Quaker Schools Transforming the World

Meeting for worship at New Garden Friends School in Greensboro, N.C. Photos courtesy of Friends Council on Education.
Editor’s note: This article was written before the COVID-19 pandemic.

Quaker schools are important because we are trying to create a better society. . . . We start with the heart and . . . good teaching is an act of love. . . . In Quaker schools, we expect children to practice radical empathy. We focus on conflict resolution, restorative justice, and building and repairing relationships. A just society and a better world can’t be achieved just by passing laws. It has to be done, as Isabel Wilkerson says, one heart at a time.

—Brian Fahey, head of school, West Chester Friends School

Quaker schools have been educating with love and radical empathy for over 350 years, one heart at a time. Next to Quaker meetings, Friends schools are among the oldest Quaker institutions, with some of the first ones set up by George Fox in England in the mid 1600s. In America, Quaker education began in 1689 with the founding of William Penn Charter School in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and continues with the newest Friends school, International Friends School in Bellevue, Washington, in 2017. William Penn envisioned Friends schools as vehicles to create a better society. In the United States today there are 76 Friends schools in 21 states, with approximately 4,900 educators; 20,000 students; and an estimated 1,160 trustees or board members. That’s a lot of love!

While Friends schools face many challenges, we believe it is vitally important to keep Quaker schools alive and vibrant both to ensure the future of Quakerism and to keep alive the spirit and energy for the positive transformation of our world. Grounded in core principles of respect, the ongoing search for truth, teaching for peace and social justice, and serving one’s community, Quaker schools find strength in these universal ideals and the spiritual foundation provided by the Religious Society of Friends. It is a foundation that holds firm despite the winds of change and societal turmoil.

Challenges Facing Friends Schools Today

Schools across the nation—Quaker schools, independent schools, public schools, and colleges—are all facing multiple challenges, including budget constraints, funding cuts, attracting and retaining faculty, rising costs of benefits, rapidly changing technology, and safety and security issues, all while striving to create a climate in which an increasingly diverse student population can thrive.

Yes, Friends schools face budgetary challenges. In the urban and suburban markets of Philadelphia, New York, and Washington, D.C. areas, as well as in rural outposts, there is intense competition for students. Schools must attract and keep faculty as well as retain families. To survive in the independent school landscape, schools are often pulled into a competitive environment with regard to facilities and programs.

This budgetary dilemma for Friends schools is a values-oriented decision. There is a tension in balancing tuition costs while providing competitive salaries and benefits for employees, as well as covering increased costs to maintain facilities while keeping educational programs up-to-date with technological advances. All of these pressures lead to high tuition that can be seen as a barrier for families who wish to send their young ones to Friends schools.

One way Friends schools are addressing this challenge is to consistently offer generous tuition assistance to help families meet rising costs. Friends schools put a priority on creating an inclusive community—socio-economic, racial, religious—and support this part of their mission with tuition assistance while expecting families that can pay full tuition to do so. Friends schools’ trustees work hard to be responsible financial stewards of the schools in their care. This responsibility extends to making every effort to keep school tuition as low as possible while providing adequate salary and benefits to employees.

With its primary concern for maintaining the Quaker identity of Friends schools, Friends Council on Education is addressing this financial pressure through the establishment of the National Friends Education Fund to provide tuition assistance for qualifying Quaker families to make it possible for Quaker children to attend Friends schools.

Another challenge for Quaker schools is the declining membership of the Religious Society of Friends. Some Friends schools’ bylaws require a 50 percent majority of board members to be Quaker. It has become increasingly difficult to find Quakers with the skills and interests to serve as Friends school trustees.

Friends Council’s Quaker Self-Study and Membership Renewal Process (started in 2011 and instituted as a requirement for Friends schools in 2018) involves the entire school community, including the board of trustees and members of affiliated Quaker meetings. The Quaker self-study offers penetrating queries on how the school embodies and acts on the principles of the Religious Society of Friends. Seasoned Friends school educators (who are often Friends) visit each school to support efforts to deepen the Quaker dimension of the school. About 45 Quaker schools have completed their Quaker self-studies and have found that the query process serves to renew the community’s sense of who they are and to identify the ways students and families can learn the deep moral and principled mission of Quaker schools.

For Quaker meetings that are in a care relationship with a school, an important question is how to engage with school families. One Philadelphia-area Friends meeting has about ten young families from the meeting’s school who have started attending worship on First Day with their children. Parents are interested because they have experienced the school’s meeting for worship and want to deepen their own spiritual lives in the company of like-minded seekers. Cultivating membership for these families will be critically important for the future of this Quaker meeting. Another source of energy for Quaker meetings can come from Friends school faculty. One Friends school leader talks about how she came to Quakerism through teaching at a Friends school. Starting as a parent at the school, this educator began attending the local Quaker meeting, was hired at the school, and in time joined the meeting.

These are just two anecdotal examples among many.

An important reason to keep Friends schools thriving is because of the leadership role they are playing in social justice work. Friends schools are engaging in forward-thinking, dynamic anti-racist work and are leading the way with work on gender identity by creating inclusive environments for transgender and non-binary students.

Most Friends schools have articulated mission statements embracing diversity and are acting to create communities that are inclusive. A statement from Abington Friends School outside Jenkintown, Pennsylvania, reads:

The curriculum, program, and climate of the school must reflect the diverse backgrounds of the members of the school community; of the wider local community; and of the global community in terms of race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, religion, gender, and ability.

Friends schools continue to take courageous and principled stands to counteract trends of institutionalized racism in our society. School leaders and those professionals who work for diversity, equity, and inclusion are careful not to tout their accomplishments, and they readily acknowledge that our Quaker institutions have a long way to go. However, there are numerous examples of strong work that has been done to help Friends school communities face White supremacy and to keep hammering away for a more just and equitable world.

Both Carolina Friends School in Durham, North Carolina, and Friends School of Atlanta, Georgia, were founded by Quakers with a concern and desire for integrated schools. Carolina Friends School, founded by Martha and Peter Klopfer in the early 1960s, was the first integrated school in the state and drew much attention at the time. The school’s model of integration was new and different, even radical, for the 1960s. Friends School of Atlanta, a model of diversity in the early 1990s, today maintains an enrollment of 40–50 percent students of color, and Carolina Friends School has approximately 19 percent staff of color and 24 percent students of color.

These schools are examples of what Friends schools across the country are doing to push the boundaries concerning anti-racist work through hiring practices and training of staff. School diversity and inclusivity committees are collaborating with salary and benefits committees to expand job recruitment efforts and to clarify and give greater transparency to the hiring process, placing greater emphasis on attracting candidates with a commitment to cultural competency, inclusivity, and race equity.

Friends schools have learned the importance of ongoing professional development programs focused on diversity, inclusivity, and equity. As Abington Friends School has stated, “An understanding of the role of identity and privilege in society and in school must be intentionally built into the education of students and the professional development of adults in the community.” Many schools have created an administrative position for this work, often under the title of “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion” (DEI). Staff members at many Friends schools are expected to complete equity training, and each year Friends school educators are encouraged to attend conferences, including Racial Equity Institute, SEED, the NAIS People of Color Conference, the Student Diversity Leadership Conference, the Race Institute, the White Privilege Conference, and the ADVIS Multi-Cultural Resource Center Cultural Competency Conference.

We are not adequately educating children unless our school communities reflect the whole of society. Hiring and retaining people of color and members of marginalized groups in order to grow an inclusive and diverse faculty and staff is critically important. Students need to be able to see themselves reflected in the adult community in which they learn and grow. Through workshops and peer network gatherings, Friends Council works with Friends school educators to encourage them to look through the lens of diversity, equity, and inclusion and to share practices, strategies, and resources that will push their communities forward in disrupting the status quo.

Friends schools are also leading the way in creating inclusive environments for transgender and non-binary students. At a time when school policies were hard to find, George School in Newtown, Pennsylvania, is believed to be the first boarding school in the nation to approve a written policy in support of transgender students. Westtown School near West Chester, Pennsylvania, quickly followed. Today, many Friends schools are enacting and refining supportive best practices for inclusivity. Gender-inclusive curriculums and readings are being developed to provide “windows and mirrors” to reflect the broad range of identities. Educators are learning to examine language and practices to create non-gendered spaces. Many schools are incorporating affinity groups for transgender or non-binary students and families, sharing and building safe spaces so all young people can learn and thrive.

While creating inclusive environments for transgender and non-binary students is about more than just bathrooms, Friends schools are well ahead in this area. For example, in 2019 when Greene Street Friends School in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, opened its new community auditorium, the school intentionally included an all-gender, multi-stall bathroom. This type of restroom facility is often not found in schools, and Greene Street Friends is on the cutting edge in building this type of restroom.

Often families with transgender and non-binary students encounter hostile school environments for their children. Families seek out schools with supportive policies and practices and an inclusive mindset and some are choosing to move their transgender or non-binary student to a Friends school for that kind of environment.

At the heart of Friends principles is a commitment to equity and inclusivity. Friends schools put these principles into action every day. In a time when many schools and educators are working to address social justice issues, such as racism, violence in society, immigration, gun violence, antisemitism, xenophobia, and inclusivity for transgender students, Friends Council on Education has been actively issuing statements of support for schools and families around these issues. That said, Friends are not content to only issue statements about injustice. Quaker schools focus on graduating students who are actively engaged in the world and who think critically about what is going on around them. Friends schools offer community engagement programs that encourage students, faculty, and families to be active in the world; to serve others; and to “let their lives speak.”

Friends school communities are interested in doing more than organizing collections and providing charity to those in need. Community outreach programs guide students to go further in their actions, creating relationships in the wider community with structured reflection when back in class. It is important for students to learn about the root causes of injustices and to develop the tools to act on their ideas: students learn to be empathetic, collaborative, reflective, and willing to act courageously to transform society. One example is the Center for Public Purpose (CfPP) at William Penn Charter School:

A program that engages students in community-based work addressing some of the most pressing social issues in metropolitan Philadelphia. The CfPP’s work aligns with Penn Charter’s Quaker values and curriculum and creates structures that inspire students to take ownership of their own learning experience. Through this process students gain skills and competencies to live lives that make a difference. 

Sidwell Friends School in Washington, D.C., states: 

Our service program embraces the Quaker values of justice, peace, community, stewardship, and equity. These ideals are taught through a lens of critical service learning, an approach that helps our school community engage responsibly and intentionally with the global community.

Quaker-Based Decision Making workshop with educators from Mary McDowell Friends School in Brooklyn, N.Y.


In 1689, the first Quaker school in America was founded to prepare students from all walks of life, genders, religions, and ethnicities to be moral leaders. Friends created schools with programs of study through which these young people might together imagine an ideal society. Today, Friends schools are continuing to figure out how they need to transform the educational process, and they are wrestling with the need to change, the ways to change, and the ways leaders in Friends schools should support that change and disruption.

Quaker schools also provide an environment in which young people can be encouraged in civic engagement and disruption, to make a difference in the world, and to live “lives that speak.” By feeling loved in Friends school communities, students from all walks of life are using love as a tool for transforming society.

Deborra Sines Pancoe and Elisabeth Torg

Deborra Sines Pancoe is Friends Council on Education’s associate director and a member of Abington (Pa.) Meeting. Elisabeth Torg is director of development and communications for Friends Council on Education, a kindred spirit of Quakers, and a parent of two Friends school graduates.

2 thoughts on “Quaker Schools Transforming the World

  1. As a 1947 graduate of Scattergood School in West Branch, Iowa. I note that all the schools referenced in this article are in the east — including the Carolinas in the southeast.

  2. This article is grounded in details. Really hope we are not hearing the last episodes of Quaker schools. Maybe some new seeds could be sown in small community pm Sunday School sessions in no meetings communities. Some Friends are exploring this concept here at Highgate Friends Church in Jamaica and even at this micro are facing some of the challenges and successes mentioned here. Very good emotional appeal for maintaining a proven means towards a better world.

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