Friends Schools Mystique Part 1: An Outsider’s Perspective

Germantown Friends School

Germantown Friends Photo from The Architects Newspaper

If you are from Philadelphia, you probably know about the Quaker-backed Friends Schools.  Depending on how widely you define the Philadelphia area, there are about 30 Friends Schools here, I believe among the highest concentration of Quaker schools in the world.  Growing up, the closest one to my house was Moorestown Friends. Though I did not attend, I did take music lessons from one of their teachers and as a very young child, I attended summer day camp there. Heck, even my public high school mascot is the Quaker. (The irony of our high school fight song “Go! Fight! Win!” was lost on me at the time.)

My awareness of the Friends Schools only increased when I went to a small private liberal arts college.  Even 200 miles away from Philadelphia in upstate New York, I learned more about our local Friends phenomenon. My Philadelphia-area college friends and acquaintances represented a cross section of regional high schools like Central, Cherry Hill West, and Lower Merion, but there was definitely a larger contingent of students who attended one of the 30 or so (depending on how you define the boundaries) regional Friends schools .  After graduation, I continued to volunteer doing admissions interviews for local graduates, where I met even more products of Friends Schools.

Now, as a parent researching school options for my children, I am certainly hearing more and more about Friends Schools. I have friends and acquaintances who send their children to Penn Charter, Greene Street Friends, Friends Select, Plymouth Meeting Friends, and Germantown Friends (GFS). We have hired babysitters from Abington Friends (AFS) and GFS. I support the upkeep of this blog by serving up Google advertisements, and one for Friends Central pops up regularly (feel free to click on it to support this site). Though I know families who intend to send their children to a non-Quaker private schools, those are few and far between and tend to be for specific reasons like one of the parents is a teacher there or they want a specific program like single-sex education at Agnes Irwin or a Jewish education and Hebrew language immersion at Perelman Day School.

Of course, I also did some research on Friend’s Schools from Friends Council on Education (FCOE) website.  There, I found this important list of their core philosophical tenets.  Check out the “Mission and Values” page for details on each item.

  • Academic and Moral Development
  • Access and Affordability
  • Diversity and Multiculturalism
  • Institutional Independence
  • Peace Education and Nonviolent Conflict Resolution
  • Service Learning
  • World Citizenry

Of the FCOE tenets, I find some particularly interesting.  The first is Institutional Independence.  Friends Schools are empowered to operate independently.  Despite the common religious underpinnings (and branding), these schools are not McPrivates.  On the contrary, each will likely have their own culture, their own unique programs, problems, strengths and weaknesses.

I also find the Peace Education and World Citizenry tenets interesting for a couple of reasons.  First, although these sentiments are not necessarily unique to Friends schools, they are certainly uniquely emphasized by the FCOE.  Though I agree with these sentiments in theory, there is at least one anecdotal side-effect of this philosophy.  As a Jew, I have strong feelings about Israel, and there has been a well documented pro-Palestinian sentiment among Quakers through organizations like The American Friends Service Committee and there is at least one report of anti-Israel and even antisemitic incidents at AFS.  I wonder if the philosophical tenets of the FCOE might possibly serve as an incubator for such incidents?  I spoke with a friend and former teacher (Jewish) at AFS who feels that the incidents were overblown by the students and the media.  Is this incident the product of hypersensitive teens, a sensationalist press, or an accurate reflection of the reality?  I have no idea.  The institutional independence tenet, at least, makes me think that school cultures will differ and that the potential for incidents like these will vary from school to school.  It is also my feeling that every school will have incidents of one kind or another (laptop spy scandal, anyone?), most of which never gain local or national publicity, and that it is how they handle the incidents that is important.  At this point, I am simply filing the AFS story away as just another input into my research.

So what has all of this experience led me to conclude?  I admit that I am still mostly ignorant of the Friends School philosophy and knowledge of any specific school.  My perception of Friends Schools is that they are simply the best.  The best facilities, the most rigorous educational standards, the brightest students with a passionate love of learning.  I remember visiting the Friends-affiliated Westtown School (boarding school) to conduct college interviews and seeing kids painting portraits and staging impromptu string quartets in the hallways.  That never happened at my public school.  I also know only second hand about the religious slant of the schools, with daily meetings and subtle or not-so-subtle infusion of Quaker values in the classroom and in school policies.  I also have images in my mind of extra small class sizes and extra large tuition bills.  I also have a sense that my friends who start to consider private schools tend to consider Friends Schools first and ultimately choose Friends Schools.  Last month I wrote about my surprise at one particular private school that many of my peers (many of whom are Jewish, incidentally) are choosing for their children, and it is a Friends School.  Despite my positive impressions, I do wonder how much the Friends School reputation is aligned with reality.  For specific schools, I am sure the cachet is deserved.  For others, I wonder if they get to ride on the coattails of the successes of their co-branded bretheren.

In the next part of this article I will write about how my first hand impressions differ from these preconceptions.  I plan to attend several Friends School open houses and speak to admissions representatives–look for my reaction in part 2 sometime this Fall.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *