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Sparks and Spaces: Lived Experience in Friends Schools

We sit in circles.
God is everywhere.
There are no right answers.
—Kindergartner’s response to parents’ question: What is Quaker about your Friends school?

I discovered Friends meeting when I was teaching second grade in public school in a rural area of Columbia County in northern Pennsylvania. The art teacher in the elementary school, who brought art on a cart once a week and transformed the classroom into a world of awe and wonder, invited me to attend Friends meeting one Sunday. The experience was a homecoming for my spirit. The people were kind; the beliefs expressed were diverse yet held with a power of unity in the silence during worship. Months later, I carefully followed the guidelines in Faith and Practice to join Millville Monthly Meeting and gratefully became a Friend.

During the same time period (mid‐ 1970s), I was involved with a group of parents who wished for an alternative to public and parochial school in that geographical area. We met regularly to talk about the kind of school community we envisioned—one that valued the spiritual, intellectual and emotional lives of children, where the core value was respect for the individual and the community, where learning was experientially based, multiple perspectives were valued and shared, diversity was honored, and children learned about peace and issues of social justice in the world. Several parents in that group knew friends who had sent children to Friends schools in New York City, Detroit, and Philadelphia, and said, “It sounds as if what we want is a Friends school.” At the time, I was exploring Quakerism, and just beginning to learn the Quaker philosophy of education and the extensive history of Friends and education in America. Thirty‐two years later, Greenwood Friends School is still serving a wide multi‐county area in upstate Pennsylvania, and I am continuing to respond to the Light that calls me through a transformative journey with Friends and with Friends education.

Following Spirit, way opened for me to serve as founding head of Delaware Valley Friends School, a miraculous learning environment for adolescents with learning differences in the greater Philadelphia area. Then way opened for me to design and teach Quakerism classes to spirited middle‐schoolers in a Friends school founded by William Penn in his charter in 1689. Working now for the Friends Council on Education, an association of 85 Friends schools in the United States with affiliates worldwide, every day I experience the vibrancy of Spirit at work in the multi‐textured fabric of Friends education. Since I stepped into the Religious Society of Friends and Friends education simultaneously, sparks from these intertwined worlds keep enlivening me, and I see the impact of this Venn diagram world (Quakerism and Friends education as the two overlapping circles) enlivening others. I’ve witnessed new growth in the Religious Society of Friends from sparks kindled in Friends schools—teachers, graduates, parents, administrators moving into membership in monthly meetings as a result of being deeply touched by the ethos and spirit of Friends education. For example, when Philadelphia Yearly Meeting conducted a survey of its membership, we discovered that 24 percent of Friends first visited a Quaker meeting through their association with a Friends school or college (Philadelphia Yearly Meeting Standing Committee on Support and Outreach, 2002.) Curious about that fact, I surveyed the heads of the 85 Friends schools across the United States that are members of the Friends Council on Education and found that nearly half of them are Quakers, and most of them had become so as a result of their experience working in or graduating from a Friends school.

At Friends Council on Education, we have a program called SPARC for teachers from across the country. SPARC, an acronym for Spirited Practice and Renewed Courage, speaks to the nature of the calling to work in a Friends school, as well as to the work itself. The sacred work of teaching and learning in a Friends school involves drawing forth the sparks of Light in the children, in colleagues, in parents, and throughout the community. This igniting of the spirit has been ongoing since 1668 when George Fox advised Friends in England to set up schools where children could be taught to be useful members of society. Then, in 1689, William Penn transported the principles and values of the Religious Society of Friends to the New World with a vision for religious freedom, a participatory democracy grounded in love and justice, and schools rooted in the same principles.

An essential and complementary aspect to the spark in Friends education is the work of creating sacred spaces—reflective, contemplative, intellectual, physical, curricular, and relational spaces that deepen and strengthen the spirit. Messages from students in Friends schools illustrate this treasure of shared contemplative space. Examples that have moved my heart include the first grader at Abington Friends School who rose to speak toward the end of his first meeting for worship, saying, “I want to live like this.” And, the high school student at George School who wrote on her exam, “I felt my own opinions were transformed most significantly in the Quaker meeting process. It really made a difference that I had to listen so carefully and really consider what my classmates were thinking.” And, a Cambridge Friends school parent: “If there was one lesson I learned from reporting in Iraq, it was that differences in culture, traditions, and even history paled before our commonly held values. Like Americans, the people I interviewed there want their children to eat well, to be safe, to be educated, and to live in a just world. More draws us together than keeps us apart. I chose a Quaker school for my daughter because I wanted her to understand that there are principles that join us as citizens of the world, and those principles—justice, tolerance and equality—matter.” (Wall Street Journal digital network, Dec. 9, 2008, “Quaker Education for a Socially Just World.”)

When I ponder the paradox that as a public‐schooled child from a poor family, I am frequently faced with accusations from members of my own religious group about “élite” Friends schools, I know that I am not alone. I remember Bruce Stewart speaking of his experience as a child in an immigrant family, led by grace to Guilford College and completing his career in the headship of Sidwell Friends School. There, he led the way for independent schools in Washington, D.C., to give spaces to children from the D.C. voucher program, providing whatever additional aid was necessary, including free breakfasts, lunches, and activities fees. This created the opportunity for a first‐rate education with transformative ripples through families, urban communities, and an entire public school system. I know those who work with passion to make Friends schools intentional communities, actively bringing together diverse populations (diverse in race, religion, socioeconomic class) to learn about each other, to value and understand differences, and to learn to live together. I experience the collaborative goodness in the work that comes from Friends school alumni serving the world grounded in Quaker testimonies, living lives of leadership and service, and forwarding the causes of peace, stewardship, and social justice.

Living and working at the center of the Quaker religion/Quaker education Venn diagram, I am aware of an ongoing tension that rises and falls between Friends meetings and Friends schools and among monthly, quarterly, and yearly meeting members when Friends education is a topic for discussion. In response to that tension, I have a concern that the Religious Society of Friends greatly undervalues one of its primary outreach functions, Friends education. I find renewed strength by returning again and again to the vision of unity expressed so clearly in Philadelphia Yearly Meeting’s Covenant on Education (1999). This Covenant encourages Friends to work to strengthen “both Friends schools and public education because through both of them we strengthen our community and society.” The Covenant encourages Friends to support local public schools, as well as “affirm a commitment to our Friends schools and their spiritual basis through service as teachers, school committee members, parents, and students.”

I believe that to survive as a strong, vibrant religious community, the Religious Society of Friends will benefit from nurturing a positive and dynamic relationship with Friends schools. I hope that we can find ways to champion those who work in Quaker education, create a climate that encourages Friends to go into teaching and service in Friends schools, and continue to develop the philanthropic resources to ensure that Friends children can go to Friends schools. I feel encouraged that William Penn’s vision continues to this day with an energetic tapestry of Friends schools (nursery, elementary, and secondary) across the country where Quaker worship, values, and practices are lived by nearly 21,000 students, 4,500 teachers, and 1,200 trustees. We are carrying on a tradition that is rooted historically at the heart of the Religious Society of Friends, and uniquely relevant today.

The inherent strength of Friends schools and Friends meetings lies in their interconnectedness. As one meeting member clearly described in a recent study of meeting‐school relationships, “It’s the Quakerism that pulls us together. It’s meeting for worship; it’s the notion of nonviolent conflict resolution. These ideals provide a kind of glue for us” (The Care Relationship, Friends Council on Education). My hope is that the sparks and spaces continue to enlighten us, and the glue at the center of our Religious Society’s relationship with its Friends schools holds strong.

Irene McHenry, a member of Chestnut Hill Meeting in Philadelphia, Pa., is executive director of Friends Council on Education.


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