Friends School starts year in nontraditional fashion New ex-Marine head uses Rolling Stones to warm up assembly

September 03, 1998|By Mary Maushard | Mary Maushard,SUN STAFF

It wasn't a typical first-day-of-school assembly, with the Rolling Stones' "Start Me Up" warming up the crowd of students for the main act, their new headmaster.

Nor is it typical for a headmaster of a Quaker school, which espouses pacifism, to be an ex-Marine.

But, then, it isn't typical -- or wasn't until July -- for someone who is not named Forbush to be in charge of Friends School on North Charles Street.

Now, the person in the headmaster's office is named Harris.

The sandy-haired, preppy-looking guy is Jon M. Harris, a 44-year-old father of three, who grew up on Long Island, attended private schools and graduated from Harvard in 1976 before entering the Marine Corps.

He used one of his favorite Rolling Stones songs to help introduce himself to upper school students, made himself known to the parents of younger students by opening cars doors in the morning drop-off line and delved into athletics as a walk-on coach for the football team.

"I will not be trapped in this office, though it's going to be a nice office," said Harris, looking around the not-quite-finished digs off the main hall of the upper school.

"He's very present," said senior Maron Deering, who said she's liked seeing the new headmaster frequently around campus in the first week of school. "He's definitely making an effort to meet the students and the parents."

She lauded Harris' choice of music for the opening convocation. "He got kudos for the Rolling Stones," said Deering, who has attended Friends for 12 years.

Harris took over as headmaster in July, replacing W. Byron Forbush II, who retired after 38 years as head of Baltimore's oldest school. Forbush's father, Bliss Sr., preceded him in the job, extending the Forbush era to 55 years, more than one-quarter of the school's 214-year history.

Though the first non-Quaker to head Friends, Harris is steeped in Quaker values and traditions. For the past 13 years, he has been upper school head, English teacher and coach at Friends Central School in suburban Philadelphia. It was at there, Harris said, that he came to know and appreciate Quaker education, which is marked by beliefs in community, equality, harmony and simplicity.

Time of meditation

Although only about 5 percent of the Baltimore Friends' enrollment is Quaker, students from first through 12 grades go weekly to the plain Stony Run Meeting House, up the hill from their classrooms, for the traditional Meeting for Worship. It is a time of meditation, broken only as members of the congregation are moved to speak. Even the youngest students learn early to appreciate the virtue of silence, beginning daily "circle time" with a quiet moment.

"Non-Quakers can be just as enthusiastic about being in a Quaker school. I just felt very comfortable when I went to Friends Central," Harris said.

"He really embraced the values of Friends schools," said David Felsen, headmaster at Friends Central. "There were a lot of possibilities open to Jon. He chose to be at a Friends school. He will maintain the values of the school."

With the Quaker philosophy's emphasis on the integrity of the individual, Harris is eager to get to know students and parents by name, though he finds this year's enrollment of 1,008 daunting when it comes to mastering names.

Firming up schedule

He is, however, firming up a schedule that will take him to six classes a week, rotating through the three divisions, to learn the school and its people.

"It's the only way to get to know the program. You don't know how your teachers teach if you aren't in the classroom. If I can keep to the goal of going to six classes a week I'll get to know a lot of kids. I'll learn a lot."

He has another inside track on how the school runs -- his two daughters are in kindergarten and second grade, making the headmaster a Friends School parent. Harris, his wife, Cynthia, and their children live on campus -- in the yellow house off the traffic circle, where Byron Forbush lived.

Questionnaire handed out

Harris' first goal is to learn the culture of the school. "How is this school different? How is this school different from other Quaker schools?" he asked.

Yesterday in "collection" -- the Quaker term for the students' daily assembly -- Harris gave the students a questionnaire, asking them what they liked and disliked about their school and how they would describe it to others.

"I want them to be very involved in helping me find my way here," he said. "I want to demystify the whole process of what it means to run a school."

Harris, however, does not foresee any big changes this year. "This school is working very well. It's a first-rate program. It's a first-rate staff," he said. His one area of concern is facilities. "We can do better."

Harris and the school's board of trustees will tackle a long-range plan, which is sure to address space and building needs, early next year, he said.

For now, "there are needs, but no emergencies," he said.

Pub Date: 9/03/98

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