Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Sidwell Friends School - Washington, DC

The historic Zartman House
a campus feature
Known originally as Friends Select School, Sidwell Friends was founded in 1883 by Thomas Watson Sidwell as an initiative in co-ed urban day schools. Only 24 years of age at the time of its founding, Thomas Sidwell had been a teacher at the Baltimore Friends School and started his Quaker school as a proprietary venture. The school operated for over 50 years before incorporating as a non-profit organization in 1934, taking the name Sidwell Friends School. Today, the school serves over 1000 students PK-12, and occupies two campuses -  one (middle and upper school) on Wisconsin Street in the heart of DC, and the other (lower school) in neighboring Bethesda, approximately 15 minutes away by car. Both are state-of-the-art, beautifully equipped facilities, and both exemplify green building practices and environmental stewardship. Wendy Wilkinson from the Upper School Admissions Office hosted my visit to the school, and I met with several members of the staff including Head of School, Tom Farquhar.

The Quaker Meeting House
An all-green project
My visit to Sidwell Friends began with a tour, conducted by School Archivist and Administrator Loren Hardenbergh, of the green building projects, which took place between 2005 - 2010, and included a new middle school building, the renovation of the lower school and administrative building, a new athletic center, Quaker meeting house, and art center. The school has been recognized nationally as green school. It is a founding member of the Green Schools Alliance, was named a Green Ribbon School by the U.S. Dept. of Education, and has been selected among the top 20 schools in the EPA's Green Power Partnership program.

The grey water system
acts as campus
These green projects are perhaps the most striking example of Sidwell's commitment to environmental stewardship, an evolving contributor to the progressive education movement. As you tour the buildings, you notice that virtually every architectural and construction choice has a green component. Re-purposed wood and other building materials; the flow of light capturing heat and light at various times of the day and the year; monitoring devices in all the rooms to adjust the use of energy; a remarkable grey water wetlands system which recycles human waste products into use for the school's plumbing systems; a green rooftop garden with solar energy, wind power and extensive gardens. This list scratches the surface, and you scratch your head - they've thought of almost everything! Visitors from all over the world flock to see this extraordinary example of how a school can create a sustainable campus, and how students can be a part of the process, learning the science and art of the campus complex.

Tom Farquhar
Head of School
My visit with Head of School Tom Farquhar featured an interesting discussion of how progressive education finds its symmetry with Friends education. Sidwell's abiding commitment to deep personal reflection was evident as I witnessed the Meeting for Worship. As I have learned in my visits to other Quaker Schools, this time for reflection is in service to the set of "Testimonies" which underpin the philosophy of the school. Among those testimonies held at Sidwell are Integrity, Peace, Compassion, Simplicity, Justice, Stewardship and Service. As Tom points out, reaching far beyond the academic mission of the school, Sidwell attends to the development of these internal values and virtues in its students through its service in the community, its in-house student buddy programs, and its care for the environment. Though Tom will be the first to claim that the word "progressive" carries with it a great deal of baggage and some unfortunate stereotypes, he will also acknowledge that there is a clear intersection with the mission of Sidwell Friends.

I visited the lower school and spoke with long-time Sidwell teacher and tech coordinator, Jenni Voorhees. Jenni has seen the school evolve over the years, but definitely places it in the progressive tradition. In its most progressive incarnation, teachers have incorporated thematic, integrated, project based curriculum. Jenni feels that the current practice of teachers conducting grade level meetings is helping the school re-kindle some of its progressive practices. For Jenni, progressive education is teaching to kids' passions and strengths, and helping expand their world view through interdisciplinary curriculum. A product of Hampshire College, progressive education courses through her DNA, and Jenni emphasizes that students come to their education with a grand curiosity and love of learning, and it is the responsibility of educators to nurture those attributes and help students learn how to learn. Jenni admits that the term "progressive" is rarely used at Sidwell, but sees teaching practices that clearly fall into the tradition.

Loren Hardenbergh
my tour guide
Wendy Wilkinson
my host and friend
My visit to Sidwell ends the first phase of my journey to visit progressive schools in America. As I leave the school, I realize again the deeply complex situation that progressive education faces today. Ambivalent school leaders, fence straddling parents, loyal adherents, die-hard practitioners, dangerous stereotypes, deeply held values and beliefs. I am so grateful to Wendy Wilkinson who hosted my final school visit to Sidwell Friends. In this school, I found examples of almost all aspects of this complexity. It is time to go home and hunker down to pull of this research together. I am determined as ever, and my journey to over 40 schools has only validated my belief, that notwithstanding this complex set of circumstances, the progressive education movement is alive and thriving. My next set of blogs will be reflections on my school visits as I review and consolidate all that I have discovered.

I hope you'll continue to join me.

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