Upon becoming a Quaker, I had an unspoken assumption that Quakers valued their children having a Friend education. As I became more involved in the work of our meeting’s quarter, I was surprised to hear some Quakers openly discussing their perceived failures of Quaker schools. This question haunted me and continues to today. With a sense of curiosity and the understanding that there was some learning to be gained, I set out to explore this issue as a focus of study for my work in the Friends Council on Education’s Institute of Engaging Leadership.
The answers I have unpacked through this action research project are not surprising. The restraining forces for some Quakers in considering a Friends education include: the cost of an independent school education in a difficult financial climate; the fear that Quaker Schools are turning into “elitist” institutions; and the fear of sheltering our children from the “real” world. Having taught in a Quaker school for the last seven years, I have failed to see any of these concerns come to fruition.
During my investigation into these concerns I have found many of the criticisms don’t tell the whole story. While Friends education comes with a tuition Friends schools and some Quaker meetings in PYM provide significant financial aid, supplemented by tuition aid from PYM funds and the Friends Education Fund. Additionally, many Friends Schools have worked tirelessly to build large endowments needed to open their doors to individuals that require needs based financial support. The aid available varies among schools and meetings and the need for aid also varies. But there is a significant amount of financial support available and the cost of tuition should not be a reason that Friends education should not even be explored.
I’ve found that Quaker schools strive to have very diverse (diverse in socio-economic class, race, religion, ability) learning communities. And, Quaker schools support children in wrestling with the issues of the “real” world. Friends schools, as religious institutions are free to expose their students to critical issues facing the world, often times confronting difficult and important issues such as genocide, abortion and many other problems impacting our world that are often too politically charged to be discussed in public school settings. So while some Friends schools may not reflect the same diversity as the neighboring public school, there is a significant focus on addressing the needs and the impacts of living in a diverse world that is highly valued and manifested in Friends schools.
Fortunately, my own path as an almost lifelong attender of public school, wound me around to the place I was meant to be. However, for many children, their stories will not end the same way because of an initial bias which prevents their families from exploring the possibility of a Friends education. One of the most interesting findings throughout my two-year journey interviewing Quakers from various meetings was that many of their views were based on layers of misinformation. A significant finding from my research was this correlation: the more negatively oriented people were towards Quaker education, the greater the lack of contact these individuals actually had with Quaker Schools.
The most important lesson learned through this study is that building bridges is essential. The more interactions Quakers have with Friends Schools the stronger these relationships become. Rather than take my word about these shifts in Quaker education, it is more important that Friends Schools create opportunities to invite their local meeting members to participate in the life of the school and that Quakers take the time to visit and engage in the life of Friends Schools to discover and experience the values of Quaker education first hand. The future of our schools and our religion depend on strengthening these bonds.
For more information and assistance on creating programs that encourage interaction between Friends Schools and the Religious Society of Friends please contact the Committee on Friends Education.
Louis Herbst is the Social Studies and 6th Grade Math teacher at United Friends School as well as the Athletic Director, After School Director and Summer Camp Director. Louis’ Action Research Summary will be available for viewing on the Friends Council on Education website in May 2013. View previous action research projects, on the FCE website.