In the latter weeks of June, I attended a lacrosse tournament in North Carolina where I watched my son, Corey, play for three days. It was a hectic time, a hot time, but it was enjoyable to be part of an experience which my son truly loves. At events like these, one talks to parents and coaches about many topics, and one also hears other conversations not one’s own, the fine art of eavesdropping. Some might call is snooping. One sweltering afternoon as I watched my son play, I did the ultimate snooping, overhearing a conversation between two fathers on their sons’ present and future education and the strengths and weaknesses of their respective schools. As I listened, the conversation turned to the types of students in their sons’ schools, and I heard the word “diversity” arise from the mouth of one of the dads. He said, “You know, all I hear from the school is diversity, diversity, diversity. Enough already. I spoke with our admissions director, and she told me it was important the school admitted all types of students. I told her that we need athletes, and she said we need to be inclusive and welcoming. Great – now we have to bring in ballet dancers, kids who play the violin and boys who can write poetry. How’s that going to help our athletic program? Why can’t you just get the best kids? I’m so sick of it.”
I was appalled. I was disappointed. I was angry, and I very much wanted to discover the meaning of what constitutes the “best kid.” Yet I wasn’t surprised. This whole “thing” about diversity has become such an emotional issue in independent schools these days, and people from all sorts of backgrounds and cultures are willing to express their strong opinions about the present and future status of diversity in our classrooms. As head of a Quaker preschool and elementary school, I have witnessed parents, board members, teachers and administrators grapple with the thorny issue of the importance of differences within our school community. Questions have arisen and continue to surface – What is diversity? Why do we need diversity? Where does diversity fit into our Quaker teachings? Where does it belong in the curriculum? How does our community embrace diversity? How do we make certain we are a global community?
It is important that one understands the tricky issue of diversity from an historical Quaker perspective. The Quakers, from their inception under the leadership of George Fox in the seventeenth century, rebelled against the traditional mores of their time. As they refused to wear hats in deference to magistrates and other government officials and proclaimed that there was that of God in all human beings, they themselves were perceived as different, as diverse, not in a good way, mind you. Fox was imprisoned eight times because his movement was viewed as a revolutionary attack on the deep class and societal divisions of the times, as a dangerous revolt against all discrimination. Discrimination, at his time, was looked upon as a good thing, a necessary thing to keep the upper classes pure and protected. Following Fox’s lead that the Divine’s light shines in all of us, during their four hundred years of history, Quakers have protested against slavery and exploitation, have fought for prison reform and improved medical care, have championed equality for women and have proclaimed equal rights for those in our midst who are marginalized. Their words and actions have made them diverse and have, unfortunately, separated them from the traditional, and I would maintain, antiquated, prejudicial and unacceptable, views of society. Yet, in their diversity, they have strived to make the world better, asking all of us to become informed and skilled agents of positive change.
When William Penn founded Pennsylvania in the late 1600’s, he felt that education of youth was essential to the future health and prosperity of his colony. He was not selective about what types of youth should be so served. He wrote that “education is an essential form of outreach to children from a variety of socio-economic backgrounds. It is a civic responsibility to build an inclusive and mutually supportive community.” Revolutionary words for those times, don’t you think? He maintained that the “task of building harmonious communities depends upon our common humanity and made the teaching of all children a priority” in the newly formed commonwealth of Pennsylvania. His passion for and belief in the essential goodness of every human being have been a guide for Quakers today who strongly advocate that practicing respect for all people regardless of racial, ethnic, cultural, class or gender identity is not “a politically correct act but a spiritual imperative.” At Goshen, we believe the same.
As we continue our diversity journey, sometimes fraught with uncertainty and missteps, we ourselves are learning about who we are and who we want to become. Our trip to South Africa this past spring to build houses for Aids orphans and their foster parents was not only rich in our connection with the wonderful South African people, but it was also an experience which helped us understand and embrace others and understand more about ourselves. Our connection with Mosaic, SA and its talented and passionate founders, Meyer and Louise Conradie, is now an enduring part of Goshen Friends School, and you will hear more about Mosaic in the months and years ahead.
Our relationship with Chester County Food Bank, while not as global as South Africa, is a meaningful project in which we grow fresh produce in raised beds on campus. The harvest is donated back to the Food Bank which distributes it to families that cannot afford to purchase this expensive, yet vital food group. Our students understand the important contribution the gardens make; they work hard, planting, maintaining and harvesting the beds.
We are blessed by our involvement with Bellingham and Park Lane, our elderly neighbors next door. Through the Kids Care program, students and parents visit monthly—playing games, sharing talents, gardening—resulting in strong multigenerational friendships. We have a positive connection with the Devereux Kanner Center, which serves children and adolescents with mental retardation and mental illness or emotional disturbance. During the winter holidays, Goshen families donate items and “adopt” residents by purchasing holiday gifts. Lower School students deliver the items and learn more about children who learn in very different ways.
The study of different cultures is very much part of our curriculum, as evidenced by our International Week, a week of celebration of various cultures and countries, a study of a world which today is constantly connected and forever linked. The week is filled with music, food, languages and traditions from all over the world. Students enjoy the process of discovery and become more confident global citizens. We are continuously and consistently reviewing our curriculum to make certain that we are giving our students the necessary skills to become active and passionate participants in their local and world communities.
While I do not purport to be an expert on diversity in independent schools and I am still learning so much about people different from I, I do know this. It is our responsibility, our moral duty as parents and educators to make certain that all our children understand and embrace all cultures, celebrating our differences and our common humanity. Such a duty does not detract from our pride in the United States and its past, present and future. We have every right to appreciate and celebrate who we are, but, at the same time, we must travel beyond our borders and discover and respect the world around us. Awareness is the first step, making ourselves and our children cognizant of insensitive words and judgments, being sure to reach out and welcome all who enter our doors. Awareness must be followed by education, acceptance, engagement and celebration, all leading to our children being prepared for a world which is always changing and more intertwined with each passing day. We must honor all of God’s people and teach our children to do the same.
We want diverse students and families at Goshen Friends School. We desire a diverse faculty and General Committee. We remain committed to that goal of William Penn, to reach out and educate all kinds of students, to truly and boldly see the light in every child. Yes, bring us the ballet dancers. Bring us the poetry writers. Bring us the piano players. Bring us the athletes. Bring us the artists. Bring us the writers, the readers, the scientists, the mathematicians. Bring us all the children who our society describes, labels and categorizes. Bring us students and families from all over the globe. Bring us the “best” students. Bring us everyone, and we will remain true to the vision of George Fox, William Penn, and so many others of the Religious Society of Friends. Let’s tear down the walls of stereotyping and judgment. It is indeed our spiritual imperative.
Who are the “best” kids? Let the light shine brightly in all children everywhere.
Tom Richards Head of School
Graduates of Quaker elementary schools know themselves and are able to recognize the strengths of peers. Because they are effective communicators and creative problem solvers at an early age, the fifth graders approach transitions with self-assurance. They are not only prepared for a middle school setting; they are “ready” in every sense.