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

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Head of School Opening Remarks

Head of School Opening Remarks

Remarks delivered by Karen Warren Coleman, Penn Charter's eighth head of school in the modern era and the school's first female head of school, on the first day of the 2023-24 school year, September 7, 2023, at PC's All-School Opening Assembly held in the Graham Athletics & Wellness Center. Karen began her tenure on July 1, 2023.


Karen Warren Coleman at a podium

Good morning!

I’m so thrilled to have all of you here this morning and to be able to kick off the new school year with you. This time of year is always such an exciting time, so filled with promise.

I welcome you, our students, to the 2023-2024 academic school year. Because the beginning of school is important, we are joined by the Clerk of the Board of Trustees, Jeff Reinhold, whom you’ve already met, assistant clerk, Jane Evans, and other board members who are responsible for the education you receive at Penn Charter.

These dedicated and busy people want to make certain you have the best teachers, supplies and materials, facilities, and support to be fully successful here at school. They join us here today to indicate to you your importance, to demonstrate that we are all members of the vast and diverse Penn Charter community, and to celebrate the excitement of the beginning of a new school year. We all are here to mark and celebrate this moment.

In this, the 334th year of Penn Charter’s existence, we welcome 26 new faculty and staff members and 147 new students. Our new students are interesting, diverse and talented. We have students joining us from five states, among them a published poet, a little league district champ, a pilot in training, student activists and change-makers, three new sets of twins, and so many academics, artists and athletes!

These are but a few of the talents of these new friends who join our talented returning students. Together, you total 1016 students – the largest student body in our school’s history and the first time Penn Charter has broken the 1,000 mark! You all have made history! Please join me in welcoming everyone who is new to Penn Charter as I welcome you all back to school.

Even though it’s been a while since I was a student, I still vividly remember all the feelings that come with the start of a new academic year: the excitement of learning new ideas, the curiosity about my new teachers, and even a little nervousness that naturally comes with starting something new.

As your new head of school at PC, I share many of those feelings with you. Though it may not be something you often consider, adults go through those same range of emotions, as my family and I did when we moved to Philly to join the Penn Charter community. I share your excitement about starting a new school year and meeting new teachers and friends. I look forward to learning more about this wonderful school community and getting to know you and your teachers. I share your curiosity about my new colleagues, though I have had the pleasure of working with many of them already. And like some of you, I have had my share of a little bit of nervousness: starting a new job is very much like starting a new school or even a new grade. There is a lot of information to take in, a lot of getting used to new ways of doing things and, of course, getting re-accustomed to homework – and that applies to me, as well!

These changes are all wonderful ways that help us grow – and I’m glad we can experience the joy of a new beginning together. One area I’m especially excited to explore more fully with you is this year’s theme: the Portrait of a Penn Charter Learner.  

The Portrait, as some of you may know, includes four domains, or four areas of interest and focus. Those four domains are: Courageous Learner, Compassionate Friend, Constructive Communicator and Change Cultivator.

Over the course of the year, we will be discussing each of these domains more fully and how they play out in your experiences – but today I’d like to focus on the first: Courageous Learner, which seems like a natural fit for the beginning of our new school year, as well as a natural fit for two Quaker values we cherish: seeking truth and continuous revelation.

So what do we mean by this term, “Courageous Learner?”

First, being a courageous learner means being curious and prepared to take risks in your learning. Sometimes learning a new subject or reading about an unfamiliar topic can seem really difficult. We’ve all been there. But taking that first step to acquiring new knowledge, to gaining new skills, to seeking truth -- one of our valued Quaker principles -- means really committing to it and not being afraid to ask hard questions and be inquisitive.

Being a courageous learner means allowing your curiosity to lead to inquiry and exploration; it means thinking critically and challenging your own assumptions; it also means being humble and recognizing you may not have all the answers and that by listening to others and reflecting on what they share, you can not only learn yourself, but make a positive impact on the community at large.

Being a courageous learner means not always getting it right. Genuine problem-solving often starts with learning from errors or mistakes, seeking input from others, and trying all over again. 

Being a courageous learner means recognizing that no one knows everything – that continuous revelation of truth is our calling. Learning to ask the right questions and to be open to all responses is how we grow. A courageous learner enjoys the journey of inquiry and discovery as much as the outcome

As articulated by our dear friends at the SF Friends School and shared by all of us here on West School House Lane:

“As a Quaker school, we believe that truth is continually revealed…and that we must be willing to listen and respond to the still small voice within; to understand answers as dynamic, not static; to commit to look beyond and beneath the obvious, searching for truth and identifying falsehood; and to engage in the search for truth because of its inherent value, not simply to find answers.” (SF Friends School)

This is what we mean by being a courageous learner: seeking truth and engaging in inquiry, and I know each of you carries the capacity for courageous learning, just as there is that of God in each of you.

The "Quaker Book of Wisdom," written by a longtime Quaker head of school, states that, “A good school’s overriding aim is to help each student respond to the best that is in them.” 

In the short time I’ve been at Penn Charter, I have seen firsthand the impact that this school has on each student in helping them to respond to the best that is in them.

I love the way Owen describes “one of the many spectacular parts of the Penn Charter community” is the diversity in our bests. I can’t think of a more powerful and profound way of describing one of this incredible school’s distinctions. His observation captures the true spirit of the value we place on the unique gifts every student brings to this community. 

Our Quaker values are at the heart of everything we do and expect of our students, including what's taught, how it's taught, students' behavior, and your relationships with one another. Community, a core Quaker testimony, means you do not have to go it alone.

As Paul Lacey, author of "Growing into Goodness: Essays on Quaker Education," writes: 

"Community is the matrix in which young people can develop the trust and self-confidence essential for the risk-taking required in education. In community everyone can learn to take responsibility, to follow or take the lead. In community we can learn to give and receive love.” 

It is my hope that this year, we will work as a community to fully embrace each aspect of the Portrait of a Penn Charter Learner and collectively endeavor to become not only Courageous Learners, but also Compassionate Friends, Constructive Communicators and Change Cultivators. 

Thank you.

Karen Warren Coleman speaking at 2023 All-School Opening Assembly

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