Friends Teaching Friends

Friends Teaching Friends

Northern Virginia Friends School takes novel approaches to learning.

Imagine a school that manages to rigorously challenge each student without giving grades or tests. That is the goal at the Northern Virginia Friends School, the only Quaker elementary school in the Northern Virginia area, said Emily Pavot.

Pavot is the director of marketing at the school, which is housed in the Unity of Fairfax Church in Oakton. She is also a kindergarten teacher and a parent of two students. Her own daughter, she said, did not have an easy time of the first grade last year in a public school. Now, in a combined second- and third-grade class at the Friends School, her daughter is "just thriving," said Pavot. "I hear more about her teacher over the weekend than anything else," she said.

Pavot has worked as a tutor in the area for several years and remarked that she has seen too many young students suffering from stress caused by pressure to perform well in school.

"They don't have a love of learning. They see school as a chore, and they try to get away with doing as little as possible," she said. "Kids don't do that here. They love to learn. They're inspired."

ONE REASON for this, she said, is the individualized attention afforded by a small student-to-teacher ratio. The school, where enrollment has grown from 25 students when it opened in 2003 to 52 students this year, employs five full-time teachers and a number of teaching assistants, creating an average ratio of five students to each faculty member.

Pre-kindergarten through the fifth grade are now taught at the school, with the second and third grades combined in one class and the fourth and fifth combined in another.

"The teachers read one-on-one with the kids every day," said Pavot, noting that class sizes are around 10 to 12 students.

ALTHOUGH THERE are no tests or grades, said Marsha Holliday, the head of the school, the coursework remains rigorous because teachers keep track of each student's progress and challenge each student to meet his or her potential. Twice a year, lengthy progress reports are sent home to parents.

"Each child should be compared with his or her past achievements, not anyone else's," said Holliday, adding that the school tries "to reduce competitiveness and encourage cooperative learning."

A hands-on approach to teaching is preferred, said Pavot. With Halloween approaching, the children in her kindergarten class gutted a pumpkin and counted the seeds as part of their math lesson. They discovered that it was easier to count by tens, she reported.

Her students' geography lessons, she said, are at least partly governed by the whims of a globetrotting troll named Bob, who sends postcards from his various destinations. The students learn about each location in order to get an idea of what Bob might be doing there. Following his recent visit to Japan, for example, they made origami. A postcard had just arrived in the office from Regensburg, Germany.

FIRST-GRADE TEACHER Kathie Opiola uses many of the same teaching techniques she employed while teaching at Montessori School. As her students lined up for lunch, she demonstrated a set of beaded chains that represented the squares and cubes of all numbers from one to 40. The beads could be folded into actual, geometric squares and cubes, so that students could see the correlation between numeric values and linear and spatial quantities, said Opiola.

Most of the full-time teachers have at least 10 years of teaching experience, said Pavot.

In Trish Deveneau's second- and third-grade class, the students were learning about bats, also in keeping with the season. Students had been measuring bat wing spans, graphing bat weights and calculating how many bats could fit into a given cave space, said Deveneau. As they were learning about mammals in their science lessons, they had been comparing bats and humans. Drawings of bats hung on the coat closet. Hand-made bats hung from the ceiling.

Bats were not the subject all day every day, "but we're doing bats a lot right now," she smiled. Her students, she explained, get to determine how much time is spent on a given subject, according to their interest. "So we will continue working with bats until we're done with bats," she said.

The students were also trying to estimate how many pieces of candy they would get and what percentage would be chocolate. While this may have all looked like fun and games, said Deveneau, "they're being assessed all the time, but, mostly, they don't know it."

The kindergarten class was enjoying a Japanese recess, which, they had discovered, consists of cleaning. The postcard from Regensburg had not yet made it out of the office. Although the children were straightening the room enthusiastically, they would also get an outdoor recess, assured Sarah Lutomski, who is both the school's director of admissions and P.E. teacher.

AS A RESULT of the school's small size, many faculty members serve in more than one capacity. Lutomski noted that the Quaker philosophy also figures prominently into day-to-day life at the school. Although no written doctrine is taught, the values that are emphasized are "peace, equality, simplicity and service," she said.

For example, all of the students help to make sandwiches for the Falls Church Winter Homeless Shelter every Tuesday. Students also help the faculty to offer assistance to an adopted sister school, Lost Creek Elementary, in Hazzard County, Ky. Schools in that area have little in terms of resources, said Lutomski.

Conflict resolution is also emphasized at the Friends School. "I'll have a 5-year-old in my class who will say, 'We need to sit in the peace circle because, at recess, you called her over to play, and you didn't ask me to play,'" said Pavot. "We don't have bullying or fights," she added. "We truly do believe that there is that-of-God in everyone, so everyone commands respect," said Holliday. "In our school, it doesn't matter if you're a parent or a child or a teacher, everyone talks to each other the same. We don't have stratification."

WORSHIP IS HELD in the classroom for five minutes a day and in the church sanctuary for 15 minutes once a week, said Lutomski. However, she said, the worship sessions are nondenominational, unguided and, in fact, silent. Students are told "to quiet their bodies and listen to their hearts," she said, adding that, especially in the fast-paced culture of the D.C. area, this is a valuable skill.

She noted that the small student body comprises children from a variety of religious backgrounds. "There's actually only one Quaker student in the school," she said. The holidays of all religions are observed and studied. This is both out of respect for students of various backgrounds and as part of the school's goal of fostering an attitude of global citizenship, said Lutomski.

Also to the end of global citizenship, Spanish classes are taught at every grade level. Since opening, the school has added a grade level each year. As a result of that growth, this year, the school was split into upper and lower "campuses," housed in the two buildings on the church grounds.

Holliday said a sixth grade may well be added next year, and it has not yet been decided whether classes will go any higher than that. The Friends School will be run out of the Unity of Fairfax Church for at least another two years, but Holliday said faculty hopes the school will one day occupy property of its own. "We haven't outgrown the space yet," she said, "but we're working on it."