In the Middle of Everything
At Friends’ Central School, middle school students find themselves immersed in a creative, diverse and supportive environment designed to help them peacefully transform the world
by Bill Donahue

At Friends’ Central School in Wynnewood, middle school is considered a critical stage, a time of transformation and dynamic discovery. It’s a time during which students learn to sharpen their academic skills, develop new interests and begin to understand not only themselves but also their place in the world.

“We get to build on the amazing foundation that students experience in our lower school, and some of the work we do is to make sure students are prepared for upper school and beyond,” says Middle School Principal Alexa Quinn. “That being said, we often say it’s important that we don’t treat middle school students like big lower school students or little upper school students; we treat them as individuals who are in their own unique stage of learning.”

The middle school’s staff and administration aim to help each student—grades six through eight—develop his or her own unique skill set, all in a welcoming environment guided by Quaker values. This includes not only forming good study habits and the ability to think critically but also other skills needed to succeed as a lifelong learner—namely, self-advocacy, communication and collaboration. Although Friends’ Central School’s challenging and diverse curriculum helps students prepare for the next phase of their education, student development extends far beyond academics.

“We are all about providing a well-rounded experience in which students can pursue their passions and step outside their comfort zone,” adds Quinn, now in her third year as principal of the middle school. “Drama, music and a wide range of intramural and scholastic athletics are huge parts of the program, and these are things that are built into the school day. We’re always looking for more opportunities for student choices in terms of clubs and activities, and we’ve always had a robust service-project program. All of these elements combine to make middle school the transformative experience it is.”

The middle school provides structure through a carefully conceived advisory system designed to support each student’s academic, social and emotional development. An “advisory period” built into the schedule four days a week enables assigned advisors to check in with students, asking everything from “Is your locker organized?” to “How is your science project coming along?” to “How are things in your friend group?” The middle school years, after all, can be a very delicate time.

“Re-envisioning what it means to be a middle school student”—this is how Middle School Dean of Students Keino Terrell describes the work he and his colleagues do every day. Considering he recently began his 19th year of teaching at Friends’ Central, he is a capable judge.

“Middle school has a different purpose, developmentally,” says Terrell, who teaches language arts in addition to his responsibilities as dean. “These kids are ‘perfectly imperfect’ in a special way, and it’s our job to help them through the process of discovery. Independent school education, and particularly Quaker education, offers educators unique opportunities to teach the whole child. We are highly competent academically, but we balance that with all these other things we believe to be important.

“We’re nurturing kids in a way that they can peacefully transform the world,” he continues. “Ultimately, that’s the goal. We want to make sure these kids are knowledgeable about the global challenges we have and then have them peacefully find solutions to whatever is at the source of the conflict.”

He cites the school’s affinity group model, in which students with common interests and backgrounds come together through a particular affinity group (children of divorced parents, for example, or Muslim Americans) and discuss their differences and commonalities. Each educator-led group then “reports out” by telling its story to the greater campus community, thereby helping to promote understanding, foster dialogue and recreate the definition of diversity.

Friends’ Central’s middle school students experience another form of diversity through something called mini-course week, which is held every year right before spring break. During mini-course week, students engage in educator-led projects, both on and off campus, in which they learn about engaging topics apart from the curriculum. The mini-courses not only expose students to new ideas but also connect them to the city by having them explore its many resources. Some of the nine courses in this year’s mini-course week included “Comparative Anatomy,” “CSI: Friends’ Central” and “The Pasta Workshop,” with educators taking students on trips to Philadelphia destinations such as Reading Terminal Market, the Mutter Museum and the Franklin Institute, among others.

Friends’ Central’s middle school has long had a reputation for its progressiveness and adaptability. A robust Makerspace is among the more visible examples. As a community hub for playful and collaborative learning, the Makerspace is “defined by the people who work there and the projects they make,” according to Director of STEAM Education Colin Angevine. It includes two disparate work spaces: a “cleaner, quieter” area for planning and designing; and a “noisier, messier” area for bringing projects to life.

“There’s a lot of peer teaching and general skill sharing that happens down here, and you see that through the activities and workshops we organize,” says Angevine. “We make room for students to come up with an idea and then provide them with the tools and resources to help them make their idea a reality. You have soldering irons next to a sewing machine, so you often have two very different students who end up side by side, and when they meet in a space like that, it can be the birthplace of innovation. Serendipity happens when different skill sets collide.”

The school’s STEAM program has evolved considerably since Day One. In its first year, the program served only eight students. By its second year, that number grew to 28 students. Today, in its fourth year and now called the “Make” program, it’s nearly impossible to quantify the number of students involved, which Angevine characterizes as “a good problem.” In addition to having produced a number of award-winning technology projects along the way, the school’s Make program has become a model for other schools looking to spearhead Maker initiatives of their own.

“In designing the space, we talk sometimes about structuring opportunities to learn,” he says. “There’s this idea that learning happens not only when a teacher shares knowledge but also when he creates a context for students to create their own understanding. Sure, we do make robots down here and we have plenty of futuristic projects our students are working on, but I see it less about ‘products’; those are secondary. What it does is capture their time and attention to lead to these amazing transformations. Students get to a place where they have a different sense of themselves as learners, or they have a sense of the idea that they don’t need to be taught in order to learn something. Those moments can be really powerful.”

In other words, at Friends’ Central, middle school students have the benefit of learning from seasoned educators, from their peers and, perhaps most importantly, from themselves. Such “aha moments” enable middle school students to make connections that will endure and take what Quinn describes as “big leaps” in creative thinking.

“We’re ensuring students have the highest possible academic experience, but I believe our students have a richer, fuller experience beyond academics,” she says. “Middle school students are at this amazing stage where they are trying to figure out more about themselves and their relationship to the world. We’re providing them with a safe environment, physically and emotionally, in which they can learn about themselves and continue growing at an incredibly important stage of their lives.”

Friends’ Central School

City Ave. Campus

1101 City Ave.
Wynnewood, PA 19096

Lower School Campus
228 Old Gulph Road
Wynnewood, PA 19096

Photograph by Jody Robinson