The Woolman Semester School recently marked its 50th anniversary with a three-day celebration that saw more than 150 former staff members and students come from all corners of the United States to reconnect with old friends.
The sizable attendance is a testament to the impact the school has had on its former pupils, said Dorothy Henderson, the interim head of school.
“I think the turnout, and what people said about their experience here, it was clear how much both the John Woolman School and the Woolman Semester meant to them,” she said.
“I’ve heard from an overwhelming amount of students who say that not a day passes that they don’t think about their time here,” said Emily Zionts, who was a Woolman instructor in global issue and peace study courses for four years.
The John Woolman School was founded in 1963 by Quaker activists and educators who envisioned creating a residential Friends high school in the West and was originally operated as a private boarding institution until 2001.
Due to financial stress, it ceased operating as a full-time school. In 2004 it was re-opened with a new name, the Woolman Semester School, and it now offers a four-month program for juniors and seniors in high school, as well as for students interested in taking a gap year before college.
Even though the focus has changed, the school’s dedication to teaching peace and social justice is as strong as ever, alumni and staff say.
“The spirit has carried forward into the semester program, and that was a goal in the formation of it. The spirit is in a slightly modified format, but the mission of serving teens in that way is the same and was why we did what we did,” said Amy Cooke, who served as head of school in 2000 and 2001, with a second stint from 2003 through 2005.
Seminars were conducted during the three-day anniversary event for former students to engage in the current seminar course material. The celebration also gave alumni and former teachers a chance to reflect on the unique education offered by the independent school.
“Well, (one of my favorite memories) was giving an AP Calculus test to a student under an oak tree. He and I set up a desk and I monitored him under strict AP rules,” laughed Cooke.
“Some of my other favorite memories are of what happens in community meetings, when students and teachers look at issues in authentic ways without a preconceived notion of what the outcome is and really finding solutions to those problems. They really find their way as a community and the process is remarkable.”
The school will be welcoming 16 new students beginning Saturday as it ushers in its 22nd semester. The small student size is intentional, says Admissions and Outreach Director Emily Wheeler. The hope is to have all of the students fit into one class, she says.
Still, there’s a desire for the Woolman school to become more popular, says Henderson, who is surprised when people tell her that they didn’t know the program existed.
“We don’t want to be the best kept secret in town,” she said. “We want people to know about us.”
Cooke echoed similar sentiments.
“I wish more people knew about Woolman because it is profound and every person is honored for the view they bring and there’s no ‘this is the rule, therefore you have to follow it,’ which I think really squelches teens,” she said. “The magic of Woolman is that every teen is honored for their views and that’s really powerful. I think that is where the school makes a difference.”
Spencer Kellar is an intern with The Union. He can be reached at NCPCInternC@theunion.com.
“The magic of Woolman is that every teen is honored for their views and that’s really powerful. I think that is where the school makes a difference.”