US Life

a baseball game is being played on a turf field. view is through a backstop screen looking from home plate to rest of field.

It's Saturday, April 6, 4:29 p.m. I'm sitting at my desk at Penn Charter, watching the JV baseball game out my window, across the street, on the sparkling new Palaia Field. What fun the opening ceremony was! Talking with current students and parents, and reconnecting with OPCs and parents of OPCs, was so enjoyable that I was hard-pressed to grab some popcorn and tromp back inside to write this newsletter.

Finally, it feels like spring. Outside of my office window, the elm tree in the front circle is about to unfurl its leaves, and in my garden at home, the daffodils and grape hyacinths are brightly abloom. I remember clearly this time last year, April 2018: Darryl Ford asked me to serve as acting Upper School director. Devoted to the school and interested in being a school director, I excitedly agreed.

Darryl told me my job as acting Upper School director was to "keep the boat afloat" and "keep the trains running," and so I did, all the while musing about my own vision for the division, should I be fortunate enough to earn the permanent position. With two search firms aiding the school in a national search and 75 fellow applicants, I had no expectation that I would indeed become Penn Charter's next Upper School director. (To read my application materials, please see the links at the bottom of this column.)


From last April to this April, my life is both wildly different and very much this same. Officially ensconced as the Upper School director, I am now pivoting from keeping "the trains running" to advancing the vision. In many ways, that is easy — because I served on the committee that forged the 2013 Strategic Vision, and I believe in it.

This school year, for the first time in my nearly three decades, I have spent weekly Meeting for Worship on the facing bench, which positions me directly across the Meeting Room from the Penn Charter seal on the back wall. 


Reflecting upon the seal every Thursday morning, I have been both heartened to work at a school whose values align so closely with mine and struck by the symmetry between the seal's symbolism and my vision for the Upper School:


  • As the Greek words on the open book indicate, the Upper School must be a place where we "love one another," even those who are different and those with whom we feel ideologically opposed. Only by loving each other can we knit together a cohesive community.
  • As the book itself symbolizes, we are committed to the life of the mind and scholarship, to inquiry and ideas and learning.
  • To maximize learning, we place a premium on "good instruction," from hiring consummate instructors, to creating our own curricula, to offering a wealth of professional development opportunities.
  • Finally, we are grounded in the vision of our founder and of our Quaker ideals, as Penn's coat of arms suggests. We prize integrity, equality, continuing revelation, silence and more.


It's Epic:  Honor the Spark and Spark the Mind

More specifically, my vision for the Upper School is that it be a loving and inclusive community, full of intellectual and cosmopolitan people. Given the school's philosophy, geography and egalitarianism, we are uniquely diverse, drawing from over a hundred zip codes, every major world religion, both political parties, and all levels of economic strata. As two OPCs from the class of 2017 just told me on the baseball field, they were well prepared for the wide range of people they encountered in college because they hailed from our Penn Charter heterogeneity.  

Last month, we had nationally recognized health educator Shafia Zaloom on campus to educate juniors and seniors about how personal values inform healthy relationships. I was struck by a simple exercise Zaloom did. "Think of a bear," she told us, giving us five seconds to picture a bear doing some particular action. So you do it now. Stop reading this, close your eyes, and for five seconds, think of a bear. Then Zaloom had people go around the room and describe the bears they were imagining and what they were doing. Here's a small sample of the bears people had in mind in one group: Yogi Bear trying to escape Jellystone Park. A light blue, well-loved teddy bear resting on a pillow. A huge black bear, hunting for salmon in an alpine stream. Zaloom's point was: even when we say "bear," it means different things to different people, so when people are trying to communicate with and understand each other, it's critical to make sure that they understand what the other person is thinking — and vice versa — and not to make assumptions.

While many people think of "cosmopolitan" as being synonymous with "sophisticated" or "well-traveled," I am using the word in this sense:  Cosmopolitan contains the root polit-, from the Greek word for "citizen," meaning someone who is cosmopolitan is a "citizen of the world." Hence, people who are cosmopolitan are "familiar with and at ease in many different countries and cultures" ( To be cosmopolitan, then, is to have a wide worldview, to be open-minded, well versed in difference, eager to meet new people and embrace new experiences. Cosmopolitan is decidedly the opposite of narrow, closed, parochial, provincial.  

Though humans are 99.9 percent genetically similar, we often focus on and fear the .1 percent of others that is different from us. When I was in sixth grade, and I'd just moved from Denver to Philadelphia, I was put off when a classmate asked me if I rode a horse to school in Colorado. I'd never eaten a bagel in my life, which a friend found mind-boggling, and I'd never heard about a Bar Mitzvah or Bat Mitzvah before. No doubt, my world view was small. Over the years at PC, many students have told me that they had never met [fill-in-the-blank with a particular kind of person] before coming to Penn Charter. I love that about this school. I want students to actively honor and welcome the spark of others, which will not only open hearts but also help open minds.

In addition to fostering an inclusive, cosmopolitan Upper School, I envision an Upper School that sparks the intellect, trains the mind and fuels the fire of of the adolescent brain. Psychologist Steven Pinker has a new book out, "Enlightenment Now:  The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress." In this TED Talk, he presents the thesis of the book, which is essentially that the quality of human life is better now than it has ever been, and with the power of reason and science, we can problem solve and improve the world ever more. It's a tremendously optimistic book, completely supported by data. I am moved especially by this passage:  

"We will never have a perfect world, and it would be dangerous to seek one.

But there is no limit to the betterments we can attain if we continue to apply knowledge to enhance human flourishing . . . [this endeavor] belongs not to any tribe but to all of humanity — to any sentient creature with the power of reason and the urge to persist."

I want the Upper School to spark in students the desire to learn and to cultivate in them the "power to reason."  Good instruction can indeed fire students up to question, hypothesize and problem-solve, inspiring them transform their minds . . . and the world. Penn Charter's vision is to educate students to "live lives that make a difference," and as Pinker points out, using the intellect to "enhance human flourishing" is "heroic."  Learning to reason and to be a citizen of the world, then, is epic.


An invitation to read more: Only a handful of parents on the search committee had access to my application materials, so I share them here so that you may get to know me well. You might also find it interesting to read my bio in the school online directory here.


Letter of Interest


Educational Philosophy


Erin Hughes
Director of Upper School


Update on Work Diversity, Inclusion and Equity  

Darryl Ford invited a group of about a dozen juniors and seniors to work with Erin Hughes, Assistant Director of Upper School Lee Payton and Director of Diversity and Inclusion Antonio Williams to advance diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiatives in the division.

The group has meet three times to consider practical measures to improve school culture. Presently, the group is planning a two-day retreat to develop a Code of Conduct for Upper School and to think about ways to redesign student orientation in September. One goal of the retreat is to create an orientation that will help incoming students understand the culture of and diversity at Penn Charter. During orientation, we hope to engage students in work around cultural competency, privilege, social justice and Quakerism.


The planning group will work with Leon Caldwell OPC '87 and Penn Charter Overseer Terry Nance to find the best approach and practices to achieving our objective.


Upper School students Ainyae Holmes and Pierce Hodges, pictured below with Director of Diversity and Inclusion Antonio Williams, organized a successful diversity conference for area students. More here.


Upper School Life


February 2019


FMCD: Poet for a President

Conceived in Cuba, born in Spain and raised in Miami, poet Richard Blanco says that his central obsession in life has been the concept of "home."  All of his work, all of his poetry, all of his exploration of self and family has led him on a search for identity, for belonging, for what it means to be American and for how to define . . . home.

On Thursday, Feb. 14, Blanco was our keynote speaker for Friends Multicultural Day, a yearly tradition celebrating all forms of diversity and featuring guest speakers, student-led workshops, musical performances and more.


Blanco kicked off the day with his keynote, and Upper School students and faculty were rapt as he told stories and read poetry about his Cuban exiled parents, his beloved and homophobic abuela (grandmother), the Miss America pageant, his family vacations and more, all of which culminated in a 500-person standing ovation for his performance.

Blanco recounted how his mother left her parents and eight brothers and sisters in Cuba to come to the U.S. and what such a move says about the faith that immigrants have in American values. He implored the Upper School: "Imagine having someone tell you suddenly to 'pack your bag' . . . then leaving everything else behind." Imagine having the faith in the U.S. to do that.


In "Betting on America," Blanco recounted his befuddlement about the Miss American Pageant, which was a party-worthy ritual for the Blanco family, complete with $2 bets on contestants and confusion about how to pronounce Connecticut and where in the world Ohio was. Trained as a civil engineer, Blanco spoke about physical bridges as metaphors for language and relationships, as he tenderly spoke about his ailing and complicated father in "Papa's Bridge."  

Among his musings about home, identity and belonging, Blanco shared that his beloved abuela, his grandmother, was his primary caretaker and best friend, making her allegiance to the "culture of machismo" especially painful. To the annoyance of Abuela, for instance, "Little Ricky" preferred to play with his cat and write as opposed to playing baseball. Her views outdated and now humorous to him, Blanco wrote from Abuela's point of view in "Queer Theory: According to My Grandmother," which he performed both endearingly and comically, complete with hand gestures, facial expressions and a distinct Cuban accent.




Don't draw rainbows or flowers or sunsets.

     I've seen you . . .

Don't draw at all—no coloring books either.

Put away your crayons, your Play-Doh, your Legos.

     Where are your Hot Wheels,

     your laser gun and handcuffs,

     the knives I gave you?


Excerpt from "Queer Theory:  According to My Grandmother" by Richard Blanco


A Quest for Home

In 1994, Blanco took his first trip to Cuba, enlivening his "hypersensitivity to place" and making manifest that he was, in the Homeric tradition, on a "quest for home" and understanding and belonging.


In "Looking for The Gulf Motel," the speaker (the adult Blanco) takes his partner, Mark, to Marco Island, off the coast of Florida, where the Blancos vacationed when Blanco was a child.



The Gulf Motel is, or was, Blanco's personal "special, happy place," but instead of finding the motel, the adult Blanco finds that everything has changed since he was young. Consequently, he cannot share The Gulf Motel of his childhood with Mark. Memory foils us. "You can't go back home because it is no longer the same," Blanco expounded. He writes:


There should be nothing here I don't remember . . .


My brother should still be thirteen, sneaking 
rum in the bathroom, sculpting naked women 
from sand. I should still be eight years old 
dazzled by seashells and how many seconds 
I hold my breath underwater—but I'm not. 
I am thirty-eight, driving up Collier Boulevard, 
looking for The Gulf Motel, for everything 
that should still be, but isn't. I want to blame 
the condos, their shadows for ruining the beach 
and my past, I want to chase the snowbirds away 
with their tacky mansions and yachts, I want 
to turn the golf courses back into mangroves, 
I want to find The Gulf Motel exactly as it was 
and pretend for a moment, nothing lost is lost.


Excerpt from "Looking for The Gulf Motel" by Richard Blanco


The legendary Cuba of the 1950s and '60s, Blanco learns, is his parents' own elusive "Gulf Motel." They can't go back, or if and when they do, it's not the same, not as magical and idealized as they remember. That makes it harder to have a foot in both worlds and both homes, as at least one proves ephemeral.

2013 Inauguration


Following in the footsteps of Robert Frost and Maya Angelou, Blanco is the fifth poet to compose and read poems for a Presidential inauguration.

When President Obama asked Blanco to be the Inaugural Poet in 2013, Blanco found himself mulling over questions like, "Am I American?"  "Do I love my country?" "Does my country love me back?"


Blanco was tasked with writing three poems in three weeks, and while Blanco was partial to the third, "Mother Country" President Obama chose the second, "One Day," for the inauguration.


After reading the poem to us last Thursday, Blanco asserted that "each one of our stories is a part of the American story."  We Americans are engaged in "cathedral building," he explained, and we don't know what the final construct will be, but "we each have a paragraph, a chapter, a story to contribute to the American narrative."


A Cuban-American, son of exiles and immigrants, gay man born of "machismo" culture, engineer and poet, Miami native and Maine resident, Blanco concluded his thoughts on home with this: Intrepid as she was in 1968 and thereafter, Blanco's mother (pictured above) grieved the loss of her native Cuba and the family members she left behind, and not until 2013 did she tell her son:


You know, mi'jo,

it isn't where you're born that matters, it's where

you choose to die—that's your country.


"Mother Country" by Richard Blanco


FMCD: Student Workshops


Following Richard Blanco's rousing performance, the Upper School continued with in our annual Friends Multicultural Day (FMCD) traditions, which include student-led workshops, worship sharing and, to end the day, student performances.


Ninth graders attended a workshop on managing racial stress and then joined 10th, 11th and 12th graders for workshops. Students chose which workshops to attend from a list of more than 20 different topics. Here is a sampling:


  • Jews in Popular Culture
  • Parkland Shooting: One Year Later
  • Service Abroad: Thailand
  • Representation of Women in Media
  • Where Soul Food Really Came From
  • French Culture and the U.S. Influences on France
  • Diverse Thinking: How Language and Culture Wire Our Brains
  • The N-word in Hip-Hop Culture
  • Yoga: Minding Your Thoughts
  • What's Going On in Virginia?
  • Environmentalism in Social Justice


After lunch, students and faculty participated in mixed grade-level threshing sessions to discuss the query: "What are your experiences (personal and witness) around injustices at PC? (racism, sexism, homophobia, classism, etc.)"  


We then broke down into mixed grade-level worship sharing groups by advisories and reflected upon the following prompts:

  • "Share the idea or describe the experience that was most interesting or meaningful to you today."  
  • "What changes would you like to envision for Penn Charter in the next five years?"
  • "What actions can we take to make those visions a reality?"  
    Finally, we punctuated the day with a rip-roaring set of student performances. 

Words Matter


On Wednesday, Feb. 13, the day before Friends Multicultural Day, Head of School Darryl J. Ford gathered the Upper School students and faculty to share several messages. 

Dr. Ford reminded us that "words matter" and "behavior matters."  Even in our toughest moments, he reminded us, Penn Charter is a great and privileged community. At the same time, we can — individually and collectively — make the community better by seeing that of God in those we like as well as in those we don't like or don't know. As a Quaker community, the "muscle we need to develop" is the one that calls us to see the spark in those who are different, who make us uncomfortable, who test our values.

People are complex, and adolescents, in particular, are growing and learning, so we need to hold folks in the light as Richard Blanco did his xenophobic and homophobic Abuela and see the good in them, forgive them, help them and accept them.

Dr. Ford extended interested students an invitation to lunch in the Gummere Library today if they are interested in the ongoing work of making our community more diverse and inclusive. The library was standing-room-only for today's conversation.

Coming on the heels of Dr. Ford's speech and invitation, Friends Multicultural Day 2019 was a tremendous success. Steeped in fellowship and fun, student-led workshops and performances, and one world-famous poet, the day will help propel us forward as One Penn Charter.




Erin Hughes
Acting Director of Upper School


Upper School Life


December 2018


From the Director's Chair



"What is Penn Charter doing about vaping?"

The question above is one I have heard often from parents this fall, along with, "Is Penn Charter doing anything about vaping?"  


The answers are: a lot and yes.

Some concerned parents have told me that their students report widespread vaping, even during classes and Meeting for Worship. That is a claim I have taken seriously. As much as parent concern might conjure images of Principal Rooney from Ferris Bueller's Day Off or Assistant Principal Vernon from The Breakfast Club, I assure you that we are cognizant of this issue and focused on it. Do some Penn Charter kids vape? Yes. At school? Some have and some probably do, but just as your own high school administrators tried to keep you from smoking traditional cigarettes on campus, we aim to limit teens' exposure to negative stimuli (nicotine, alcohol, drugs, danger, assault, etc.).

Originally intended to be a safe "step down" device from traditional cigarettes, e-cigarettes became widely available in 2007. Instead of producing tobacco smoke, e-cigarettes produce aerosol or vapor; hence, the term "vaping" was born. To vape is to inhale and exhale aerosol produced by an electric device made up of a mouthpiece, battery, heating element and cartridge containing e-juice or e-liquid.


The term e-cigarette, then, is a generic term for electronic devices that heat liquid and produce aerosol; they come in a variety of shapes and sizes, commonly called vapes, vape pens or Juuls. Typically, people "smoke" or vape liquid that contains nicotine. However, most teens believe the liquid to be flavored water and remain unaware of its nicotine contents. People can also vape THC, the psychoactive agent in marijuana. Dabs and wax are concentrated forms of THC, and the specific devices for vaping them are called dab pens or wax pens (though vape devices can use THC). Generally, when people talk about vaping, they are talking about vaping substances with nicotine, and in this column, when I use the term vaping, I am talking about the e-cigarette use of nicotine.

First, vaping is not a Penn Charter problem; rather, teen vaping is a national problem. On Monday, December 17, the National Institute on Drug Abuse reported survey results from the Monitoring the Future study, indicating that "37.3 percent of 12th graders report[ed] 'any vaping' in the past 12 months, compared to just 27.8 percent in 2017." Similarly, according to the FDA's National Youth Tobacco Survey, "1.5 million more students used e-cigarettes in 2018 vs. 2017."  That's a "78% increase [in e-cigarette use] among high school students."

To ask the question, "Why do teens vape?" begs the larger question, "Why do teens transgress?"

The chief goal of adolescence is establishing identity. In order to do that, teens learn in a variety of modes, including trial and error and experimenting with their likes, dislikes, beliefs and values. Teens both align with and compare themselves to their parents and peers, and in the process of maturing, they learn to manage stress and use both positive and, unfortunately, negative coping skills to do so. Gradually, adolescents become independent and individuated.


So, why do some teens vape? Why do they take up e-cigarettes when they know how awful traditional ones are for them? As I mentioned above, some teens don't realize that e-cigarettes contain nicotine. While I have read about that widely held misconception, I did not think Penn Charter students would be so ill-informed. I was wrong. One of the first students I talked to this year about vaping told me that he thought the cartridges contained only flavored water; at the same time, having vaped all summer, he was puzzled as to why he couldn't sit through a 40-minute class without the urge to vape. He did not realize he was addicted to nicotine. In fact, "adolescents are uniquely vulnerable to addiction," Jan Hoffman wrote in yesterday's New York Times; in her ominous article, "Addicted to Vaped Nicotine, Teenagers Have No Clear Path to Quitting," she outlines how health professionals are "alarmed by the addictive nature of nicotine in e-cigarettes and its impact on the developing brain."


Ignorance about nicotine aside, some teens might vape because doing so is taboo or rebellious. Some might vape because they lack fully developed prefrontal cortexes and, thus, lack impulse control and foresight. And some might vape because they are self-soothing, much like adults might have an extra cup of coffee to alert themselves in the afternoon or might have a glass of wine at the end of the day (when they know it would really be better if they went to the gym). Frances Jensen, author of The Teenage Brain, tells parents, "You need to be your teens' frontal lobes until their brains are fully wired." Parents and educators, in loco parentis, can help students educate and regulate themselves, plan ahead, make "good choices."


This fall, I have pondered the vaping phenomenon when a teacher or administrator has asked why a student did (or didn't do) something . . . and the student has responded, "I don't know" or "I just wasn't thinking" or "It was fun." The latter response makes me think less about a teen's still-developing prefrontal cortex and more about the nucleus accumbens.  

Temple University professor Laurence Steinberg explains that the nucleus accumbens, the "pleasure center" of the brain, starts to grow in childhood, reaches peak size in adolescence and then starts to shrink. For this reason, Steinberg explains, "Nothing—whether it's being with your friends, having sex, licking an ice-cream cone, zipping along in a convertible on a warm summer evening, hearing your favorite music—will ever feel as good as it did when you were a teenager." Teens perceive risk just as accurately as adults do, Steinberg contends, but the potential reward for a teen's taking a risk . . . is exhilaration magnified.  

The lure of delighting peers, the temptation of the forbidden, the call of adventure—these indeed tickle the teen brain, and as Steinberg indicates in Age of Opportunity, this proclivity for pleasure can provide as much "opportunity" as it provides obstacles. Appeal to the nucleus accumbens, Steinberg suggests. Take your child to Terror Behind the Walls at Halloween. Take your child zip-lining. Let your child host a murder mystery dinner. Provide teens with adult-supervised experiences that stimulate brain development. Provide novel experiences. At Penn Charter, we try to do that in curricular and co-curricular ways, with class trips, the Senior Retreat, Spirit Week, PC/GA Day, Quaker Crew at the basketball games, Friends Multicultural Day, proms, Color Day, the senior rafting trip and more. The recent Upper School Winter Dance boasted a whopping 272 Upper School students and their guests, plus a heaping spoonful of enthusiastic Argentinean exchange students. Talk about a social risk! Dress up, talk to old friends, mingle with new acquaintances, dance . . .

So, what has Penn Charter done to address the national vaping problem in the Upper School? Last summer, we added language around e-cigarettes to our Drug and Alcohol Policy in the Student Handbook (pp. 42, 65). In our ninth grade health curriculum, nurse Debbie Foley uses the Stanford Tobacco Education Toolkit to educate students about vaping: the presence and addictive quality of nicotine, the deleterious effects of vapor, the marketing campaigns targeted at teens and more. Much to the annoyance of many students, we are monitoring traffic to and from the bathrooms, parked cars, and places where Upper School students are not supposed to be during the day (such as the Graham Athletics Center). Indignant students call this the "Juul Patrol." When we have concerns about students who frequent the bathrooms or other off-limits spaces, I talk with them and follow up with parents. Devoid of any medical issue, one student told me he left class three times per day to use the bathroom. Another student told me he often leaves class because he needs a "brain break" (I directed him to the water fountain and discussed strategies for re-focusing in class without leaving the room). If a student has a vaping problem, I offer help, information on cessation programs, names of addiction therapists. If they do not have a habit, I talk to them about self-regulation and consequences.

In addition to addressing vaping with students, we have done so with parents. Last year and again this fall, nurse Debbie Foley presented at Upper School parent forums: Vaping:  What Every Parent Should Know. Here are ideas for how you can address vaping at home:  

  1. Educate yourself about e-cigarettes and know what to look for.  Explore the links in this column. Better yet, attend our evening program next month: Brian Jennsen is a researcher and pediatrician at CHOP whose expertise is tobacco policy and smoking cessation. On Wednesday, January 30, at 7pm, Jennsen will address parents on the topic of teens and e-cigarettes.
  2. Model healthy behavior.
  3. Talk to your student about vaping; this resource from the Surgeon General may help: Talk with Your Teen About E-cigarettes.

As you will recall, one of Penn Charter's themes for the 2018-2019 school year is "health and wellness." Vaping is one of several issues we are addressing with very deliberate programming. At the first parent forum of the year, Ed-Tech Director Michael Moulton presented Screen Time Tools to help parents manage their teens' screen usage. In October, Upper School students attended an assembly with Andrew from Minding Your Mind who spoke about stress and depression he experienced in college. On Monday, January 7, at 8:15am, counselor Elizabeth Hitschler and learning specialist Karen Campbell will present at the next Upper School Parent Forum on stress management and study strategies parents can use to help students negotiate the end of Semester 1. On Wednesday, March 6, at 7pm, health educator Shafia Zaloom will speak to parents about healthy relationships among adolescents, healthy sexuality and sexual consent. The following day, March 7, Zaloom will work with the juniors and seniors, the Upper School faculty, and the Health Department.  


Thanks for partnering with us as we help guide students toward healthy living. I particularly hope to see you January 30 for Brian Jennsen's presentation on e-cigarettes and March 6 for Shafia Zaloom's on healthy relationships.

Meanwhile, have a wonderful winter break.

Erin Hughes
Acting Director of Upper School

Upper School Life

October 2018

A newsletter for Upper School parents.

"Continuing Revelation builds on and fulfills what was understood as truth before, a truth that now seems somewhat incomplete as it is taken forward in a new direction. Such revelation is affirmed in the unity of those who come together trying to be open to the voice of the Spirit . . . Continuing Revelation taught us that slavery was wrong even when, for many Friends, it was socially and religiously acceptable. Later on, in the movement for women's suffrage, it taught us that gender is a source of human integrity and not a justification for political oppression and dehumanizing social restraint. And day by day, we are learning that love can still be sacred love regardless of whom it joins together."

— Philip Lord, "AFSC:  A Conduit for Continuing Revelation"


From the Director's Chair

Perhaps you have seen the blue, green and purple banners lining Penn Charter’s driveways and circles:   “Opening to Truth.”  “Listening for Truth.” “Seeking Truth.” Between these phrases and the school’s name are two smaller words that are no less significant: “Continuing Revelation.”

Looking out of my office window this overcast October morning, I am reminded of a statement I heard a couple of years ago from a 12th grade girl (who is now OPC ‘17).  

“When we were in eighth grade, we didn’t like each other at all,” she said about one of her classmates. By senior year, however, the two girls were the closest of friends. How did that happen, that transformation from Middle School “enemies” to Upper School friends? At some point in the girls’ time at Penn Charter, each girl allowed herself to take in new information about the other, to alter her understanding of what she “knew,” and little by little, what she had known in eighth grade to be true . . . wasn’t anymore. Each girl’s thinking had shifted.  By senior year, each “knew” that the other was a good person and dear friend.

People experience similar changes and have similar realizations on a regular basis. The ability to adjust one’s thinking or values, furthermore, typically requires a willingness and the flexibility to do so. One must take in new information, process it, evaluate it, and either confirm one’s original belief or form a new one. Quakers say realization requires divine intervention, that God reveals new truth to us or inspires us to think anew.

African-Americans were on this continent for hundreds of years before the nation decided slavery was wrong and ended it. Still, for nearly a hundred years after that, segregation was legal, until the Supreme Court decided it was wrong. Originally, only men were allowed to vote in this country; in 1920, that changed and women were granted the right to vote. Prior to 2015, LGBTQ people were denied the right to marriage; that changed three years ago. As the changes in law indicate, thought evolves. New truths materialize. 

The same is true for individuals and with personal beliefs, as my example with the eighth grade “enemies,” then senior best friends, illustrates above.

Being open to new ideas and evidence, willing to entertain different perspectives and interpretations, curious about seemingly contradictory truths—that is the epitome of the Quaker tenet of “continuing revelation.” And that is one of our themes for the 2018-2019 school year.  

News You Can Use

My colleagues in the Upper School Administrative Team, Lee Payton (Assistant US Director), Sharon Ahram (11/12 Grade Dean), Marianne Master (9/10 Grade Dean) and I are pleased with how well the school year is going and are working daily to provide students with a rich experience and you with information about it. Here are some quick details to that effect.

Guest Speakers

To stimulate reflection and discussion about "continuing revelation," we have several speakers lined up for 2018-2019. On Sept. 24, Cordell Carter, the executive director of the Socrates Program at the Aspen Institute, led a seminar for a dozen U.S. History students titled "Becoming An Inclusive Republic." Next up on Oct. 10 is Niyonu Spann, a Quaker who will share her personal and professional journey with us. On Oct. 17, a representative from Minding Your Mind will speak about living with depression. Samantha King will join us on Nov. 7 to talk about LGBTQ and gender matters. And that is not all; we are holding dates for even more speakers to address the theme of "continuing revelation."

"Present, Presentable and Polite"

I have tasked Upper School students with the three P's: Students need to be punctual and present for each class and fully engaged therein; certainly, students can maximize their learning and performance when they are "present," in both senses of the word, for all of their academic endeavors. Thanks to Student Council, we now have a newly revised and very lenient dress code, so students need to be "presentable" daily.  If you or your child has any question about whether a pair of jeans is ripped vs. cut, frayed vs. distressed, worn vs. holey, please just keep that garment at home.  Finally, despite what may be commonplace in the culture at large, Upper School students need to behave with decorum, whether in the hallways or dining hall or grandstands. We are . . Penn Charter.  We are . . . polite.

Academic Notices

New this year, teachers will send "Academic Notices" through the Hub when a student has earned a C- or below on a major assessment, has demonstrated a worrisome pattern (not completing homework, falling asleep in class, etc.) or is otherwise struggling in class. Teachers will use Academic Notices to share information in between the regular report dates, and the Notices will automatically go to you, your student and your student's advisor so that all parties have the information in a timely manner. Grade deans introduced students to Academic Notices last week with this email.  (In case you missed it earlier, here is the document about parent access to student gradebooks as well as a chart with report dates.)


We will also send detentions through the Hub. Morning detentions take place on Tuesday and Thursday from 7:30-8:05am in the Overseers Room. Saturday detentions take place once per month. If your student is not in dress code, is excessively tardy or absent, uses a cell phone during the day or otherwise misbehaves, she or he will earn a detention.  

Signing In & Out

If your student arrives late to school or needs to leave early, you and your student need to follow two procedures: 1) You need to notify the School.  Call or email Bridgette Bonner-Fennal ( Arriving late or leaving early for doctors' appointments will not "excused" unless you provide a doctor's note. 2)  Your child must promptly sign in and out with Ms. Bonner-Fennal.


Rings of Support

Navigating institutions can be challenging, particularly as they have unique cultures and practices. At Penn Charter, the practice is to start at the micro level. Those present for my Back-to-School Night presentation may remember my analogy about tree rings, with your student at the center, encircled by caring and trusted adults. As the parent, you are the first ring of support for your child, and at school, your child's advisor is a primary ring of support. Teachers, coaches and activity leaders comprise another primary ring of support for your student; they are the Penn Charter adults in direct contact with your child.  

If your student has questions or concerns about a class, team or activity, encourage her or him to speak directly with the teacher or coach. This can be hard for a student, particularly as teens are often more comfortable with texting or electronic communication as opposed to face-to-face discussions. You and your child's advisor can coach a student about how to have these conversations, ask for help, express confusion, share frustration in an appropriate and productive manner, etc. If you want to follow up with a teacher, for example, after your child has had an initial conversation, that is a good next step. In sum, the first levels of support for students are:  1) you, the parent, 2) your child's advisor, and 3) the teacher, coach or activity leader.

Another ring of student support includes the Grade Deans. Marianne Master is the 9/10 dean, and Sharon Ahram is the 11/12 dean. If you or your student needs support beyond the first few rings, the deans are the next step for you, your child and even your child's advisor. The Grade Deans are tremendous supports and excellent problem-solvers! They are also well-networked and knowledgeable about resources, so they can help you navigate the institution from there. Contact Marianne Master at and Sharon Ahram at


Certificate Programs

Last year, we started the Environmental & Sustainability Certificate program. Led by Environmental & Sustainability Coordinator Tom Rickards, the program has seven participants. This year, we launched the Global Studies Certificate program; Foreign Language Chair Sarah Aguilar-Francis has 11 participants in that program. If you or your student wants to learn more about the certificate programs, please contact Tom Rickards ( or Sarah Aguilar-Francis ( about their respective programs.


Thanks for reading this newsletter and partnering with the Upper School in supporting our students.  


Erin P. Hughes
Acting Director of Upper School

From the Director’s Chair

There has been much written (and deservedly so) over the last several years about the increase in reports of adolescent anxiety, be they episodic or official diagnoses. In particular, a recent New York Times article (“Why Are More Teenagers than Ever Suffering from Severe Anxiety?”) has been shared and discussed among many colleagues here in the Upper School. Regardless of your experiences or familiarity with this topic, I strongly encourage you to read this article in its entirety, as it shares some recent studies on these issues and it also relays authentic stories from real teenagers who are suffering from anxiety and related mental health issues.

To frame the significance and seriousness of this concern, along with the need for further study, work and consideration (especially among parents and teachers), here are some of the statistics (mostly about late adolescence) provided in the article:

  • over the last decade, anxiety has overtaken depression as the most common reason college students seek counseling services;
  • between 2011 and 2016 the number of undergraduate students reporting “overwhelming anxiety” jumped from 50% to 62%;
  • in a survey of incoming college freshmen 41% said they felt “overwhelmed by all I had to do”; this was up from 29% in 2010 and from 18% in 1985;
  • anxiety is the most common mental-health disorder in the United States, affecting nearly one-third of both adolescents and adults.

As this article rightly points out, we all have anxiety to some degree. It has been evolutionarily useful, and it is a natural reaction to dangerous situations. However, as a few of the above statistics point out, there is certainly an increase in reports of young people feeling overwhelmed by anxiety. There are many thoughts on the sources and contributing factors to these rising figures, including:

  • physical and emotional environment (home and/or school)
  • sense that they will never be able to “measure up” to expectations (internal or external)
  • how friends and teachers will perceive them
  • family conflicts
  • external events (terrorism, natural disasters)
  • social media (24/7 nature of comparing yourself to your peers; according to one teenager in the article: “It’s become this thing that we can’t live without but that’s making us crazy.”)

At our opening faculty meetings this summer, we hosted Katherine Dahlsgaard, an expert on the treatment of anxiety. She worked with the entire pre-K to 12 faculty, and gave us some very practical advice on how we as educators can help our most anxious students. In line with other professionals cited in the NYT article, Dahlsgaard firmly believes that anxiety needs to be treated actively, with, among other things, therapy, relaxation training, and exposure (helping individuals to gradually confront previously avoided situations until they can be mastered). According to Dahlsgaard, accommodations that encourage avoidance may allow someone to move past current anxiety-producing situations, but these avoidance strategies are far less likely to produce positive progress in the long-term. In short, active treatment of anxiety is a must.

While we do not currently track specific points of data on this topic here at PC, we know we are not immune to these current trends. We are learning more and taking active steps to support our students, both as individuals and as a collective. Several of our own students are even beginning to take a more active role in creating support structures here in the Upper School, including hosting sessions in our Teaching & Learning Center. In addition to the education already in place in our health and religious studies curriculum, we have partnered with Minding Your Mind, whose mission is to provide mental health education to students, parents and educators. Please mark your calendars and consider joining us on the evening of Tuesday, Feb. 27, for a presentation by two representatives of Minding Your Mind. The evening, which is for both students and parents, will begin at 5:30 pm with dinner; from 6 to 7:15 pm we will hear a first-person account of dealing with anxiety and depression, and then a presentation about how to recognize warning signs of stress, anxiety and depression. The evening will conclude with a brief Worship Sharing.

Given the size of our school, our Quaker mission, and our excellent faculty and staff, I think we are well positioned to support our students. This being said, we still have a lot more to learn about anxiety, its sources, how it is best treated, and how we can begin to reverse these current trends. Again, I hope you will read this NYT article. We will be discussing this article, and the topic of anxiety as a whole, at our upcoming Upper School Parent Forum on Monday, Dec. 4. I look forward to having it be a continued point of discussion and collaboration moving forward.

Travis Larrabee


Senior Comprehensive Project Update

The preparation and planning phase of the SCP is in full swing! Although this is a senior project, all Upper School parents maybe be interested to learn that we have revamped the SCP and brought it back after a brief hiatus. Plus, there is an opportunity for parent involvement.

Seniors have received their first reading and journal assignment. They were asked to the read the article The Greatest Good and to respond to two questions. The article, written by Derek Thompson, explores effective altruism and people's misconceptions on charitable giving. We believe this article will spark students' interests and begin to shape their ideas and plans for the on-site/experiential phase of the SCP.

As we said over the summer, a successful SCP involves student initiative and self-discipline as well as the entire Penn Charter community. If you’re interested in being part of the SCP, please learn more about these opportunities by clicking on this link. If we all work together, this could be one of the most rewarding experiences the students will have in high school.

If you have further questions, please reach out to Sharon Ahram, Senior Comprehensive Project coordinator and assistant director of the Center for Public Purpose, at or 215-844-3460 ext. 162.


November Highlights

131st PC/GA Day. By almost every account, PC/GA Day was a great success. I could not be more proud of the way our students performed and competed, and it was wonderful to see such a large turnout from students, family and friends. The genuine spirit and enthusiasm were remarkable! View more photos.

Upper School Fall Play. I was excited to see so many new faces up on stage in the production of we can try, we can fail, we can be ourselves—scenes from high school life. Written by our own Zac Kline OPC ‘03, with ideas and feedback from our students, the play is based on the real stories and trials of modern adolescence, which made it particularly poignant. Under the direction of Eva Kay Noone, the cast and crew put on an excellent performance. More photos.


Save the Dates

Senior Breakfast, Wednesday, Nov. 29, 7:15 am. The senior parents are providing our second breakfast for seniors in the cafeteria starting at 7:15 am. It's Countdown to Commencement! We could use some waffle irons—not to mention some people to staff the waffle irons! Please sign up here to lend a waffle iron and/or a hand in the festivities.

Upper School Parent Forum, Monday, Dec. 4, 8:15-9:15 am, Overseers Room. Please join Travis Larrabee, Catherine Ezzo and Elizabeth Coombs Hitschler for a discussion about recent research and findings on adolescent anxiety. We strongly encourage you to read the New York Times article referenced above in the Director’s Chair piece.

Upper School Band & Choral Concert, Thursday, Dec. 7, 7:30 pm, Kurtz Center. As always, this winter concert will feature a variety of styles. Symphonic Band will explore contrasting musical genres with new compositions such as Ballade and Scramble as well as the holiday classic Sleigh Ride. The Jazz Band set includes a wide variety of styles from big band and ballads to rock and Latin. A surprise member of our faculty will conduct Eye of the Tiger. Quakers Dozen will feature Mel Torme's The Christmas Song and a terrific holiday spiritual. The Charter Singers, in honor of Leonard Bernstein's 100th birthday, will perform excerpts from his Mass, along with traditional holiday favorites; plus, a faculty guest solo artist. For the finale, members of our audience can join the choir on stage singing the traditional Hallelujah Chorus, and there may even be another guest conductor for that. This concert will be over the top for sure!

Upper School Parent Social, Saturday, Dec. 9, 7:30 pm, Timmons House. Please join parents from all Upper School grades at the first-ever all-Upper School Parent Social. Check out this signup to bring some food or a beverage.


Stay Connected

There are so many important events happening at PC this school year. We strongly urge you to read the weekly Parent Post and log into the Hub daily, or at least routinely. In addition to PC social media channels, we recommend signing up for news alerts and, if you would like to follow varsity sports, SportsZone