04 June 2020

Quaker education in a pandemic

"I could be a Quaker under those terms. Where do I sign up?"
"Elites always feel entitled to take what belongs to others."
"As the article notes, some Friends believe that private schools ought not to exist. But it is also true that many Friends are strong supporters of private schools."
'"Quaker values can be remarkably flexible' is one hell of a backhanded compliment."
"My loathing of organized religion is infinite."

These are among the lively and sometimes profane Twitter reactions to a story in The Atlantic last month, "When Quakers Become Takers: Sidwell Friends, one of the nation’s most elite private schools, cites its religious values in seeking government money." Commenters vented about the spectacle of a Friends school with an annual tuition of over $40,000 and an endowment of $54 million accepting CARES Act assistance.

Until the rise of nearly-universal public education, Friends communities worldwide made providing a Quaker education to its children and young people a high priority. Many newly-established Friends meetings in those earlier generations prioritized building a school first, then a meetinghouse -- or else combining the two functions into one building. The intention, at least in part, was to provide a "guarded education" to ensure that Friends values were instilled along with instruction in "all things civil and useful in creation," to quote George Fox, implying that a Quaker curriculum would not promote vain distractions.

A few years ago, in her article, "Westtown's Integration: 'A Natural and Fruitful Enlargement of Our Lives'," Margaret Morris Haviland gave us a case study in the changing environment that caused many Friends schools to modify their mission. The arguments of nearly a century ago, both for and against removing the denominational "hedge" around Westtown School, continue to be part of the debate about the propriety of Quaker education to this day. (Notice, for example, the pressures Westtown faced as a result of the Great Depression.) At the same time as we continue to debate the merits and demerits of Quaker schools, it's also true that dedicated public school teachers make up a significant part of nearly every Friends meeting and church that I've been involved with in my four and a half decades among Friends.

One serious charge against the large and well-established Friends schools in the USA and elsewhere is hinted at in the Atlantic story and its trail of comments, namely a form of elitism that comes with charging the levels of tuition required to support the low student-teacher ratios and lavish facilities forced on them by the private school market. (According to the article, less than 25 percent of Sidwell Friends families require financial aid.) I'm sure that no Friends school consciously adds "elite status" to the list of Quakerly values in its mission. Probably all of them are trying figure out how to compensate for this danger by enlarging their financial aid programs -- some more than others -- even though a culture already shaped by wealth might not be easy to change.

Back to the Westtown case. An early participant in the debate over possible changes to its mission, Carroll T. Brown summarized the three principal arguments for change, and dismissed two of them. However, the third reason he identified for opening the school struck him as particularly compelling,
"... that our treasure [our Quaker faith (Haviland's note)] serve as many persons as possible." Brown believed that the General Committee needed to discuss this reason fully. But he cautioned that only when the Committee and the Yearly Meeting were sure of what they believed should they act.
It's possible that Brown, in his caution, anticipated a risk that may have come true for Quaker education in general -- the wider world, at least in the American context, has influenced the public description of this "treasure" more than the treasure has influenced the wider world. Take a look at the Friends Council on Education's Web site, particularly its page on "What Is Quakerism?" I don't think I've ever seen a description of Friends faith that seems more intended to conceal, rather than reveal, the substance of that faith.

My own education from Kindergarten through high school was in the Evanston, Illinois, school system, starting around the time it was being deliberately and carefully integrated. Every child should have access to education of this quality. As a child of a violent, alcoholic, and white-supremacist family, it was at my public school that I found safety and inspiration. Such schools bless the pupils but also enhance the whole community, including that part of the community that has no children in the public schools. For that reason, I'm skeptical about school vouchers that divert funding away from public schools.

At the same time, school systems vary in adequacy and quality, and families have their own educational priorities as well. Families should always have the freedom to supplement or replace public schooling for their own children, forming their educational choices around the values they hold precious. Our own family took that route at vulnerable points in our children's development, and the way we did it may be the simplest of the Quaker school models, at least beyond home-schooling: the family co-op school. We joined the local Quaker family co-op in Richmond, Indiana, the Children's School. We parents ran the school (through a committee, of course!), we hired the teachers, we had received space on generous terms at West Richmond Friends Meeting, we cleaned the classrooms, collected the funds, and so on.

I don't want to exaggerate the ease and simplicity of this model -- we had our share of arguments about details big and small. The one I remember most vividly echoed the Westtown debates: how much overt Quakerism is too much for a school that was already attracting non-Quaker families? After listening to some of this debate, Earlham's Paul Lacey said to me, "Instead of being 'in the world, but not of it,' too often we Quakers are of the world, but not in it!"

Nevertheless, the model proved its worth, put down sturdy roots, and ultimately grew into today's Richmond Friends School. It outgrew the simplest versions of the parent co-op, but declined to become a voucher school to avoid playing by rules that felt alien (standardized testing, pledges of allegiance, and so on). And to ensure that the fees would not shape a student body that was unintentionally exclusive, the school began raising funds for financial aid. In normal times, almost every donated dollar goes into the financial aid budget.

And just as the Great Depression tested the sustainability of Westtown and that era's other Friends schools, the COVID-19 pandemic is squeezing Richmond Friends School. I asked Marcie Roberts, the Head of School (until the end of last month -- she is moving to Asheville, North Carolina) about some of the effects of the pandemic on the school. On-site attendance ended on March 13. Families in financial difficulty were offered a 25% tuition discount for the months affected by the pandemic, with the hope that other families who could afford to pay the full amount would do so. At the same time the school's income was falling, the spring fundraising event had to be cancelled. At this point, tuition payments don't even completely cover payroll, so voluntary donations are more important than ever. (You don't have to look hard to find the big blue DONATE ONLINE button on the school's home page.)

At the time of our conversation last month, Roberts was open about the uncertainties faced by the school, even as it remains committed to a sustainable and value-centered operation. I hope they continue to receive the support of West Richmond Friends Meeting, the region's Quaker community generally, and the growing numbers of families who've been blessed by the school. This is the sort of community-scaled Quaker educational witness that is worth maintaining -- even while also defending the vision of universal access to good public education.

More here: Chris Hardie interviews Marcie Roberts.

Monteverde: Midweek meeting for worship; source.
Just about the time I was reading about Sidwell Friends School and recalling the perennial debates around Quaker education, I got a letter from an old friend, Ellen Cooney, who had moved from Colorado, USA, to Monteverde, Costa Rica, about three months ago. She's the new development director of Monteverde Friends School, serving in a volunteer capacity. Over the years I've heard much about this school, and we have family ties to Costa Rica, so I was eager to learn more about how Monteverde Friends School is facing the global health emergency.

Costa Rica has done a good job of acting fast to limit the spread of the coronavirus, Ellen explained,
... making health care available through the national system etc. so only about 700 cases and 7 deaths (Colorado is just a tad larger, and has 19,350 cases and almost 1,000 deaths). But the impact on the tourist-dependent economy is devastating. The economic crunch is especially severe here in Monteverde where tourism pretty much is the economy. A survey a few weeks ago that focused on Monteverde found that over 80% of workers had either lost their jobs entirely, been cut way back, or had been furloughed. We don’t expect much relief soon, as tourist season – where most people get their annual earnings – is ending soon as we move into the rainy season.
The Monteverde Biological Cloud Forest Preserve, one of the "Seven Wonders of Costa Rica" (La Nación) is one of the nation's biggest ecotourism magnets. It draws 70,000 or more visitors in a normal year, but this year is far from normal. Local families need fabulous summer seasons to store up income for the low-income rainy seasons that follow, and this year it's not happening. For the school, staff cuts and reductions in work hours are apparently inevitable, as members of the staff have been learning these past days.

There are some similarities between Richmond Friends School and Monteverde Friends School. Monteverde has (at least up to now) about 120 students, about double Richmond's enrollment -- so their scale of operations is relatively similar, especially in comparison to Sidwell's enrollment of 1,100. They are both closely linked with their host Friends meetings; in fact, in Monteverde's case, the school is a direct expression of Monteverde Friends Meeting's own vision of value-centered bilingual education for both local and international students, and was begun practically as soon as the meeting was established. However, there's an important difference -- in comparison to Richmond's three substantial (by Quaker standards!) meetings and a Friends college and seminary nearby, and many more meetings in Wayne and nearby counties, Monteverde and its whole surrounding region have an estimated 50 Quakers. In this time of severe financial constraints, their school needs to call on an international support base of Quakers and others who find its mission inspiring. Once again, donation information is not hard to find.

The story of Monteverde Friends Meeting and its community is told in a new film, Sweet Home Monteverde, whose rollout in the USA was somewhat short-circuited by the pandemic. The trailer and other excerpts on its site promise an inspiring experience; I'm going to see whether our Friends church would like to sponsor a virtual showing of the film. Instructions on scheduling a screening are here.

National Geographic: With its famed Cloud Forest closed, Monteverde fights for its life.

In presenting these glimpses of these two relatively small schools, Richmond Friends School and Monteverde Friends School, and by noting the recent controversy around Sidwell Friends School's acceptance of a pandemic-related government loan, it wasn't my intention to make snide comparisons or imply that one or another school was more authentically Quaker. Draw your own conclusions. Each school has its own vision of hospitality to the larger community, or to put it another way, to the market. Each has adjusted (muted?) its presentation of Quaker faith and practice to accommodate the breadth of their market. From my work with Crane MetaMarketing Ltd. I remember how difficult it is for any organization, no matter how idealistic its founding and mission, to keep and communicate a consistent set of promises to its best-fit market over the years. I wish all these schools the very best as they confront the pandemic, and hope that the terrible stress that they're undergoing now will clarify and strengthen the values that would make their survival worthwhile.

Helena Cobban: Another American first: a self-collapsing empire.

For better or worse, Facebook is starting to label Russian, Iranian, and Chinese media outlets.

"He's doing a Jericho walk!" Another view of Trump's Bible stunt.

From William Barber: A pastoral letter to the USA.

In place of my usual blues dessert, here is today's memorial service for George Floyd. The eight minutes and 46 seconds of silence that Al Sharpton announced at the end of his eulogy (the length of time George Floyd lay on the Minneapolis pavement, pinned down by Derek Chauvin's knee on his neck), begin at 1:47:20. Note his query at the end of that silence: "That's a long time ... that's how long he was laying there. There's no excuse. They had enough time. They had enough time. Now what will we do with the time we have?"


Tom Smith said...

I could not help recalling in some detail our experiences with Portland Friends School. No real financial support from Friends and some resistance from even West Hills (not Mike H) when we were told by the Meeting "liaison" that the school was not in the mission of the church. We resisted calls to become a charter school for reasons you stated for RFS. However, after the founding school committee "dissolved" it seemed that Friends passed any connection on to an "independent" group. Our attempts maintaining Friends witness eventually ran into the "secularization" of the school committee.

Doug Bennett said...

It's good to ask what we expect of Quaker schools -- what makes them Quaker. Those of us who are Friends should take the lead in this conversation, not leave it to The Atlantic to raise the issue in controversy. But what are our expectations? It would be good, I think, to set those out explicitly before we stand in judgment on Friends schools.

Do we expect them to be inexpensive? And if so, what would inexpensive mean? The average per pupil expenditure across the 50 states for k-12 education today is about $12,000. Do we expect Friends schools to educate students well for less? If we believe the per pupil cost ought to be about the same, who do we expect will pay that? Parents alone? If so, we're opting for "elite schools." Do we expect Friends Meetings to support the schools so that the price for parents is (say) half that? Friends Meetings do not begin to support Friends schools anywhere close to that level. Richmond Friends and Monteverde Friends do educate students for considerably less than $12,000 per pupil, but it is a continuing struggle and takes unusual commitment from teachers (who are dramatically underpaid relative to public school teachers) and parents. I salute these efforts (we all should), but I'm reluctant to think that "inexpensive" should be the main expectation we have for a Friends school.

I believe nearly all Friends today would expect a Friends school to make a genuine effort at diversity and inclusion. That is almost certain to lead to admitting and supporting students whose parents have even less ability to pay, and that in turn leads inexorably to higher payments from parents with ability to pay.

Should we conclude that Friends schools are today a mistaken endeavor because we cannot operate them without charging tuition that is difficult for most parents to pay? Should we just abandon the effort? If not, what financial model will work. The Richmond and Monteverde models work in some places but likely not in others.

Here are three criteria I would rather we use as our expectations for Friends schools:

(a) Does it put a genuine focus on "growing students into goodness" (a Paul Lacey phrase). Does it put its best efforts behind developing character, not just achievement?

(b) Does it operate across the board with an eye to integrity and simplicity as Friends understand these terms? Does it keep the main things the main things?

(c) Does it ground both its education and its operations in a context of worship -- that is, among those involved in governance, on the part of teachers and on the part of students?

I've had a experience with quite a number of Friends schools over the years, and I think they do pretty well against these expectations -- Richmond and Monteverde Friends, yes, but also many others.

Johan Maurer said...

Tom and Doug -- thank you for these additions. Doug -- your observations might serve as a blog post on their own, for a wider audience. Let me know if you publish them somewhere else. I'd be glad to link to them.