Sunday, March 31, 2013

Friends Community School - College Park, MD

Abutting National Park Service land in Greenbelt Park, Friends Community School moved to its current location in 2007. The school building is the largest known straw bale insulated building in the world, and with a green roof, solar tubes, an energy recovery mechanical system, and rain gardens, the school incorporates sustainable practices throughout its campus. The natural setting of the property allows FCS to utilize the surrounding area for academic, extra-curricular and summer programs. Founded by the late progressive educator and Quaker Jane Manring in 1986, the school celebrated its 25th year in 2011. I met with Middle School Head, Adriana Murphy, and Head of School, Larry Clements.

Adriana Murphy
Middle School Head
One of my lasting impressions of Friends Community School (FCS) is the brief time I spent with Middle School Head, Adriana Murphy. Out of the chute, in our conversation, Adriana drew a distinction I had not encountered in my dozens of interviews with progressive educators during this tour - that between "old school" progressives, and the "current crop" of educators who are peppering progressive schools around the country with a new ethos. Not as flag waving, new progressives are intent on supporting progressive pedagogy with relevant research on learning and the brain. They look to innovative technologies to advance curriculum, and understand that the defensive posture long held by many progressive educators is not working for today’s parents and young teachers coming into the field.

Consequently, FCS does not wear the “progressive” label on its sleeve, but finds authentic and contemporary ways to characterize their programs and strategic curricular planning. For Adriana, the bottom line rests in the exhortation to teachers to answer the question, “What are we doing to spark the interests of students?” Though certainly a quintessential question for the progressive educator, Adriana is focused on what the education should look like today in 2013. Her definition of progressive education is two-fold. First, and at the core, is the social component: the purpose of education is to help children know how to participate in society. And, secondly, the program/curricular component: what are schools doing to help kids achieve this understanding? Located a short distance from the nation’s capitol, Adriana acknowledges that the education gap is the widest it has ever been in this country, and she points to the education of our children as the key to positively influencing the direction in which our country is heading. What does progressive education have to offer the educational system as a whole? In this pivotal moment in our history, she believes that the role is a vital one. In this way, our schools are agents of social change.

Larry Clements
Head of School
Head of School Larry Clements explained how progressive education fits into the Quaker tradition where the belief that "God is within each person," dovetails with the progressive legacy of honoring each individual student.  The nature of education, Larry describes, is to focus on the child and all program design will follows suit. The progressive school ignites a deep level of student engagement and provides the student with many opportunities to pursue his/her interest. The Quaker notion of equality cultivates in the student the sense that teachers are equal and approachable, again demonstrating the intersection with the tenets of progressive education. In this climate a students can learn self-advocacy, and attach a purpose to learning. 

When discussing the topic of leadership in progressive schools, Larry had an interesting perspective on the importance of having a collaborative working style. He has witnessed many times when the staff is discussing an important policy or program question, and one of the teachers will ask the perfectly placed question that moves the discussion to a higher level. If decisions were made more unilaterally without the consensus model, there would rarely be the opportunity for the teacher voice to emerge, which is often the most important voice in the decision making process in schools. As a leader in a progressive school, Larry invites consensus, which is also in perfect harmony with the decision making process in a Friend's school.

The award winning straw
bale building design
My visit to Friends Community School brought to me a fuller realization of the proximity of progressive education to the fundamental values and beliefs of Quaker Schools. Though not all Friend's schools would label themselves progressive, Friends Community School does consider itself part of the tradition. But, as Adriana Murphy has suggested, it will represent the new incarnation of progressive education - one that advances the school into the future, and bases its success on measurable goals. This is a model for us all to examine carefully.


  1. As a student of FCS (class of 2007), a small correction. FCS moved to their new straw-bale building in 2007, not 1997.
    I hope you enjoyed it. It was a lovely school when I was there, even if our old building was a bit dumpy.

    1. Thanks for the correction, Julian (I made the revision on my blog). Yes, I enjoyed my visit to FCS very much!