For nearly 20 minutes, the 160 sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders of the William Penn Charter School sat in silence. Finally, Marshall Roslyn, a seventh-grader with freckles and braces, offered that he likes the school's regular meetings for worship because he can reflect on his week, much as he believes God did during creation.
"We can sit here and think about how good it was or how bad it was," said Roslyn, 12, whose family moved to Philadelphia last year from California's San Fernando Valley, where he attended public school. "And we can make a judgment that it was good or bad, like God did."
The meeting for worship is just one way in which the William Penn Charter School, one of more than 80 schools across the country run by the Society of Friends, or Quakers, tries to help its students develop values and a sense of spirituality.
While many Americans continue to debate whether public schools should attempt to teach values, the students, teachers, parents and administrators of the nation's Quaker schools clearly have their minds made up: Education works best when children are taught not only academics but responsibility to school and society.
Marshall's father, Joel, said the mix of high academic standards and ethics has made him a supporter of the Quaker teaching methods, even though he is Jewish. "There is a very strong moral tone to the school, and I like that," said the senior Roslyn, a surgeon.
About 130 miles south of Philadelphia, another father is getting a firsthand look at Quaker education. President Clinton and his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, have enrolled their daughter, Chelsea, in Washington's Sidwell Friends school.
Although the Clintons were criticized by some public school advocates for shunning a public education in favor of a private one, Sidwell's diverse student body and its emphasis on community service made the decision more acceptable for many liberals.
Having declared his intention to improve the nation's schools, the President could decide to incorporate some of what he sees at Sidwell into any school reform initiative his Administration undertakes.
To be sure, Quaker schools, like other religious and private education institutions across the country, have the luxury of admitting only those students whose families subscribe to their tenets--and can afford admission costs of as much as $17,000 a year, or qualify for scholarships. That rarefied atmosphere frees the schools from having to contend with many of the problems that widely divergent attitudes--and often a simple lack of money--create for public schools.
Nonetheless, the high expectations for students' achievement, parental involvement and personalized teaching are all trademarks of Quaker schools that could be applied in some form to public institutions, according to Pearl Kane, an associate professor at Columbia University's Teachers College.
"We look to Germany and Japan but not in our own back yard," Kane said.
Quaker schools, which educate about 16,600 students nationwide, boast high academic achievement. Many of their graduates go on to prestigious colleges and universities and few fail to get a post-secondary education. Twenty percent of the 102 students in Sidwell's class of 1992, for example, went to Ivy League universities.
But even more than academic excellence, it is a sense of community that makes Quaker schools special, according to students, teachers and administrators.
"There is an inclusivity that Quaker education promotes, and I think that's what (Clinton) is asking public schools to be like," said Stephen Watters, the middle-school headmaster at William Penn Charter.
Although a belief in God is not required for admission to a Quaker school, central to the philosophy of education is the sense that there is "that of God in everyone" and each person should be valued for his or her individuality. That tenet, together with the responsibility each person is taught to feel to the whole, results in a feeling of community rare in schools, students and teachers say.
Competition for admission to the schools is intense. All 124 3 1/2-year-olds applying for 30 spots in Sidwell's pre-kindergarten class next fall are required to take intelligence tests, which is unusually tough competition even for top private schools.
"It's worse than applying for Harvard Law School," said Jim Ritzenberg, a lawyer who graduated from Sidwell in 1975 and whose 3 1/2-year-old daughter, Kate, is going through the application process. "It's definitely become more competitive over the years."
While criticism of Quaker schools from outsiders is rare, the little that does emerge centers on the institutions' cost. Some administrators and middle-class parents whose children attend the schools are concerned that rising tuitions are squeezing out the middle class.
Ray Green, a William Penn Charter alumnus whose two children attend the school, says that with his family's annual pretax income of $50,000, meeting the tuition means selling off assets every year.
"I hope I can continue to do it," he said. "But you can only go to the well so many times."
Until the 1930s, Quaker schools were exclusively for Quaker children. Now Quakers constitute only tiny minorities in most schools.
Most Quaker schools have always been co-ed because of the strong Quaker notion of equality, but ethnic diversity has not always been a trademark.
At the George School, a Quaker boarding school 25 miles north of Philadelphia in Newtown, Pa., the first black child, a Jamaican Quaker, was accepted after World War II. Even by 1965, there were still fewer than 10 minority students on campus, according to Paul Machemer, a math teacher at the George School who attended the school at the time. Ethnic diversification did not take off until the 1980s.
Now a third of the students are nonwhite, and students from various ethnic backgrounds, including Marta Lopez, a Latino girl from Newark, N.J., say they experience no racism.
38% Get Financial Aid
Thirty-eight percent of the students at the George School receive financial aid to cover the tuition of $10,000 for day students and $17,000 for boarders.
Lopez, who is on full scholarship, said the program has enabled her to concentrate on her studies and growing up in an oasis far from the troubles of inner-city life.
"I don't have to deal with the problems of friends getting pregnant or doing drugs because at George School, you don't have as much of this stuff."
To make sure students on financial aid feel no stigma, all students do chores such as washing dishes at the cafeteria and cleaning classrooms.
William Penn Charter, on the other hand, is still not as ethnically diverse as some teachers and administrators would like, and according to students, occasional racial slurs on the playground and epithets on the bathroom walls upset the otherwise harmonious atmosphere.
Dealing With Race
At Friends Select School in Philadelphia's Center City area, racism is not tolerated by the faculty or students, but some students said that cliques based on ethnic groups are common and racial tension is evident, especially in debates over figures like Malcolm X.
Helping children develop their own values happens naturally, according to teachers, students, parents and administrators, because they all consider it important.
"There's not a specific program of values," said Fred LaMotte, the teacher who coordinates community service projects at William Penn Charter, a 295-year-old school with an enrollment of 810. "Teachers are viewed as midwives letting values come forth." Simplicity, spirituality, reflection and peace are all encouraged, however.
LaMotte said that because most youngsters often spend much more time at school than with their parents, it's unnatural for schools to ignore values because "kids desperately want to talk about what is right and wrong."
And discussions of social justice, prejudices, nonviolence, religion and the ethical aspects of all kinds of decisions are everyday occurrences at Quaker schools, sometimes in the least expected places.
At the George School, Machemer's pre-calculus class briefly stopped for a discussion of homosexuality when someone pointed out that a textbook excluded a mention of gay couples.
The atmosphere at Quaker schools appears to inspire a high level of trust. Hallways--and in the case of George School, lawns outside school buildings, too--were littered one recent day with backpacks temporarily abandoned by students who had no fear that their belongings would disappear. And in the classrooms, the candor with which students discuss their personal experiences is extraordinary.
In an eighth-grade social studies class at William Penn Charter, for example, students discussing coming-of-age experiences spoke openly about relationships with their parents. One student said his parents spent so many evenings involved in social events that he and his brother ate fast food every night.
A slender girl said her father also had spent most of his evenings out playing squash but had recently become very ill. "I realized how much I've missed him," she said, tears flowing. Her teacher put his hand on her shoulder to comfort her.
So students will feel more comfortable discussing their feelings, they have agreed that nothing said in class is to be repeated outside.
Ward Seibert, a visiting teacher from a sister school in Long Island, N.Y., who was sitting in on the class said: "This is why I teach in Quaker schools, because curriculum is related to real life."
Focus on Service
Quaker schools also attempt to link school and life outside by combining curriculum with community service projects--such as reading a novel about homelessness and visiting homeless shelters to tutor children who live there.
After school on a recent Friday, LaMotte and nine middle-school students dressed in jeans and sweat shirts drove across town in a van to the HMS Cerebral Palsy School. For the rest of the afternoon, they pushed the elaborate wheelchairs of the students there in a mock game of soccer, read to them and laughed with them.
Meg Hiesinger, 14, spent time with 12-year-old Marilyn, who spoke with the aid of a special voice simulator.
"It always makes me feel better when I come here. I feel I have a purpose," Hiesinger said. "It fits into the philosophy of our school, but not everyone in our school is made for doing projects like this."
At William Penn Charter, service projects are encouraged but not required. Many other schools insist that their students complete a prescribed number of service hours before graduation.
Earl Ball, who has been the headmaster of William Penn Charter for 17 years, said some Quaker schools occasionally over-emphasize the personal needs of individual children, while failing to adequately impress upon students their responsibility to the school. As a result, he said, teachers and administrators can lose control of their classrooms and schools, and everyone suffers.
But that balance seemed to have been achieved in a fourth-grade classroom at Friends Select School, where teacher Suzie, as the children call Susan Matlack, was sitting on the floor with students, immersed in a conversation with them about what animals need for survival.
"The teachers don't rush you with your work," said Brittany Bellizeare, a 9-year-old with pigtails and an eager smile. "They let you work until you're done."
Kaya Davis, a 10th-grader, said when she first started at Friends Select--the first school in Philadelphia when it was established in 1689--her papers were always returned to her for improvement. Now she said she gets top grades.
"The teachers take you step by step. I can really see the change in my writing from the beginning of high school until now," she said.
A chemistry teacher at Friends Select, who is not a Quaker and has taught at the school for less than three years, remarked that the relaxed but respectful atmosphere at the school, combined with the small class size, makes teaching far more rewarding than in public schools.
"We manage to do much more hands-on and practical work," Brian Warburton said. This is possible, he said, despite the fact that his classes include students with widely disparate abilities.
'Find Their Centers'
The same principles that guide large Quaker schools are essential to smaller ones scattered around the country, including Whittier Friends School in Whittier, Calif., which has about 25 students from kindergarten through sixth grade in one classroom.
In addition to weekly silent worship services, students are asked each day to "find their centers." To do that, students sit quietly for a few minutes and think about the direction their lives are taking and about developing a positive attitude toward learning. The act, says school administrator Sharon Rollins, helps students maintain control of their behavior.
The students work at their own pace. The two kindergartners who do average kindergarten work as well as the two who read at second- or third-grade level are all made to feel that the improvements they make are special.
As with most Quaker schools, competition between students in elementary grades is minimized and no grades are given. Children work together and teach each other. Teacher evaluations are based on each child's growth, and California curriculum evaluations are used to show that Whittier students are progressing.
"I think the de-emphasis of competition could be worked into the public schools too" to improve the atmosphere and decrease the stress on children who do not excel, Rollins said.
Students are also eager to give the President advice on how to adopt elements of the Quaker education system to make public schools better and safer places to learn. Decrease class size, give students more individual attention and create an environment in which students feel secure, they say.
"We have to take the fear out of going to school first," said a senior at George School who had attended public school in New York City. "We can't have people going to school thinking that they could be mugged or something."