William Penn, founder of Pennsylvania and a early member of the Religious Society of Friends, opened the first American Friends school in Philadelphia in 1689, believing that if the great experiment in democracy was going to succeed, all citizens must be educated. Inspired by a dedication to equality, Quaker schools have educated boys and girls together for more than 330 years, long before coeducation was commonplace in American schooling. Many of the first public schools in this country were in fact modeled after Friends schools. There are currently more than 78 Friends elementary and secondary schools nationwide, including The Friends School of Atlanta (FSA), which opened its doors in 1991. Quaker colleges include Haverford, Earlham, Swarthmore and Guilford.
The Atlanta Friends Meeting
Members of the Atlanta Friends Meeting, organized in 1943, were actively involved in the Civil Rights Movement. In addition to providing a gathering place for Friends, the Friends Meetinghouse was one of the few sites in the city available for interracial meetings. To further the Quakers’ work helping to desegregate public schools in Atlanta, members of Atlanta Friends Meeting held one of the city’s very first integrated classes, bringing together white and black children for an art class. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., sent two of his children to participate in this history-making event.
When a Supreme Court ruling in the 1980s ended Minority to Majority programs designed to enforce school desegregation, particularly in the South, public schools largely resegregated, reflecting the racial demographics of the neighborhoods where schools were located. In response to this disappointing turn of events, a committee formed at the Atlanta Friends Meeting to explore the possibility of opening a Friends school in Atlanta that would not only feature Quaker pedagogy, but also serve as a model of diversity.
The Friends School of Atlanta, which was incorporated as a nonprofit institution in 1990, grew out of the work of that committee of the Meeting. In 1991, The Friends School of Atlanta’s Board of Trustees called Waman French, an educator with experience at Brooklyn Friends School and Atlanta International School, to be Head of School. Although the school is a separate nonprofit institution, Meeting members have remained active on the Board of Trustees and offer guidance and support to the school in countless ways. To this day, the school has remained committed to wide-ranging diversity, maintaining an enrollment with 40–50 percent children of color and ensuring that the faculty/staff and Board of Trustees also reflect a commitment to inclusion and diversity.