Carolina Friends School

Many people often ask us how we come to find the schools that we had visited on this road trip. Frankly, it is often quite random and open-ended, but also intuitive and serendipitous. There are many “types” of alternative schools such as Waldorf, Montessori, self-directed, nature-based, democratic, Krishnamurti, holistic, and so on. There were some common elements and holistic values that resonated in all these approaches and we sought out the places that embraced such a spirit. On this list, I was always interested in visiting a Quaker school, as the basic understanding I had of them seemed to be aligned with these holistic values. When a friend (thank you Ben Jones) recommended the Carolina Friends School as a potential place to visit, I was immediately intrigued and reached out to them to arrange a visit. It ended up working out perfectly as we headed back up the east coast to stop in Durham, NC and see the school.

We were warmly greeted by Anthony Clay, the school’s director of extended learning. I was thoroughly impressed as Anthony had read all of the Education and Being blog posts from our journey and commented about some of the other schools we had visited with such care and sincere curiosity. He spent the entire afternoon with us and showed us all of the CFS campus. He shared so much with us about the history of the school, their current programs, their philosophy of education, and the school’s overarching values. Founded in 1962, the school was established by members of the local Quaker community in the vision of creating a non-segregated place for learning, where every child, regardless of race or economic status, was welcomed. They saw a need for such a place and took action to fill that need. Now, the campus spans over 126 acres and serves children K-12. Such an integrated school was hard to find in 1962 and it is a great reminder that we can bravely step outside the norms of society to create a better vision of education.

A fundamental value of CFS and the Quaker community that I was particularly interested in was silence. The school participates in a morning “settling in”, in which the students and teachers sit together in silence, and then repeat the practice at the end of the day by “settling out.” It is essentially a centering practice that helps everyone to bring their whole selves to the day. Silence is also present when they meet for worship once per week. The amount of time in silence may vary upon the age of the children, but even first graders can participate for 20 minutes, often supported by a question or query to ponder during the silence. Anthony shared with us that silence is so helpful when the school faces challenges, in times of trouble, “We start from silence, and go from there.” As a community, everyone is encouraged to, “Listen to the still voice within.” It was interesting to hear from Anthony about the comments alumni made about their experience with silence. Some may have struggled, but after leaving the school they noticed that they hungered for that quiet in their communities or places of work. To think, reflect, and wonder is a precious gift for children and adults alike.

Anthony described to us the school’s response to learning about the war in Afghanistan years ago. They came together in silence and when a voice within has something to speak, from either a student or a teacher, it naturally arose from that place of silence. From there, a depth of discussion and questioning ensued and the children and adults alike embraced the realities of the world and the movements of life, together as a community. In this one story, I felt so much meaning and depth, the ability for a school to pause together, to look inward, and make space for dialogue and contemplation is beyond simply aiming to achieve a high scholastic aptitude. It is reaching to help us understand who we are, how we make sense of our world, and provides practice for becoming a more mindful human being. As Samuel Caldwell stated, “Quaker education seeks to nurture a particular sort of personhood… a person who has eyes for invisibles.”

This is a person who has learned that truth, beauty, goodness, and love are evidences of the transforming power of the Spirit among us; a person who regards all of life a potentially revelatory of the Spirit and everywhere imbued with meaning; a person who is optimistic about the capacity of love and good will to mend the affairs of humanity; a person who has begun to develop the courage to testify outwardly to what he or she knows inwardly; a person who has courage to follow the inward argument where it leads.

Samuel Caldwell, Toward a Clearer View of Quaker Education

As we walked around the school with Anthony, many children would spot him and wave with an enthusiastic, “Hi Anthony!” Students and teachers are both on a first name basis making the campus feel warm and friendly. We didn’t have a chance to quiz him, but it sure did seem like Anthony knew the name of every student and educator on campus. In addition, he took the time to introduce us to a number of teachers and administrators as we walked through the school. Anthony explained that they value equality and aim to have a non-hierarchical approach. The language they use is quite intentional, such as referring to units, rather than divisions. They regard everyone as an educator and in service of the children so there is no division between faculty and staff. Decisions are made through consensus and the students have clerks meetings in which they can raise a question and dialogue together. They have a great amount of autonomy, such as how the upper school students were in the process of designating a part of the school budget that would be run by solely by the students.

As we passed through the middle school, Anthony introduced us to Christel, the director of Peaceful Schools, NC. She took a moment to briefly share with us about their initiative to support the development of peaceful and healthy school environments based in strong relationships. The “primacy of relationships” was key to CFS: that nothing can be learned when children are not connected in relationships that make them feel truly seen and heard. Peaceful Schools is just one project, but there was so much that the school was involved with and the service of the staff extended far beyond that of a 9 – 5 job. Teachers received Pace Grants that took them around the world to study topics such as bee keeping in Slovenia. They have their Beloved Community Journey, a six-day exploration of civil rights history and present-day social and racial justice issues in Atlanta, Tuskegee, Selma, Montgomery, and Birmingham. Internships and international travel provide invaluable learning opportunities for 10-12th grade students. The school is clearly active in the pursuits of learning that reach beyond the walls of the classroom.

“People believe in this place!” Anthony’s words were undoubtable supported by his spirit and presence during our time together. After we finished the tour we chatted some more in Anthony’s office, he asked Camden and me about our path to holistic education, and we had a lovely conversation in which we both felt Anthony’s sincere interest. Everyone we have met on this road trip has been such an inspiration. It is so uplifting to meet so many educators across the country who are deeply dedicated to the well-being and holistic education of children. Anthony’s joyful and loving gesture was a sweet expression of Carolina Friends School.

Although this chapter of our journey has come to an end, the spark of inspiration is but another beginning. We are profoundly grateful to the multitude of people who were our shepherds on this adventure across the US and back again. To those we met at the schools we visited, but also to the many more who hosted us as guests and gave us a place to stay, this would not have been possible without you! And to Camden, who edits all of these blogs (because I am a terrible speller), who talks for hours with me about what it means to teach and learn, who inspires me and supports me, who is my partner and my soulmate, I am so grateful for all that you do and all that your are. May we all continue to live and learn together!

Home again after 108 days.