A  coed Friends school, pre-K to 12, on 47 acres in East Falls, Philadelphia


Lecture: Quaker Schools, Hope for the World

A speech by Head of School Darryl J. Ford at a Celebration of Leadership, on Oct. 21, 2007, honoring Ford as Penn Charter's new head of school.

“Let your life speak.” As you walk around our campus these days, you cannot miss seeing banners adorned with this powerful sentiment. Let your life speak. Today, I feel privileged to serve as head of The William Penn Charter School where this tenet has as much historical merit as it does contemporary worth.

William Penn’s life spoke in many, many ways. Not only was he the founder of the colony Pennsylvania and an architect (Trussell) of the City of Philadelphia, Penn’s influence on our nation and its subsequent development were widespread. Noteworthy to us, much of Penn’s influence can be tied to his becoming a member of the Religious Society of Friends, commonly called Quakers.

In 1657, Thomas Loe, a Quaker itinerant preacher, planted the seeds into a young William Penn, which over time would lead Penn to find a home in the Religious Society of Friends (Trussell 5-6) – a group of people who believe that God can be known directly and that an inner light is found within each person. Providentially, years later, Penn, talking to a Quaker women, noted how impressed he was by Thomas Loe and that “he (Penn) would gladly walk a hundred miles to hear Loe again” (Tussell 16). To his delight, Loe was nearby, preaching the next day. After again hearing Loe’s powerful message, Penn was “convinced,” and “…announced that his dearest wish was to become member of the Society of Friends” (Tussell 16).

It was in the years following Penn’s turn to Quakerism that he developed an interest in establishing a “Quaker settlement in America” (24). In 1681, to repay a debt to William Penn’s father, Charles II chartered Pennsylvania to Penn “…for an annual ‘peppercorn rent’ of two beaver skins and one-fifth of any gold or silver that might be discovered…” (29). Thus, Penn’s Holy Experiment, the establishment of a colony that allowed for “religious and ethnic toleration” (Kashatus 87), was born. To support this bold endeavor, Penn quickly founded educational communities – the predecessors of today’s Quaker schools (Kashatus 87). As the founder of our school, William Penn’s legacy to education is illustrative of letting ones life speak.

I take time to review Penn’s history because it is our history: the history of our school. In 1683, in response to Penn’s desires to educate the public, Pennsylvania’s Provincial Council appointed Enoch Flower, a school master, to teach children. Unfortunately, Flower died within a year (88). In 1689, the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting and the Provincial Council founded a Friends Public School. In 1701, Penn issued his first charter to what was then a system of schools. Penn was progressive. For him, education was public and was a civic responsibility. Hence, his schools were for the rich and the poor, for Quakers and non-Quakers, and for both boys and girls. Later schools were established for Native Americans and African Americans. Quite progressive.

In 1708 with his second charter, Penn removed the Philadelphia Yearly Meetings’ oversight responsibilities from his schools. In 1711 with his third and last charter, Penn removed any requirements that the overseers, the governing board of his schools, be members of the Religious Society of Friends (Kashatus 88 – 89). While the school board members were all Quakers well into the later centuries, this was no stipulation of Penn’s. In fact, he acted to the contrary, taking a bold stand by, theoretically, opening up who could be part of the schools he founded.

Grace Wheeler and Lew Somers, both former clerks of our current board, noted this in a chapter they authored in a book entitled "Reflections on William Penn’s Life and Legacy." They stated:
"Penn did not specify that the overseers had to belong to the Religious Society of Friends, nor did he require any specific professional background, believing that people from many different walks of life could contribute their own talents and abilities for the benefit of the school. Penn’s schools’ wide reach of whom they educated and his views on leadership were ahead of his time."

Penn’s desire for “universal compulsory education” and his progressive approach to the oversight of his schools, while commendable, did not mean that he got it all right. Penn was both ahead of his time and a product of his time. For example, in From Some Fruits of Solitude, written in 1693 by Penn, he noted the following concerning the teaching of youth:

"We press their memory too soon, and puzzle, strain, and load them with words and rules, to know grammar and rhetoric and a strange tongue or two that, it is ten to one, may never be useful to them, leaving their natural genius to mechanical and physical or natural knowledge uncultivated and neglected, which would be of exceeding use and pleasure to them through the whole course of their life." Here, while Penn identifies the importance of progressive experiential learning, he downplays other aspects of education that we count as important today.

Penn was renowned for his relationships with Native Americans, for the treaties that he signed with them. In fact, the elm tree in the front circle that you each passed as you entered into the building today is a descendant of the “treaty elm,” a tree under which Penn signed a peace treaty with Native Americans. Yet, while Penn’s relations with Native Americans were strong and characterized by “openness, brotherhood, and love” (Moomjiann 61), Penn’s relationship with African Americans was different by virtue of his own slave holdings. This historical fact juxtaposed by this contemporary moment of my addressing you as the first African American head of William Penn’s school is not lost to me.

Yes, Penn, himself, owned slaves, “purchasing” them “…as early as 1683….to staff his country estate at Pennsbury, Bucks County, exclusively with black labor” (Mitra 64). Interestingly, George Keith, the first school master of the Friends Public School, the school that would later be known as Penn Charter, opposed slavery for moral and religious reasons, and he opposed slavery because of his belief in the Peace Testimony, recognizing the violence associated with how Africans were removed from their homeland. While George Keith was known for his abolitionist efforts and as a leader of this cause in Germantown just up the road and Penn was in fact a slaveholder, it was George Keith who was appointed to head Penn’s school. Again, Penn was both a product of and ahead of his time.

So here we are today, more than three centuries following the establishment of Pennsylvania and 318 years since the founding of The William Penn Charter School, the oldest Quaker School in the world. So here we are today, marking a change of leadership as I have assumed the headship of this school. Having spent time noting how Penn came to Quakerism and how and why he established schools, I ask what difference do Quaker schools make.

To answer this question, I symbolically come to this Meeting Room – this place where our Quaker school community gathers each week to have silent worship. It is pretty remarkable that our lower school students are able to sit quietly for 20 minutes, our middle schoolers for 30 minutes, and our upper schoolers for 40 minutes, listening for a still small voice inside them, listening to their conscience, or listening for God. What I love about Meeting for Worship is that we all come to it as equals – students and teachers, children and adults, old and young, Quakers and non-Quakers - all in silence, each able to receive Quakerism’s gift to the world: the recognition of that of God, the inner light, in each person.

As a community, how does The William Penn Charter School recognize the inner light in others? How does Penn Charter let its life speak? Much of the answer is provided in our mission statement. It reads: Quaker principles and practice guide Penn Charter, A Friends School by birthright and conviction. Within a diverse community we engage students in a stimulating and rigorous educational program. We foster academic discipline, intellectual curiosity, and spiritual growth to prepare our graduates for higher education and for life. We develop students to act in a moral, civil, and responsible manner. While our primary focus is to provide an outstanding education for our students and their families, we are equally concerned about our students’ spiritual well-being, about their ability to develop critical skills of how to think deeply and broadly about issues, and about how to act and interact in both moral and civil ways in the wider world.

Penn once stated, “True Godliness does not turn men out of the world, but enables Them to live better in it, and excites their endeavors to mend it” (Penn Charter Service Brochure). This sentiment resonates with the public nature of the schools Penn founded. Today, the Penn Charter community lets its life speak through wide-ranging community service projects, service learning in our classrooms in which students consider key questions about social economics, class, race, gender, sexism, homophobia, and other issues of equality and social justice, and through continuing relationships with longstanding service partners like the Widener, Taylor, and Linglbach Public Schools, Ohana House for the elderly, Iris House for the mentally ill, and the Hassell Residence for the geriatric mentally ill.

These are but a few examples of how Penn Charter lets its life speak. Like William Penn who got many, many things right and some things wrong, Penn Charter today can be proud of what we have right and can act to fix that which we have wrong, all while embracing the promise of this moment and the future. For me, Penn Charter letting its life speak means recognizing where, in fact, we can do better.

I look forward to our school strengthening the good relations that we have with our neighbors and improving those relations where strained. This means not just working collaboratively with others across the city but also working collaboratively with those here in East Falls. And, while we work closely with those nearby, I think it is increasingly as important for our students to interact with others, from around the world, who seemingly may appear so very different than us. To develop better global understandings, acceptance, and collaborative work can’t but help foster a world where overwhelming peace becomes a possibility.

My predecessor Dr. Earl Ball so wonderfully served this school for more than three decades. Often, he would use the following quote to illustrate our noteworthy past, today’s work, and our responsibility to the future. “We drink from wells that we did not dig, and we are warmed by fires that we did not build." At this moment, I am extremely aware that I drink from wells that others have dug, and I am warmed by fires that others have built. First, I thank the board of directors of The William Penn Charter School for selecting me as head. In addition, I want to thank my faculty colleagues for accepting and welcoming me as their head, my middle school colleagues for letting me go, and all of the faculty and staff for their on-going support in making this dream come true.

As I stated in my remarks to faculty upon my appointment, this was in fact a dream come true:
During childhood days when others dreamt of becoming doctors or lawyers or firemen, I, believe it or not, always wanted to be head of a K - 12th grade Quaker school. I think this came from the absolute love that I had for my own time at a Friends school, the incredible teachers who not only taught me but also became my friends, and the love of learning that was instilled in me. When I first attended Friends, I could not fathom that school could be such a marvelous place. What I found was an intellectually vibrant community that embraced me. Most often, students become excited about their own education at the college level. This is the place where they most often learn how to learn. This is the place where they make their life-long friends. For me, all this occurred in a K - 12 Quaker school. I never missed a day of school from the time I enrolled in fifth grade until my June graduation in twelfth grade. I felt fortunate for my education and remain indebted to my parents for making my time with Friends possible.

My life has been one of living and breathing education. To all those who helped to shape my journey to become a teacher and administrator, I thank you. These include my teachers, administrators, and mentors at the Miquon School, Friends Select, Villanova University, and the University of Chicago, and so many of my friends. Lastly, I thank my very supportive family: my wife Gail, my children Jameson and Lucas, my parents Malcolm and Edith Ford, my brother Malcolm, and all of my family for their support. These family members, a host of others, and my church family have always been supportive of me and my endeavors. I thank you for this and all the love that you have shown me over the years.

Our students, too, are warmed by fires built by others. From William Penn to heads of school George Keith, Richard Mott Jones, John Gummere, Wilbur Braxton, and Earl Ball to countless generations of teachers to parents and alumni, our students are the beneficiaries of an outstanding educational program that prepares them to be agents of change for this world. Our students, too, drink from wells dug by others. The most sustaining drink that they receive from this Quaker school is the recognition of that inner light found in each of them and their peers. For me recognition of that inner light is our first task. Equally as important is our second task: our response.

Our response to that inner light should be a call to action for all schools to dig wells so that others might drink. Our response to that inner light should be a call to action for Quaker schools to build fires so that others might be warmed. Our response to that inner light should be a call to action for The William Penn Charter School, so steeped in history and full of promise, to let our life speak because, I believe, this Quaker school and all of our Quaker schools are the best hope for the world! Thank you.