loan installments on those two children. We are now trying to find the resources to put our last child through and we are losing ground. We are active in our meeting and quarter and I have worked for Friend's institutions.

I have seen, in the past few years, many students turned away from larger Quaker schools in our area (Philly), not because they did not qualify academically but we suspect their families did not fall in the "pay full tuition" category and lead a fairly simple lifestyle.

Older Friends we know have turned away from giving to Friends Schools because they percieve the schools to be pandering to wealthy families and their choices of development as fiscally unsound. They want to leave their money to something that will make a difference and they are not as sure, as they would have been in the past, that this is the best place to gift their legacy. Fancy sports arenas and expensive oriental carpeting in classrooms for instance, do not wash well with older, more frugal Friends. They do not wash well with an average Quaker family in our area either!

Likewise, the number of historic Quaker properties, containing old meetinghouses, have huge endowments to care for a basically functionless real estate (except for the burial sites of course). How does the value and upkeep of these historic properties compare with the scholarship we give Quaker families? I am sure this comparison could be easily accomplished. The comparison should go beyond money as well- are we preserving our past better than we are guaranteeing our future? Early Friends could easily turn over in their graves at some scenarios of what Friends value in selected instances!

Our Quaker faith is a living and vital one and Friends Schools are pivotal in the contnuation of our species! Guaranteeing a Quaker education to those Friends families that support the workings and infastructure of our faith is a sure fire way to pass on our legacy of peace and simplicity to future generations. Will Friends some day be Friends, in name only, and no longer dedicated to rightful sharing, simplicity and integrity? Some Quaker learning institutions in our area no longer stand the test of "Quaker' as put forward in some older scholarship funds ie: such as 50%+ Quaker on the board and/or a certain percentage of Quakers in faculty or student population. A few well known former Quaker colleges in this are fall under that unbrella. Will the larger Quaker schools in our area continue to sprawl into catering to those who can afford fancy emenities, in a plan that does not include supporting local Quaker families?

Will smaller Quaker schools be overshadowed and put out of business by larger entities who have big professional development and marketing strategies who operate with little regard for how their power can affect their "feeder" Quaker schools, or worse yet, leave feeder schools with no where to send students 9-12th grade and thus weaken them further? Some of feel helpless to enact any change in this situation.

I have not had time to read all of the posts here (I am working for a living!) so I hope I have not been too repetitive, but it bears repeating that families like ours are struggling to find a Quaker education for our child that exemplifies our values and testimonies.