Sunday, March 17, 2013

Cambridge Friends School - Cambridge, MA

Birthed during a time of moral crisis in America at the height of the McCarthy era, Cambridge Friends School (CFS) was founded by a group of Quaker transplants from Philadelphia who opened the school, after three years of planning, in the Fall of 1961. Arising out of the Cambridge Quaker meeting, the founders formed a School Committee with the intention of creating a school committed to the socially conscious values of the Friends Peace Testimony. Today, the school centers its mission around the six testimonies of Quaker faith and practice: equality, peace, integrity, community, simplicity, and stewardship. Serving 204 students in grades PK-8, CFS is the only Quaker school in Massachusetts and one of only four in New England. Head of School, Peter Sommer hosted my visit.

Peter Sommer
Head of School
Although most Friends schools embody progressive values in their mission, in 2013 few would claim to be progressive schools. Not true with Cambridge Friends, a self-avowed progressive school and the only friends school in Massachusetts. Head of School Peter Sommer aligns his definition of progressive education with the aspirations of CFS: to graduate all students who can engage with the problems facing society; who can uncover political, social and ethical issues; and who will make a binding commitment to the interests of community. For Peter, progressive education recognizes that all children have worth and limitless potential to make meaning in the world around them. A friend's education makes this aspect of mission easily accessible by "recognizing God in everyone." At CFS, all children are recognized as leaders and all have responsibility for one another. According to Peter, "We listen to one another, and we attend to one another."

CFS Testimonies
There is a particular gestalt I observed at CFS that validates Peter's statement about the school's mission. As I walked through the halls of the school, not a single student failed to make eye contact or greet me. Peter had a "hello" or kindly touch for every student we passed, and each teacher in the school greeted me with smiling warmth. It is a singularly welcoming, friendly place. If you've been following this blog, you'll notice that I am paying close attention to this dynamic in the schools I visit. Not that I hold the belief that students and faculty should be greeting each visitor, but because I believe these gestures of hospitality reflect the mission and values of a school, and taken as a whole can be one indicator that the school is walking its talk.

CFS values
displayed prominently
Peter shared an anecdote about his interview process when he was applying to become the Head of School. He tells of a committee of middle school students formed to be part of the selection process and with whom he would be meeting. As the interview unfolded, an eighth grade student asked Peter, "Can you share with us a time when your integrity has been compromised?" This question was one reason Peter found CFS so endearing; that the school would have a committee of students involved in the selection process was a strong message about how students are respected at the school; but equally impressive was the courage of the students to go to the heart of the school's values and ask candidates about integrity.

Scale models of the campus
We visited a 5th grade classroom, where the students were designing and building an amusement park ride. This hands-on activity created a buzz of excitement among the ten year-lds as they were making scale, working models of ferris wheels, merry-go-rounds, and other fun structures. I found a project-based program throughout the school, with the teachers providing an experiential underpinning for much of the curriculum. In the middle school, students made two and three dimensional scale models of the CFS campus. A group formed to start a student literary magazine was grappling with whether all students should be published or if there would be a selection process. I found an eighth grade math teacher utilizing the Kahn Academy math program with his students. As he was able to track their progress, it freed him to work with individual students and small groups on special applied math problems. Now the teacher is advising the Kahn Academy staff.
Making amusement park rides;
the smallest saw I ever saw

CFS is known widely for the anti-racist work it has been doing for over a decade. I visited the school in 2001 when there was Center for Anti-Racism in the main school entryway. The latest incarnation of the school's commitment is the staff position of Project Manager for Anti-Racist Education, devoted to working with students and faculty on matters of race and equity.  

As we look at the range of how educators define progresive education, CFS falls along the continuum of schools with strong commitments to social justice and activism. I found the school to be an exemplar among schools doing this work, and a model for all of us to emulate. My thanks to the students and staff at CFS for making me feel so welcome.


  1. The 7th/8th grade math program is phenomenal!

  2. Thanks so much for doing our elementary school research for Owen. :)