Pushing in the Right Direction
At Church Farm School in Exton, “young men of promise” gain a college-preparatory education in a nurturing environment designed to help them thrive
by Bill Donahue

Stephen A. Loney Jr. grew up in a depressed part of Delaware County, the only child in a broken home. His loving mother had to work multiple jobs in order to make ends meet, so he spent a lot of time alone. Barely a teenager, he felt unmoored and directionless, stuck in a tough neighborhood that presented few opportunities to enrich his life.

Today Loney has a nice home and a family of his own, with degrees from St. Joseph’s University and New York University School of Law. He also has a career he enjoys, as a counselor and litigator for the Philadelphia office of global law firm Hogan Lovells. Although he worked hard for his achievements, he credits Church Farm School with giving him the opportunity he needed to get his life on track.

“There’s something special about that school,” says Loney, a 1997 graduate who joined Church Farm School’s board of directors in 2009. “It might be in the type of students the school’s mission is aimed for—diamonds in the rough. You put those boys together in that kind of environment and they thrive. Fast-forward to adulthood and a Church Farm School alumnus is someone who is a leader, your best employee, your favorite person.

“Some people have the misperception that it’s some sort of reform school, but that’s not the case at all,” he continues. “If you look at the students that go there, each one of them is a really good kid who just needed a little push in the right direction.”

Loney’s transformational story is echoed by many graduates of Church Farm School, an independent, nonprofit college-preparatory boarding and day school for boys in grades eight through 12. For nearly 100 years, the school has been providing “young men of promise” with the safe, nurturing environment needed to develop the mind, body and spirit, according to Reverend Edmund K. Sherrill II, who became head of school in 2009.

“A Church Farm School boy may be someone who is languishing in social, economic or educational poverty,” says Sherrill. “There’s nothing about him that caused that, just his circumstances in a place that is fairly bleak—whether that is Appalachia, the inner city or some other place from around the world. We’re looking for somebody who has motivation, a sparkle in his eye, who is eager and excited to make the most of his talent, even though it may be raw. With the support and direction we aim to provide, these boys tend to do quite well.”

Alemayehu Addis is proof. Addis arrived in Washington, D.C., on May 23, 1991, along with his mother and one of his sisters, after fleeing their troubled homeland of Ethiopia. They moved to Upper Darby a month later, and his mother immediately began searching for ways to improve her children’s lives. This included a superior education for her son. She happened upon Church Farm School, which saw much promise in young Addis. By September she had secured his place as a boarding student at the school.  

“It was a good environment for me,” he says. “I didn’t know the language, so I had to depend on my house parents for help with my homework and my teachers to take extra time in class. It took me a few months to get up to speed, but I was able to get involved in a lot of new things without a lot of distractions. It kept me on the right path.”

After graduating from Church Farm School in 1997, Addis matriculated to the University of Pennsylvania, where he further explored two passions that he had cultivated during his high school years: wrestling and the sciences. He made the wrestling team as a walk-on, and he ended up graduating from UPenn with a degree in electrical engineering. He then chose to put his skills to use for the U.S. military, having served U.S. Army tours in Afghanistan and Iraq—earning a Bronze Star, among other commendations—before returning to civilian life. After several years of building a successful career in IT management and consulting, he recently accepted a position as an information security architect, vice president for a prominent banking institution.

“All of the graduates, on some level, know how special it is,” says Addis, who was elected to the Church Farm School’s board of directors in 2014. “Everyone there has a certain passion, and the adults are committed to helping the boys reach their potential. The belief they have in each student really makes an impact, and it rubs off. Most people can’t imagine the kinds of sacrifices that need to be made and what types of resources are needed to create such a wonderful and precious place.”

A Good Start
Church Farm School’s rigorous academic program is designed to foster a lifelong love of learning and nurture the desire to explore intellectually. Here, students are immersed in everything from the STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and math) disciplines to the humanities. Also, besides the core curriculum, Church Farm School offers honors and Advanced Placement classes.

Although academic achievement is vital, the school also aims to inspire every student to lead a life of productivity, purpose and meaning. Students are required to take part in athletics (options include soccer, cross-country, golf, basketball, wrestling, track, tennis and baseball) and community service, as well as develop new interests through various student activities and clubs. All students participate in CORE (Challenge of Required Experience), a co-curricular program to provide students with many opportunities for community service and outdoor educational experiences, plus exposure to the cultural/creative arts and leadership training.

“We want every boy here to develop leadership skills and to have an internal sense of lifelong learning,” says Sherrill. “I’m just as interested in that as I am in him getting into college. We’re simply trying to hand over to every boy the keys to his future, with a sense of purpose knowing that he will make a meaningful contribution to this world.”

Church Farm School is unique beyond its “whole-person enrichment” approach to education, from its rich history to its operational model. An endowment covers as much as 75 percent of annual operating costs, with the remainder coming through tuition and contributions from generous philanthropic-minded donors. As a result, the school can provide an unrivaled college-preparatory experience without putting undue financial strain on families; approximately 100 of the 190 students at Church Farm School pay less than $4,000 per year in tuition, according to Sherrill. On the other hand, many local families who can afford the full tuition choose to send their children to Church Farm School, citing its remarkable diversity, individual attention and challenging academics.

Such financial stability is essential, as many Church Farm School students are likely to be the first in their families to attend an institution of higher learning. As the school’s first full-time director of college guidance, Tiffany Scott considers it her duty to ensure that college-bound students are doing everything in their power to not only get accepted into a good college or university but also be financially equipped to do so.

“When they leave in the spring going into their senior year, they have a plan,” she says. “They have thought about potential career paths, they understand the need for financial aid and they are advised to apply for at least five scholarships. Here we have a nice endowment to help subsidize a lot of students’ education, but in college it doesn’t work the same way. I want to make sure more colleges know about us and get them in front of our students, and I also want every kid leaving Church Farm School with an outside scholarship from some local or national foundation. That’s my goal.”

Last year, for example, two graduating seniors earned highly sought-after scholarships designed to connect bright, underrepresented students to top colleges: Ced Moise, who earned a full scholarship to Princeton University via QuestBridge; and Mohammed Bappe, who received a Gates Millennium Scholarship to Swarthmore College. In addition, three rising seniors from the Class of 2016 were recently selected as QuestBridge College Prep Scholars.

Church Farm School has evolved to keep pace with the world around it. Even so, alumni such as Alemayehu Addis and Stephen Loney suggest the school’s founding principles, as well as its commitment to instilling boys with character, remain firmly intact.

“If it hadn’t been for Church Farm School, I think I’d still be catching up in life,” Loney says. “I know people who came from a similar background—bright kids whose parents probably thought they would be doing better—and they’re stuck in this kind of extended adolescence, still trying to figure out what they want to do. I still think I could have done a lot of things better than I have, but that list of things would have been a lot longer had it not been for Church Farm School.  

“The bottom line is that Church Farm School saved my life,” he continues, “and I think most of the people who have come through the doors of that school would tell you the exact same thing.”

Church Farm School
1001 E. Lincoln Hwy.
Exton, PA 19341