Friday, February 19, 2010

Some Answers

Su over at Tape Flags and First Thoughts reads voraciously and writes quickly and well. She also has an interest in the issue of social class. In her most recent post, she talks about conservative political scientist Charles Murray's most recent book, Real Education: Four Simple Truths for Bringing American Schools Back to Reality.

I'm a slower reader than Su by a number of magnitudes, and I'm not going to read Murray's book anytime soon. Luckily, Su summarized it and pulled out the salient points for her readers. She likes the questions he brings about education (but definitely not his answers). She asks about educating children and specifically modern American educational institutions:
How do we recognize the different abilities of different children? How do we nurture and guide them to the best use of those abilities? How do we de-stigmatize the less academic gifts, so that spending 13 years in our school systems doesn't leave so many kids feeling like failures?
I've had the same questions about both public and private education precisely because separating our education efforts by social class wastes human talent and resources in the same way bottom trawl fishing wastes far more than it reaps. I found a bunch of Quakers who, if what they're saying (and what William Ravdin says about them) is true, are answering her questions in practice.

Wellsprings Friends School in Eugene, Oregon started in 1994 as a more traditional independent (private) high school with tuition and financial aid and fundraisers and a focus on preparing kids for college.

But a few years ago, Oregon law changed everything. Suddenly, kids who didn't fare well in Oregon public schools could be referred to the school of their choice, public or private. Within two years, Wellsprings became a school of almost entirely hard-to-teach public school students.

The same students, in the Wellsprings environment, are thriving.

No, they don't all go to college. In fact, most don't. Just like the rest of the public school students in Eugene, Oregon. Head of school Dennis Hoerner says that the school demographics closely match those of the public schools from which they draw.

"Maybe one or two graduates go to a four-year college, about half go to community college, and the others look for work or get into apprenticeship programs," said Hoerner

The school's goal?

To support that student in whatever they want to do, and to help them find that.

Wellsprings help students find and nurture their interests and gifts. Hoerner said teachers place kids into community college classes or vocational classes outside of Wellsprings, as well as connect them with people who are already doing the work the student wants to do.

"We open all of them to the prospect of a community college, which is a stepping stone," he said.

I'm not the only one impressed with Wellsprings. William Ravdin, a Friend who has worked in Friends education for most of his very long life, wrote a lovely article for Friends Bulletin (now called Western Friend) about his visit to Wellsprings. He says that Wellsprings shows us a new direction for Quaker education.

"It is educating children who need to be rebuilt, emotionally and educationally, from the foundation up. Children whose families and schools in many cases have given up on them. Children who have given up on themselves," Ravdin writes of Wellsprings.

Knowing that receiving public funding might limit the school's ability to talk about Quakerism, I asked Hoerner about religious education. He said they'd never considered themselves a sectarian school, even before the funding change. But they do something like worship.

"We have a weekly 'Silent Meeting', which parallels 'meeting for worship' at other Friends schools but is not presented as either "worship" or something particular to Quakers. Rather, while we do explain that link, we also refer to the role of silence/meditation in other traditions as well, both religious and non-religious."

I'm guessing that Ravdin would take issue with that because he found Quakerism in a Quaker school. His headmaster, after he expressed some misgivings about the faith in which he was being raised, gave him Thomas Kelly's A Testament of Devotion. After reading it, Ravdin became a convinced Friend. He was eleven years old.

I personally am easier with limiting religious education than others. I don't understand why, if we're educating everyone and not just those who "deserve" a fine education, we need to be producing Quakers. Our work should speak for itself and I think in time Wellsprings will see many fruits of the Spirit.

Finally, the tuition is $7,000 for students who aren't referred to the school. That's a lot of money, but 1/5th of what the most expensive Quaker prep school in the country costs. Just a reminder, they're educating and graduating kids who were unable to stay in public schools. For $7,000 each year. Amazing.

In case you can't already tell, I'm enamored. The school even has a blog where both students and faculty write and post pictures and video. If you do nothing else, check out pictures of the science class before they dissected squid. You can even follow them on twitter.

I think Liz and I will be making a donation to Wellsprings this year.


Su said...

I always like your writing and this gives me a lot to think about (and I'm looking forward to your further writing on Friends' schools). But this paragraph in particular opened my mind in a new way--I've often been uncomfortable with how few Quaker kids there are in most Friends schools, and suddenly, I'm less so:

I personally am easier with limiting religious education than others. I don't understand why, if we're educating everyone and not just those who "deserve" a fine education, we need to be producing Quakers. Our work should speak for itself and I think in time Wellsprings will see many fruits of the Spirit.

Anonymous said...

I am a teacher at Wellsprings Friends School, and I'd like to thank you for your interest in our school. For the last five years, I feel like I have been a part of something incredibly special and honest. Before coming to Wellsprings, I never fathomed a school could operate with such genuine individual focus and succeed. If more people knew about what our school was doing, maybe other people would be inspired to begin schools like this in their regions.