John Woolman School given historic landmark status by Nevada County supervisors | TheUnion.com
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John Woolman School given historic landmark status by Nevada County supervisors

Submitted to The Union

The Nevada County Board of Supervisors has designated the site of the John Woolman School, now simply known as “Woolman,” as a historic county landmark.

The John Woolman School, a private Quaker boarding school, opened to students in 1963. Located in the Sierra Nevada foothills, the school is situated within the native homeland of the local Nisenan tribe on property that also had been a working ranch. The school originally occupied over 300 acres and included a central campus with classroom buildings, a dining hall, a farm where students did chores, A-frame cabins that functioned as small dorm rooms, and open areas with trees and grass. Surrounding the main campus, 206 acres were left as wilderness — allowing space for hiking trails, land conservation, and to provide a habitat for area wildlife.

In addition to occupying a beautiful site, the John Woolman School is historically significant as an important example of the profound commitment of American Quakers to education.

Historically, Quaker programs for youth emphasized simplicity, equality, community, and non-violence, while fostering an appreciation for the natural world, and the importance of studying and understanding science. The John Woolman School was founded based on these educational principals in a place where the magnificence of the natural world in the Sierra Foothills would be an integral part of the educational experience.

The John Woolman School holds a unique place in the history of Quaker education. As groups of Quakers settled in Ohio and Indiana at the start of the 19th century, schools spread with them to the middle of the country and the first three Quaker colleges — Haverford, Guilford, and Earlham — were established east of the Mississippi River. A group of Quakers opposed to the new evangelical direction of Quakerism moved from New Hampshire to Iowa and finally to San Jose. In 1889, the San Jose area Quakers reorganized their local meeting as the College Park Association of Friends, which later grew to become the group that initiated the creation of the John Woolman School.

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Three Quaker colleges, originally started as high schools, opened west of the Mississippi from 1869 to the end of the nineteenth century. William Penn (Iowa, 1873) George Fox (Oregon, 1891), and Whittier (California, 1896). However the West still lacked Quaker secondary schools and consequently parents had to send their children far from home for a Quaker education. When this continued into the mid-20th century, four families from the Berkeley area decided to work toward the creation of the first Quaker boarding school in the western United States. This effort took place at an important historical time when the political climate was particularly hostile to Quaker beliefs, with both McCarthyism and international tensions looming over the country. Quakers reacted by standing up for freedom of conscience and freedom of speech. This created conflicts as many states at the time imposed loyalty oaths on employees, students, and even on church bodies. The school would be a safe haven to explore simplicity, equality, community, and non-violence in troubled times.

The John Woolman School opened in 1963 with a curriculum based on the philosophy that each person has a unique and valuable perspective that must be heard. The Woolman campus provided a unique and rich opportunity for students to explore the schools pedagogical practices of inquiry, reflection, collaboration and experience in a community setting and through a full complement of academic classes. The innovative program continued until the boarding high school program closed in 2001.

After the closure in 2001, CPFEA recognized the importance of using the school campus to continue to further the Quaker educational goals for young people. A period of restructuring followed and the Woolman Semester program opened in spring 2004. The new program focused on the intersections of peace, social justice, and sustainability in an intensely rigorous one semester academic experience attended by students from all over the country. When the Woolman Semester School closed in 2016, over 300 students had completed the coursework.


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