What a joy it is to feel the gathering energy of a new school year! As I write to you, the campus is coming to life with preseason athletes happy to be reunited with their teams and faculty and staff engaged in a myriad of meetings and final preparations for the official opening of school after Labor Day.
At the start of the new school year, we’re delighted to welcome 106 new students and their families to AFS, marking the fourth year in a row of steady growth in our school. Over the past five years, the Lower School has grown 51% in grades K-4, against all trends in our region, and we’ve grown 28% overall in grades K-8. The ninth grade, with 35 new students, will be the largest class in the Upper School at 70. We welcome the fresh energy of our new families and are eager to make AFS quickly feel like a new home to them.
In contrast, for the first time in my 35 years of working in schools, we had no faculty turnover this past year. With the administrative departures of Toni Williamson and Lil Swanson, we conducted national searches to bring Mikael Yisrael to us from Germantown Friends as our Director of Diversity and Inclusion and Bonita Huggins from the University of Pennsylvania as our new Director of Communications. Sloane Waldman will join the Advancement team as Director of Parent Engagement, as Carina Urbach scales back her hours this year. We welcome Cheryl Edwards as a Learning Specialist and several other folks to collaborating and part-time teaching roles. Bios of our new faculty and staff are linked. I know you will join me in warmly welcoming them to the community.
In other news, we have been diligently preparing for the completion of our 10-year Pennsylvania Association of Independent Schools (PAIS) reaccreditation process. This past year, every member of the faculty and staff was involved in writing portions of a self-study to examine all aspects of our school from the academic program to governance, finances, and health and safety. Kirk Smothers, Head of Delaware Valley Friends School, will act as clerk of the Visiting Committee, comprised of 12 independent school leaders and educators. After spending four days with us in mid-October, they will write their own comprehensive report with commendations and recommendations in each area of school life. The work on PAIS has been intensive and substantive, drawing faculty and staff into rich discussion and deep learning about our school and how it functions. It complements a similar process we are undertaking simultaneously to renew our membership in Friends Council on Education, the body that joins together more than 80 Friends schools across the country.
This introspective and analytical work will serve as a sturdy foundation for a new chapter of strategic planning for our community that will being in January. This follows the extraordinary success of the plan we completed over the past seven years entitled Leading By Design: Education for a Changing World. I look forward to inviting all members of the AFS community to engage in conversation about the future of education at AFS this coming spring. Stay tuned!
As you know, we were thrilled to break ground in June on the Richard N. Berman Athletics Center, just two years into the major gift phase of our Now More Than Ever campaign, which has raised $8.3M to date with the help of over a hundred donors. The old Hallowell Gym was largely demolished this summer, leaving just the masonry and steel that will form the skeleton of the fitness center, locker rooms and offices of the new building. Work was slowed somewhat in July as we waited for later than expected building permits from the Township, but all is fully underway from this point forward. Next, you will see enormous amounts of earth moved to create the footing of all the new construction and the cladding of the existing infrastructure in stone and brick. Although it will be a somewhat messy year of construction, we have worked closely and thoughtfully with our builders to ensure student and visitor safety at all times. Our builders also are eager to engage our students in the process and we will have the joy of seeing a gorgeous new facility come to life before our eyes. We anticipate the building to be completed by the end of this school year with a grand celebration of its opening next fall for the Family Barbecue.
At a time of growth in our school community, our spiritual vitality and deep, shared values provide an essential foundation for us. Each year, the Quaker Action Committee of faculty (QUAC) chooses a Quaker theme to join us together in reflection, challenge and growth as a whole community. This past year, the theme was Worship, engaging a word that we say often in the phrase “Meeting for Worship,” but which becomes easily overlooked by sheer repetition. We knew in choosing Worship that we were entering into challenging territory. For some, the word is an uncomfortable reminder of religiosity or of unwelcome subjugation. For others, the word evokes a welcome connection to a variety of faiths held by families in our community. Over the course of the year, we came to see worship in a Quaker setting to be mostly about expectant listening in silence, opening oneself to larger perspective, to the quieter voices of inner life and knowledge we inherently have as human beings of love, strength, beauty, forgiveness, healing and transcendence. Worship is the process of becoming attuned to the sacred in our midst, in ourselves and in each other.
This year, QUAC has chosen the theme of Witness. If worship is a process of grounding oneself, witness calls us to consider how we actively live our values, our aspirations for a more peaceful and just world. Witness challenges us to reflect not on the change we would like to see in others, but on the change needed within ourselves to more fully align our lives with our beliefs. This must occur in order to create change in the world by having “our lives speak” in the words of William Penn. While the word witness in spiritual terms can evoke political action, and indeed that can be a form of witness, the call is actually far broader than that. Our witness can be found in our gentleness, our compassion, our creativity, our friendships, our care for the vulnerable and in our overall civic engagement that can address the long-standing conditions that keep our communities from their full potential.
As we consider witness as a theme this year, I encourage you to consider the idea of witness for your family. A life of witness begins in our closest relationships: Family life can be hectic, so how can we create regular times of quiet, reflection, piece and connection? How can these quieter times help us to listen more closely to each other and to the needs of each person within your family? Our families can together be a witness for goodness in the larger world: Can your family find an activity or initiative this year that would allow you together to build up greater goodness, peace or compassion in the community beyond your family? This could be making a commitment to bringing food to a food pantry, volunteering at an animal shelter or writing letters to affect change. We all hope to grow this year through the experience of letting our lives be a witness to our deepest values.
And so with this letter, I welcome you to a new school year — one that I know will be filled with growth, new opportunities and the joy of watching our children grow up into the remarkable young people that they are. I’ll see you at the Family Barbecue on Friday, September 7th!