Finding strength, but not in number

Its first year a success, Harford Friends School looks forward to an expansion in the fall

April 09, 2006|By CASSANDRA A. FORTIN | CASSANDRA A. FORTIN,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Sitting at a table in the lunchroom at Harford Friends School on a recent morning, a committee of pupils worked to solve the problem of the day: how to clean the kitchen after lunch and not miss recess time.

In another room, another committee bandied about ideas for social events and fundraisers to hold during the spring.

The number of pupils on both committees combined? Nine.

The number of pupils in the whole school? Nine.

"We have a small class here, but we get more attention, and the teachers have more time to be concerned about you," said 11-year-old Sarah Waldron.

As the inaugural year winds down for the Darlington school, officials and pupils said the first year has had its challenges, but that it has gone better than expected, and they are looking ahead to the growth planned for next year.

The committees - organized and run by pupils to improve the quality of life at their school - are an example of the things that helped make the first year a success, said Mary Ellen Saterlie, a member of the school's board.

"I think the children do so well because they play an active part in the decision-making process at the school," said Saterlie, whose 50-year career in education includes 14 years as the superintendent of instruction for Baltimore County schools.

While finishing up an initial year that school officials say went unexpectedly well, Friends is preparing for an April 23 open house for a new crop of sixth-graders.

Among the accomplishments noted by the school is the formation of partnerships with local organizations and professionals who augmented a challenging curriculum that is accompanied by instruction in the Quaker philosophy.

The independent school relies on private money and the $9,100 annual tuition rather than public financing.

After conducting a study in 1999 that reported parents were satisfied with elementary and high school education in Harford County, the Friends board decided to start the school with sixth-graders, who will move to seventh grade and make room for new sixth-graders in the fall. A grade will be added each year, Saterlie said.

"Parents take a risk when they send their students to a school with no established background," said Saterlie. "So we have to proceed slowly."

The premise of the program is based on the philosophies of William Penn, who founded the William Penn Charter School in Pennsylvania in 1689. The approach involves more than just academics, said Head of School Jonathan Huxtable.

"A Quaker education involves teaching students that there is divine within each of us," said Huxtable. "But it also involves the general belief that Quakers have that we don't know the answers to all the questions, and so we have to work to come to our own conclusions."

Pupils have a weekly meeting for worship that includes silent time followed by group discussion. Emphasis also is placed on teaching character traits such as honesty and responsibility.

Other minor differences include pupils referring to the teachers as "Teacher" - as in "Teacher Linda" rather than "Miss Linda."

Though few in number, the pupils say they are enjoying a year in which they have been pioneers of sorts. Clairellen Hurwitz of Rising Sun said a family-like environment prevails at the school.

"This school is a lot more challenging than my last school, but the people here care more about how you do than the teacher at my last school," said Clairellen, who attended public school and was home-schooled before enrolling at Friends. "You feel like you're part of a big family."

Along with the traditional subjects such as English, social studies and math, the curriculum includes nontraditional topics such as service learning, conflict resolution, and budget and fundraising.

Additionally, the school works with several area organizations that send representatives to the school to teach.

For example, teachers from the Maryland Conservatory of Music meet with the pupils for 90 minutes each week. The pupils are studying ancient civilizations and how to use rhythms as a means of communication. They listen to a Mozart melody and add words to the music, said Huxtable.

Scientists from institutions such as Aberdeen Proving Ground, the Johns Hopkins University and the Eden Mill Nature Center have worked with the school to provide the framework for the science program. The pupils take field trips at least once a month and have visitors come to give lessons at the school.

The pupils said the trips and the hands-on opportunities make science more engaging.

"It's always something new," Joseph Fifty of Churchville said of activities such as making ice-cream and taking soil samples.

Pupils also can participate in a program that allows them to pursue a specific interest. This year one pupil is building a computer, and another is writing a novel.

Joseph, 11, is finishing work on the computer he built from scratch.

"I learned how computers work, and ordered the parts, and now I have a 2.9-gigahertz computer that is fast and it works well," he said.

Sarah, who lives in Havre de Grace, is writing a book on the experiences of the school's inaugural class.

"I want to be the first to record what happened at this school," said Sarah. "I'm going to document the perspectives of the other students at the school through eighth grade. I want people to know what it's like here."

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