Growing Beyond Human Plans

Never in a million years would I have anticipated being a teacher, much less the co-founder of a school and teacher training center. As with many destinations in life, the path began before I was aware of traveling on it. In 1966 I was working for an architect in Japan, divorced there with two small children, attending some evening college courses at a University of Maryland extension school. I had been in Asia five years. It was during that time that my oldest daughter, Dawn, was tripped on the playground and suffered a concussion. She recovered, but although she could read before that incident, she could not afterward. Her recovery began with emergence from a coma and a slow re-education process thereafter. I was studying psychology at the time and followed what her teachers were doing for her in one of the first learning disabilities classrooms. Watching her frustration and struggle influenced me years later when I was called to begin a Friends school for children with learning disabilities.

In deciding on a career and whether I should remain in Japan, I sought guidance through prayer, and made a promise to follow with all diligence the path indicated if only it would be revealed to me. My experience with my daughter showed me the outlines of the path, to study education for children with special needs.

I returned to the United States, completed my student teaching with Dorothy Flanagan, and began work toward a Master’s in Special Education. I became a full-time teacher at Lansdowne (Pa.) Friends School, where my children were enrolled. There I encountered a very few children who required a smaller classroom or a different structure and more hands-on techniques in order to learn. These children led me to the next step on my path: I went looking at the special schools in the area to find one for these children. My criteria was: would I send my own child there? I never found a place, and thus began a conversation with Dorothy about starting such a school. It was a serious decision. We both had our own children to support and many responsibilities. Yet we both saw the need and were convinced that whatever teaching gifts we possessed would be best used in supporting these difficult-to-teach children. We decided to take the leap of faith and fill this need.

It was during this time that the Religious Society of Friends spoke to the condition of my youngest daughter, Sandy, who asked if she could join Lansdowne (Pa.) Meeting. She did eventually join, and I became an attender, later a member. Again, a child had led me.

The connection to Friends has been the core of what became Stratford Friends School. Dorothy Flanagan felt strongly that the school, which was becoming more and more a reality, should be under the care of the Religious Society of Friends.

I knew that the United Methodist Church in Lansdowne could house a school because I had volunteered there when I was a teenager, helping with retarded children in a temporary school. From January until April 1976, Dorothy and I talked and planned. We needed to give our decision to Lansdowne Friends School about our teaching contracts for the following school year. We decided to forego our employment there and begin our project. We incorporated in June 1976. We remained on United Methodist Church premises for more than ten years, and the success of our school was greatly enhanced by their generosity in renting us space.

Much of the literature about school management is filled with business plans. We had no such plan. Other Friends schools felt strongly that there was a need for a special school. We developed a school committee, applied to be under the care of Chester Quarterly Meeting, enrolled our first child, and secured the building, in that order. A school committee member incorporated the school. Dorothy and I did the secretarial, janitorial, bookkeeping, teaching, and admissions work. We began with four students, and received grants from Philadelphia Yearly Meeting’s Committee on Education and Friends Council on Education to help us through the first year. Our equipment was borrowed from the Intermediate Unit Library, desks were donated from larger Friends schools in the area, and gifts of blocks and books came from teachers who supported what we were trying to achieve. A local public school was slated for demolition, and we removed large furniture that was to be bulldozed along with the building. We pushed it two blocks to our new location on borrowed dollies and hand carts. We hand-delivered flyers to local private schools. Whatever we needed seemed to become available, and this has continued to be true as we have grown as an institution. (It was with much pleasure that we in turn were recently able to donate some items to the newly opened Orchard Friends School.)

Our first students had many needs. One looked at his shoes while in conversation. One was passed from lap to lap because he couldn’t sit still and was fearful. One could spell any word out loud, but couldn’t read. Many, but not all, were dyslexic. They have achieved much. Many former students return to share their latest accomplishments with us. Our first student, the one who was enrolled before we obtained a school building, is now a lawyer with the Justice Department.

We began each day with meeting for worship, a practice we continue. We prayed for wisdom and strength. We learned from our children that the parents needed to be educated about the Quaker values we were trying to foster, that the curriculum needed to be varied, multi-sensory, and provide opportunities for children to work on projects over time. The children needed to learn that their strengths were important, even if they were not academic strengths. We learned that five or six in an academic grouping is optimal for our population of students, that we were not the school for every child’s needs and had to be selective, and that we could facilitate gains best if children came to us at a younger age.

We developed simulations of what it is like to have a learning difference so that family members of our students could experience and understand some small part of the frustration their children faced daily in the academic setting. We invited heroes (adults with learning differences) to the school to tell their stories of academic struggles and eventual success. We held workshops for siblings of differently learning children to help them overcome the emotional impact of special dynamics that these children create in their families.

We called in experts to conduct parent support groups. We responded to invitations to conduct workshops on how to teach children who learn differently who were in the regular classroom. In addition to teaching a rigorous academic curriculum, we took the children on camping trips, taught them to bake bread, raked leaves and made applesauce for service projects, went sledding, produced plays, and learned to clown. We rollerskated in the auditorium and swam at the Y. We developed curriculum to meet the special academic needs of our students based on our observations of how they learned best. We planned the program to foster Quaker values of equality, peace, simplicity, and diversity.

A half day of school on Friday was instituted early on to enable us to get all of the necessary work accomplished with only two on staff. That still makes sense for faculty meetings, so we continue the practice. Later the program expanded to include after-school child care; summer school; and a formal teacher training program that has grown over the years, is accredited, and reached over 100 teachers last year. Because we pioneered Friends special education, a Friend and founding member of our school committee said, “Stratford Friends School is the first innovation in Friends education in 100 years.”

While we were just beginning to find out what worked for our school community, George Rowe and Beverly Morgan were beginning the Quaker School at Horsham, Pa. Dorothy and I traveled to meet with them monthly to discuss innovations and problems and to make suggestions. It was a pleasure to be helpful to others who were striving to form new schools for special needs students. We only wish the highway had been better!

We had concerns for some of our students who came to us late in the educational process, those we didn’t have the time to bring to grade level before it was time for them to leave. We saw a need for a middle school and upper school as did several other educators in the area. Later, several of us met on a regular basis and began the planning. We wrote a mission statement and began to search for a location and a head of school. After interviewing several fine candidates, Irene McHenry was our final choice. She sat in the third floor of our building one stormy night and told us she knew this was work she could do and wanted to tackle. She was a psychologist, a Friend, and had already started a successful Friends school. She seemed the perfect candidate. A location was decided upon, and the first Friends high school for children with learning differences was created. Delaware Valley Friends School now has its third head and is located in a wonderful facility in Paoli. It serves many children who would not have an appropriate placement without it.

At one point Stratford Friends School and Delaware Valley Friends School considered consolidating. In the end, the Stratford Friends School community decided we really are elementary school educators and should remain separate from Delaware Valley Friends School. We retain our close ties, and many Stratford Friends School students go on to study at Delaware Valley Friends School.

While we were still located at our Lansdowne facility, we received a call from Brooklyn (N.Y.) Meeting asking if a school committee could come and visit to discuss the process for planning a school for special needs students. The committee visited, observed, asked questions, took notes, and then they invited Dorothy Flanagan to visit with them in Brooklyn. In 1984 they began The Mary McDowell Center for Learning in their meetinghouse. The school has since moved to a new location in a large building in Brooklyn and has enrolled 103 children with special learning needs. The early school was modeled on what we had begun.

My daughter Sandy and her friend Meg came and taught gym as a part of their service work for Media-Providence Friends School. We could not have predicted that they would later become teachers at Stratford. Nor could I have known that I would give birth to a son who would need to attend the school, or that a granddaughter would also attend.

As we outgrew our quarters, a search for a building at first produced no result. We worried that we would not have the finances for a move, but we knew we could no longer remain where we were. We were told by a consultant that it would be impossible to raise the necessary funds, but we saw no option other than to do so and move. A location in Havertown was found. Built in 1908 and no longer needed by the Haverford School District, it was coming up for auction. We called on our friends and families, collected every cent we could raise, and put in a winning bid. My memory of the celebration includes a teacher doing cartwheels in the empty hallway of the new building.

Parents have glazed our windows, painted our walls, and most recently, planted gardens for the school. School committee members have raised money, given advice, and worked very hard to maintain the school.

The teacher training part of our program grew into an accredited Academic Language Therapy Association Teacher Training Center. It is one of two on the East Coast, the other being at Columbia Teachers College. We offer math and science workshops as well, as we have for many years. We worked closely with the Philadelphia Branch of the International Dyslexia Association to provide courses at Penn State Great Valley. This all began with teachers and administrators calling to ask for assistance for children with special learning needs or requesting suggestions or workshops. We answered that need, and just as the school had, the project grew beyond human plans.

Dorothy has recently retired from Stratford Friends School. She is pursuing her artistic bent and taking things at a more leisurely pace. Before she left we were awarded the Janet Hoopes Award of the Philadelphia Branch of the International Dyslexia Association for our work. We were also awarded the Sesame Street Parents magazine’s Sunny Days Award for our work with children.

We served where we saw a need, and many parents, teachers, friends, and Friends helped us along the way. We both have benefited from the experience, which began with asking to be shown the path to follow and listening when the answer was given. Along with the incredibly interesting and difficult work came the means and people to support and sustain the effort.

Parents apply to Stratford Friends School for their children because they are unable to find appropriate placement elsewhere, and they might not choose a private or Friends school otherwise. While they appreciate finding placement, they often feel disappointed and their situation places them under great financial pressure. Until their children begin to thrive, we all participate in a process only love and faith can guide. In this process, we, as a very diverse school, begin to weave a community. The Quaker testimonies of peace, equality, and social concern, and the daily meeting for worship inform us during this process and provide a common aspiration and framework.

The search for that of God in each child is a model that keeps parents and teachers continually looking beyond children’s inadequacies and their own frustrations. Eventually, the children respond and become willing to risk that long, difficult process, which is one of trust that the adults in their lives will see them as who they really are. Thus begins the healing and the learning. I bear witness to this process. It daily renews my faith in “what love can do”and my commitment to my work.

In retrospect, my 25-year journey has been one of taking the practical steps of nurturing a school while maintaining the faith that a larger purpose is being served. That faith has flagged at times but has been supported by Friends and the testimonies of Friends. We are proud of our students’ successes, but the result of this work of faith that is Stratford Friends School is multiplied each time one of the students or adults in the community is supported by what they have learned here.

Although important, it is not the planning, special curriculum, or the building that produce success for our children, but their learning to recognize and follow the Light within.

Sandy Howze

Sandy Howze is a member of Lansdowne (Pa.) Meeting and cofounder of Stratford Friends School in Havertown, Pa.