Friends Western School: Shaping Children’s Education in Real Time
Friends Western School is a progressive elementary school in Pasadena that nurtures socially conscious and emotionally mature kids from transitional kindergarten through 5th grade.
While originally run by Quakers, Friends Western became a parent-teacher run co-op in 2010. According to the school’s website, Friends Western holds the distinction of being the first Quaker co-op elementary school in the country, and one of the only co-op elementary schools in California.
Friends Western generally enrolls between 40-50 students, with no class ever having more than 15 kids. It also features an extensive arts program which is impressive for a school its size.
The school is no longer formally administered by Quakers, but Friends Western’s curriculum and practices remain influenced by the religion. The ideas of community, consensus, and embracing the inner light of the child permeate every aspect of the school.
The result is a dedicated community of teachers, parents, and kids alike that all have a voice in each child’s education and personal growth. Teachers and parents work to create a learning environment that places each student in the best position to succeed.
For example, Leilani Brooks, a Theater teacher and Dean of Students at Friends Western, was having trouble with one of her students who was disrupting class with jokes. He also had been having problems with his writing skills, so instead of punishing him for talking out of turn, Leilani embraced his evident passion.
“I said, ‘Hey, I’d love for you to record all of your best jokes in this composition book,’” said Brooks. She set up a time at the end of the week on a Friday for the student to tell the jokes, and a comedian was born.
Soon enough, other students joined in, and the end-of-the-week session essentially became a show-and-tell time for the students to share anything they were passionately working on.
It was this story that helped convince Kim Roberts, a parent at Friends Western, to enroll her kids. “It’s the idea of listening to the voice in every child, the light in every child and not punishing them for being different….but instead trying to help realize the kids’ inner strengths,” said Roberts.
Friends Western allows the students to set the guidelines for the classroom themselves, part of the Responsive Classroom concept the school employs. At the beginning of each school year, the students will come up with the rules for the classroom, and then each sign it.
A few years ago, the students learned that a different Quaker school outlawed imaginary gunplay on the school grounds. Friends Western students called a meeting on the topic and decided to forbid pretend gunplay on their school grounds, too.
Perhaps Friends Western’s most quintessential trait is their conflict resolution program. Each day after lunch, students are able to sign up to have a conference with another student where they talk about any problem or issue they have with one another.
“Our job as staff is to be a facilitator and not a problem solver,” said Brooks. The students must listen to each other without interruption and find a solution, even if it might appear wacky. The students might decide that they can only be friends with each other on Mondays and Wednesdays, for example.
Like the students, the teachers of Friends Western are placed in a unique position to excel by being given license to craft their own curriculum and role to suit their strengths.
Tim Noonan is a second and third-grade teacher. He grew up as an eagle scout and is an avid runner. Noonan leads the kids on an annual charity 5k run that is part of their service program and also heads the outdoor education program, taking the kids on urban exploration and nature hikes.
Brooks, for example, has a background in stage performance and teaches theater classes as well as being Dean of Students. Teachers get to wear different hats that play to their own personal passions.
“When you tap into things that the teachers already love and enjoy, they’re excited to come to work and it shows in how they work with the children,” said Brooks.
Because Friends Western is a parent-teacher run co-op, the parents take a much more visible role in their child’s education. Parents can chaperone field trips, sit in on recess or conflict resolution sessions, or sit on marketing and finance committees. They essentially shape the education of their child in real time.
Parents participate in monthly meetings concerning school business that also include “threshing sessions.” In a threshing session, a question will be posed like how to divide recess time between structured and unstructured play.
Instead of debating each other about the merits of structured versus unstructured play, parents will simply voice their opinion and listen to others’. The result is a compromise and resolution that is democratically and peacefully achieved.
Apparently, it’s not just the kids who are learning how to listen to each other and resolve conflict, either. “When you try to work with kids on things, you realize that adults are still working on all the same problems,” said Roberts.
Friends Western gives the teachers, parents, and kids a remarkable amount of collective agency and trust that creates an educational environment perfect for those that inhabit it.
When every individual in a community strives to understand their neighbor’s perspective, resolve conflict, and above all else, simply listen—harmony is achieved. This is the Quaker way.
Friends Western School is located at 524 Orange Grove Blvd. Visit friendswesternschool.org or call (626) 817-2481.