Friends Council on Education, the national organization for 82 Quaker schools across the country, and with affiliates around the world, celebrated 325 years of Quaker education in America with a gala celebration, “Leading in the Light,” on April 24 in the historic Arch Street Meetinghouse in downtown Philadelphia. Dignitaries and noteworthy leaders and educators in Friends education traveled from around the country and the globe to celebrate the landmark anniversary.
As part of the celebration, Dr. Jill Biden, wife of Vice President Joe Biden, presented the first Friends Council on Education Leadership Award for Service to Society to Kwesi and Melissa Koomson, two Friends school educators working to change the lives of young people in Ghana. Kwesi Koomson is from Ghana and Melissa Koomson hails from Germantown. She attended Greene Street Friends School, graduated from Delaware Valley Friends School, and taught briefly at Plymouth Meeting Friends School. They are both currently educators at Westtown School.
“It is safe to say that Kwesi and Melissa Koomson embody the very best in Quaker education, but also the very best in basic humanity,” said Biden to the audience of 200 educators, leaders and friends of Friends education gathered at Arch Street Meetinghouse. “Their work in Ghana speaks for itself: thousands of children given new hope and confidence, regardless of age, background or disability. They foster cultural exchange between young people in Ghana and the United States, nurturing friendship and a sense of community across oceans and borders.”
Koomson’s vision is for a new kind of school in Ghana – a progressive community that produces graduates who can pass the national exam, think critically, solve problems and live out their values including a strong call to give back to their communities. Kwesi is the founder of the Heritage Academy, a pre-k through 12 independent school in Ghana, and Melissa started the Shoerke Foundation to support educational scholarships for Heritage students in Ghana. Heritage Academy started in 2004 with 32 students attending school in a church. Today in 2014, Heritage Academy has grown to over 1200 students.
The Koomsons have created a partnership between Heritage Academy and Westtown School, a Quaker boarding school dating back to 1799, where Westtown teachers, students, and alumni travel to Ghana to gain unique experiences from working on authentic real-world problems.
In her remarks leading up to the award presentation, Biden gave a heartfelt and ringing endorsement of Friends education.
“For 325 years, an education at a Friends school has always been grounded in a very basic, core belief: ‘here’s that of God in every person,’” said Dr. Biden. “But the teachers I knew at Friends school looked at every child and said, ‘There’s that of God in every child.’ The teachers at Friends school worked hard and consciously to make my sons, our sons, feel valued. They embraced them every moment.
“The school’s kindness and support was the glue that really helped cement us together. The environment was safe and nurturing. The dedicated staff interacted wonderfully with students and parents. Not only were my boys happy at school, they were encouraged, as Thoreau said, ‘to walk to the beat of a different drummer.’”
“For the Biden family, the Quaker philosophy of “let their lives speak” has become a reality,” Biden said. “This philosophy was imbued in each of our three children.”
Friends Council’s “Leading in the Light” event also celebrated the remarkable tenure of Irene McHenry, Friends Council on Education’s executive director for the past 13 years and a leader in Friends education for more than 30 years. A school founder, former school head, author and psychologist, McHenry consults with schools internationally, providing professional development for administrators, faculty, trustees, and aspiring leaders.
In her role as executive director of Friends Council, McHenry’s vision and energy has led to the creation of Friends Council’s renowned Leadership Institute for aspiring school leaders, as well as “Trustee U,” an online program for good governance. McHenry has also been a leader in bringing mindfulness practices into the classroom for students and faculty at all grade levels and is the co-editor/author of “Tuning In: Mindfulness in Teaching and Learning” and co-author of the soon to be released, mindfulness-based, “Autism Playbook for Teens.”
She is a resident of Mt. Airy and is married to Randy Granger, who teaches art and design and works in the archives at William Penn Charter School. McHenry’s son, photographer Michael Koehler, is a graduate of Plymouth Meeting Friends School and Chestnut Hill Academy. He currently teaches at Germantown Friends School and resides in Mt. Airy.
The evening also included the unveiling of a new commemorative publication entitled, “Leading in the Light: Celebrating 325 years of Quaker Education in America.” This foundational and inspiring collection of writings (essays, poetry, stories) from leaders in Friends education reflects on the history and principles of Quaker education and the defining features of Quaker education in practice (available online at www.friendscouncil.org in the Resources section under “Bookstore”).
Many heads and administrators of Philadelphia area Friends schools attended the 325th anniversary event, including Dr. Darryl J. Ford, head of William Penn Charter School and clerk (chair) of the Friends Council on Education board; Ken Aldridge, Middle School Director at Germantown Friends School and clerk (chair) of the FCE Development Committee; Sarah Sweeney-Denham, head of Plymouth Meeting Friends School Wilson Felter, assistant head of Greene Street Friends School; Rose Hagan, head of Friends Select School; Rich Nourie, head of Abington Friends School; Craig Sellers, head of Friends’ Central School, and many, many more.
The educator to travel the greatest distance to attend the event was Paul Goodluck, principal from Friends’ School in Hobart, Tasmania, the largest Friends school in the world.