Providing children with a high-quality and equitable education is often treated as a problem for parents, teachers, and administrators rather than a joy. Quaker schools, in sharp contrast, energetically approach the puzzle of how to educate children with diverse gifts and from a range of socioeconomic backgrounds.
Quakers, who believed people should be free to worship on their own terms, came to America in 1682 to escape religious persecution in Europe. In 1689, the Religious Society of Friends founded the first Quaker school, Philadelphia’s William Penn Charter School, which continues to operate today.
Drew Smith, executive director of the Friends Council on Education, says Penn Charter began the practices that have become standard among Quaker schools today: welcoming students regardless of faith and background and providing financial aid. “Two hundred years ago, Quaker schools mostly educated Quaker children,” Smith said. “But the idea [behind Penn Charter] was that students from all walks of life should come together to create an ideal society.”
Today, there are about 80 Quaker schools in the U.S., half of which are in the Delaware Valley. There are schools as far south as Atlanta, Georgia, and as far west as San Francisco. The largest is the prestigious Sidwell Friends School in Washington, D.C., attended by Chelsea Clinton, Sasha and Malia Obama, and other children of prominent politicians.
Smith claimed most Quaker schools have the same mission though they may serve different groups of students. “We’re outward-facing institutions,” he said. “We’re not trying to turn students into Quakers, but we do help them to develop particular habits of heart and mind.”
These include practicing the “spices,” or Simplicity, Integrity, Community, Equality, and Stewardship. Quakerism also seeks to moderate individual achievement and self-exploration with a focus on the world at large. Smith said he thinks encouraging individual mindfulness is great, “but the mindfulness trend is being mindful of yourself. This needs to be balanced with the thoughts and words of others.”
He pointed out that many visitors to Penn Charter are surprised when they don’t see any displays devoted to famous alum Matt Ryan, quarterback for the Atlanta Falcons. But showcasing an individual’s trophies is not the Quaker way. “He is a great athlete,” said Smith, “but creating a larger community is the overarching priority.”
To achieve this community focus, most Quaker schools incorporate service learning into the curriculum. At Penn Charter, students visit with the elderly, clean up trash, plant gardens, and assist local food recovery organizations. The schools also incorporate weekly worship meetings in which students may engage in a manner consistent with their own beliefs or simply sit in peaceful silence.
Perhaps the most central belief of Quakerism is that every person has an “inner light.” Kirk Smothers, Head of Delaware Valley Friends School in Paoli, Pennsylvania, said that this inner light could be interpreted as God or, in a secular sense, as a person’s inherent goodness and worth. “[Having an inner light] is what connects us as human beings; our moral and ethical decisions follow from that,” he explained.
This guiding principle is behind Quakers’ belief in equality for all people. They have a history of advocating for the rights of underrepresented members of society, including enslaved African-Americans, prisoners, and the mentally ill. Quakers were also the first religious group to march in New York’s LGBT Pride parade, in 1970.
A commitment to education equality is behind the mission of Delaware Valley Friends School, which serves students in grades three to 12 who have learning differences. “We take this notion of the inner light and apply it to a population of kids who are not very well understood by the larger learning community,” Smothers said. “These kids are smart, but aren’t made to feel smart in other schools.”
Among the students at Delaware Valley Friends are those who struggle with ADHD, dyslexia, dyscalculia (difficulty with math), memory processing, and other learning differences. Smothers said children with learning differences are often mislabeled as underachievers who fail to apply themselves. Even compassionate teachers in mainstream schools may lack the resources and training to help these children thrive.
Delaware Valley Friends is able to offer programs like multisensory arts education and an advisory system that helps students become self-advocates. The school’s student-to-faculty ratio is 4:1, and class sizes range from three to 13 students, depending on the subject being taught. Smothers said most parents come to DVFS seeking specialized educational solutions. “But after the family has been here a bit, what they appreciate most is that they love who their kids have become from being in a Quaker educational environment.”
Like any private education, costs to attend a Quaker school are steep. 2017–18 tuition at Penn Charter ranged from $22,760 (pre-Kindergarten) to $36,375 (Upper School); at Delaware Valley Friends, tuition ranged from $33,950 (Lower School) to $38,890 (Upper School).
Kirk Smothers said his school works hard to make tuition accessible to families for whom these financial hurdles would otherwise be insurmountable. He estimated that one-third of students receive financial aid directly from Delaware Valley Friends, while a total of 64 percent receive financial aid through means that include independent scholarships and school district support.
Drew Smith said that compared to other private schools, Quaker institutions reserve a higher percentage of their operating budgets for financial aid, which is often the second largest expense after teachers’ salaries. This commitment to financial aid has been true since 1701, when families were first helped with what were then called “school fees” at William Penn Charter School.
“If you asked most schools what their ideal is, they’d say they’d like to accept as many students as they can,” Smith said.
The Friends Education Equity Collaborative (FEEC) is a new organization helping to make this ideal possible. Co-chaired by Jeff Markovitz and John Gilliland, FEEC works to provide scholarships so families with limited resources can send their children to Quaker schools. Markovitz said the organization was founded on two Quaker principles: “Equality, or making sure we treat all people equally with regards to access, and community: helping schools collaborate instead of compete.”
Currently, FEEC comprises 10 elementary schools and has partnerships with two K–12 schools. It sources funds through OSTC (Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit) and EITC (Educational Improvement Tax Credit), two programs that allow businesses to receive tax credits for donations to qualifying educational organizations. The model uses existing structures, like schools’ marketing and financial aid departments, to make fundraising possible. In its first year, FEEC raised over $1.2 million.
It remains true that only a very small percentage of children in the U.S. will have the privilege of attending a Quaker school. However, both heads of FEEC believe their program has the potential to change the way Friends schools approach the sharing of knowledge and resources that can help make a Quaker education accessible to more families. As John Gilliland put it, “This is just the first of many efforts that is really going to help Quaker education move forward into the future.”