What Is A Friends School?
The Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) emerged in 17th century England during a period of political upheaval and social change. The established churches were caught up in conflicts and preoccupied with power struggles rather than religious witness. Thousands of “seekers” were looking for something they could believe in and that would give meaning to their lives.
When Friends arrived in America in the 1600s, they founded schools to educate all children, often in private homes. Believing that spiritual, social and intellectual growth are closely linked, Friends have always stressed the importance of an education that supports the overall development of the child.
William Penn Charter School, founded in Philadelphia in 1689, is the oldest Friends School in the world. This educational movement took hold and grew. Today, there are seventy-eight Quaker or Friends Schools in the United States. Phoenix Friends Middle School will be another. Once considered radical, the Quaker model of education succeeds.
Most modern students at Friends Schools do not come from Quaker families. They come from families that represent many faith traditions and some who do not follow any faith tradition. Families find the values taught in Friends Schools to be compatible with their beliefs and values.
Quaker education takes a whole-student approach that values both academic excellence and spiritual depth. Friends school life includes a variety of experiences for students, but all are connected in nurturing students’ unfolding development as curious, creative, and compassionate world citizens.
Meeting for Worship: A tradition in all Friends communities, the entire school body gathers together once a week for a shared time of silent reflection, with occasional breaks in the silence as students share insights or ideas placed on their hearts. This experience can have a powerful impact in molding students’ understanding of the world, enhancing their connection to God or the Spirit within them, and in building community. It also provides an opportunity for development in meaningful self-expression.
Service Learning: Learning is best thought of as a process that takes place throughout our entire lives, mostly outside the formal classroom environment. Time dedicated to working in the community aids students in understanding the most pressing needs in the world around them, helps them to think through their approach to addressing those needs, motivates them to not lose their heart for others, and fosters important skills like organization and grit that help them grow as leaders in their communities.
Engaging Classroom Environment: The Friends school classroom is one where questioning and inquiry feed a sense of wonder and progress, where teachers acknowledge their own continuing growth, where all individuals in the classroom are invited to contribute their understanding, and discovery can be collaborative. Classroom learning goes beyond attentiveness to a book or a lecture. It includes learning to express one’s beliefs, investigate what is right, and listen to others with compassion and respect, skills that are vital for respectful engagement with others at school and out in the world.
Breadth of Curriculum: Friends schools make space for the arts, health and physical activity, religious literacy (of various religions), and cultural studies, while seeking real world connection in all subjects. Arts education enhances the breadth and depth of students’ powers of expression. Physical movement interspersed with study improves brain health and the ability to focus in the classroom. Health education helps students learn how to care for all aspects of their well-being. Religious and cultural studies build awareness of community and world issues and different perspectives on them, which aids in peaceful resolution of conflict arising from these unavoidable differences. Real world connection helps students see the relevance in what they are learning and engage with content more fully, meaning students gain the capacity to engage with more advanced curriculum sooner.
Non-violence and Consensus Decision-making: Quaker schools are committed to rooting out bullying and violence and offer a unique tool that students can carry with them, even beyond their school years, for doing so. This is the Quaker decision-making process, which all students will have an opportunity to learn about and put into practice. The approach asks all with an opinion to share, for the group to think deeply about what is important, and then to work towards a solution that incorporates the concerns of every individual. Through these steps students come to see their connections with others more truthfully and more holistically.
Nurturing Social Understanding
Quakers sometimes speak of “that of God in everyone”. By this, it is meant that each person has the capacity to be good, the ability to see the Light of God (i.e. the truth), and the capability for gaining skills to put that truth to good use. While Quakers do not seek to inculcate a particular set of beliefs or doctrines, a Friends school does aim to nurture a particular sort of personhood. By making an effort to identify the good in others, including the students themselves, Friends schools cultivate an optimism in students about their ability to improve the world. Graduates leave with significant social understanding, skills to deal with adversity, tolerance and respect for others, and a strong sense of self-worth that contributes to their success after middle school.
The Importance of Middle School
The early years of adolescence are arguably the most critical in a young person’s life. During these years, children transition from early-stage rational thinking to having a capacity for thought similar to that of adults. Because of this, habits formed during these years have a profound impact on who our children grow up to be. Social pressure also is at or nearing a peak in these years, meaning positive or negative experiences have the power to resonate more strongly through peer feedback than at any other time in a child’s life.
Perhaps because of the contradictions of adolescent development, there is a risk at this age of underappreciating their abilities and treating them too much like elementary school children on the one hand and neglecting gaps in their development in heaping pressure on them better meant for high schoolers on the other. The Friends school environment—whose strengths include the development of moral understanding, self-expression, spiritual and community connection, and service—is valuable at all ages, but carries added relevance for the middle school age group.