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Class of Friends

Alexandria’s new Quaker school is set to open on Sept. 5.

For Will Stewart, headmaster of Alexandria’s new Quaker school, the “silent meeting” is a chance for his students to escape the hectic pace of modern life. Quakers in America had a significant role in abolishing slavery, acknowledging equal rights for women and opposing warfare. But they are known for their silent meetings in which members of the Society of Friends wait for inspiration.

“The purpose of the silent meeting is to wait for the Holy Spirit,” Steward said. “It’s kind of a mystical thing.”

On Sept. 5 — the new school’s first day of classes — the Alexandria Friends School will have 12 students. About half of the student body are former pupils at the Thornton Friends School, which closed at the end of last year. The other half of the students are new recruits. Since deciding to launch the school a few months ago, Stewart has been working to publicize the school, set up a new location and recruit new students.

“Normally, you would want more lead time to start up a new school,” Steward said. “We’re starting out very small, and we’re hoping to grow.”

Although Stewart plans to eventually have all high-school grades, this year he will offer classes for grades 9,10 and 11. The classrooms of the Alexandria Friends School are located in the old Stonewall Jackson Elementary School on South Quaker Lane — rooms that were recently vacated by the Howard Gardner School, a private high school which moved to Rose Hill. Stewart has three classrooms, one gathering room, a kitchen, an office and a video theater. Students will take five classes a day from five teachers (including Stewart himself), ending with a “Renaissance class” such as art, sports or music appreciation.

“The idea is to end the day with a class where there’s less pressure,” Stewart said. “It gives the kids a chance to wind down, and it’s work they enjoy.”

A NATIVE of Jamestown, N.Y., Stewart grew up in Lakewood, N.Y. He graduated from Baldwin Wallace College in 1973 with a triple major: history, theater and German. He went on to get a master’s in German literature from Case Western Reserve University, teach English in Germany and sing on two Grammy-award winning albums with the Washington Chorus. Although he came to Washington in 1977 to study history at Georgetown University, he ended up as director of test preparation for the Washington Academy.

“It was a fascinating experience,” Stewart said. “It was sort of like a pastiche of part-time jobs.”

In 1998, he took a job teaching history at the Thornton Friends School in Alexandria — eventually accepting a position on its board of directors. He said that although the school was successful, the organization was trying to run several schools in Maryland in addition to its Virginia campus in Alexandria.

“It’s difficult to manage schools in different states,” Stewart said. “The accreditation process is a huge undertaking, and it became too much to manage.”

At a meeting of the school’s finance committee in the spring, Stewart learned that the Alexandria school would be closing. The announcement became official on May 1 when E. Brooke Carroll, clerk of the board, and Michael DeHart, head of school, sent a letter to parents and students announcing that the school would close its doors on June 10.

“The board has struggled with ongoing concerns regarding the Alexandria campus for several years,” they wrote. “The difficulties have been complicated, including concerns regarding the dual structure of the Maryland and Virginia campuses, the continuity of campus staffing, and enrollment.”

For Stewart, the news was a shock. “It was quite unexpected,” he said. “I couldn’t sleep.”

After much self-reflection and a decent amount of research, Stewart decided to open his own Quaker school in Alexandria. He put together his own board of directors and financed much of its operations on his personal credit card.

The school’s mission statement lays out its goals: “Alexandria Friends School seeks to bring out the fullest potential in each member of its community by relying on core Quaker beliefs and values. Among these are the search for that of God in every human being, non-violence, a commitment to speak the truth, a carefully considered questioning of authority, and service to others.”

STEWART ISN'T a Quaker. He’s Episcopalian. And none of the students who have signed up for the coming year are Quakers either. The school’s major selling point is that it offers a nonjudgmental environment for teenagers who don’t fit into a boilerplate public-school experience.

“Conformity tends to be the rule in public schools,” Stewart said. “If you don’t conform, you can be ostracized.”

Stewart said that the kind of students at the old Thornton Friends School — the ones that will be welcome at the Alexandria Friends School — have social or psychological difficulties fitting in.

“Teenagers can be so merciless,” Stewart said. “We don’t do that here.”

For Maggie Crossgrove, a parent of a rising sophomore who will be attending classes at the new school this fall, the Alexandria Friends School offers an opportunity to continue the kind of small classes that are hard to find in public schools.

"In public school, he struggled with English," Crossgrove said. "But with the small class sizes at Thornton, it wasn't a problem for him."

Crossgrove — who works for Fairfax County Public Schools — said that she knows and trusts the teachers at Alexandria Friends. Although the school is in a difficult startup phase, she is confident that Stewart will be able to create the kind of learning environment that her son needs.

"So much in life is a gamble," Crossgrove said. "But schools like this are truly important, and I'll do everything I can to keep this one viable."

With the first day of school fast approaching, Stewart is making final preparation for welcoming students on that first day of classes. The phone in his office rings incessantly with teachers wanting to interview for position or parents asking about classes for their children. Even after the first day, the next few years will be critical to the success of the school.

"It's estimated that 95 percent of all new private schools close before they have been in operation for five years," Stewart said. "That's why we have to wait five years before we can even apply for accreditation."

Stewart plans to seek accreditation through the Virginia Association of Independent Schools and membership in the Friends Council on Education as well as the Association of Independent Schools of Greater Washington. Despite the challenges, Stewart remains resolute that Alexandria needs a Quaker school to fill what would otherwise be an unmet need in the city.

“Part of the Quaker philosophy is that we are all learners,” said Stewart. “My goal as an educator is not to teach kids what to think but to teach them how to think. That’s what we’ll be trying to do at the Alexandria Friends School.”