With 35 years of collective experience leading Wilmington Friends School, Ken Aldridge (2015-present), Lisa Darling (1994-2005), Bryan Garman (2006-2015), and Bill Goulding (1973-1976) provided insights at the October 20 Heads Panel that reminded the audience that our Quaker school, with two campuses tucked away in Alapocas and serving children in preschool through 12th grade, does indeed seem to have a “secret sauce” that makes us unique.
Representing a variety of WFS constituencies, audience members first watched the premiere of the 275th Anniversary video highlighting how Wilmington Friends came to be, its impact on the children in the neighborhood of 4th and West Streets in Wilmington, and how the School has evolved.
When the panel members assembled on stage, Drew Smith, Executive Director at Friends Council on Education, moderated the discussion.
Drew opened with a question about how each guest got involved with Quaker education and WFS. Lisa noted that prior to coming to WFS, "I was a convinced Friend. I joined a meeting in Whittier, California, as a 16-year-old. It was my teenage rebellion." She worked in two secular schools, then at a Quaker school in Philadelphia. "There, it came together for me. The things that I believed in so very deeply for our society, for us as people, for children, for families, were there along with all of the things we do in schools."
Next, Drew asked questions that called upon the heads to think about a time when school-wide change happened; what to look for in graduates to tell if your school has succeeded; and what makes Wilmington Friends different. Each of their answers circled back to the heart of the WFS mission.
Referring to school-wide change, Bryan remembered the decision to institute a one-to-one laptop program for students in fifth through twelfth grades. Faculty and staff members were initially worried about how this formal integration of technology could affect relationships. But an overwhelming plus side to the program was completely aligned with our mission. He noted, “The reason that the faculty wanted to go to the one-to-one program was because they wanted to create equity for students. They wanted all the students to have the same equipment. The spirit with which they went into that decision was one that was very moving to me then and remains so today."
When Drew asked about the qualities of a WFS graduate that indicate a school has succeeded, Ken quipped, "For Quaker schools in general, you can always tell an alum of our schools because something will come up and they will always have both a comment and a question."
He would go on to describe a conversation with a WFS graduate who drew on a skill he learned at WFS which helped him in his professional life. "One story in particular that sticks out for me was an alum in finance that needed to help manage conflict--and this alum was a lifer at Friends--and he used what he learned in lower school to manage conflict, I-to-I. And so while he was doing wonderful things in the world of finance, the fact that he is using it as a sort of conflict resolution technique in corporate America, is a huge marker of success for me."
The panelists closed the discussion with their take on what makes WFS unique, what is in the “secret sauce.” Bill remarked, "Of course we wouldn't always be united on everything we did, and sometimes there would be really significant differences, but there was never, at least in my experience, blowback."
Lisa reflected on the moment of silence at the reception before the panelist discussion. “It just touched my heart in such a profound way that it reminded me--because I did go on to lead two secular schools after Wilmington Friends--how that moment of reflection is imbued through everything that we do. And sometimes it is just that moment at the start of a meeting or an event, but it's in there.”
Bryan noted that the “secret sauce” can be seen in the lower school peace march, in the eyes of the faculty when they are working with students, and in the community that rallied in the wake of the 2012 fire.
Ken summed it up like this. "There's a different kind of commitment one has to have to be in a Friends school and to pursue the type of education that we offer and to work together...What we do here is complicated, it's messy at times, and a lot of fun."
The thoughts of these four incredible leaders all circled back to the core values that guide our learning and teaching at WFS everyday, reflecting a mission that has endured for centuries and will prepare our students to succeed for the next 275 years. Click here to watch the full panel discussion.