Reflections on 3 Years at PFS by Margie Sanderson, PFS Staff
In the winter, I decided I would not run for re-election to PFS staff for next year. While I love this school, I’m restless in my personal life and ready to try other things. It was a bittersweet decision to make, as I am excited for what’s ahead but quite sad to say goodbye to this place. As the year wraps up, I’ve found myself reflecting a lot about this unique work environment. I think that the struggles and joys of being a staff person here run parallel to the struggles and joys of being a student. It feels nearly impossible to summarize what I’ve done here, or to translate it onto a resume, or elevator pitch it to a stranger. I’ve struggled to write this blog post reflecting on my staff job all spring. Then, as I began writing a year summary letter as Fundraising Clerk, it clicked for me that just reflecting on this past year gives a richer and more meaningful insight into my work here as anything else I was trying to write.
Each individual member of our school community will likely have their own account of the highlights from the past year, almost certainly including happenings that aren’t even on my radar. Below you’ll find my personal reflections on the year.
In September we began our 6th year with 67 young people and 5 full-time staff members. The year got off to a running start, with highlights including many pretend weddings, kids studying hard to get certified for independent kitchen use, cupcake baking, and nearly 100 people attending our Back to School Night! We also piloted our new aftercare program this year. Staffed by parent Justin Becker and alumnus Desmond Lee, the program has been a great success for the school.
Later in the fall, we enjoyed a fabulous Homecoming skating party with current families as well as past students and alumni in attendance. The presidential election provided plentiful opportunities for political discussion and debate in our community, which was a real highlight for me personally. On one day in particular, I got to witness a discussion between a 6-year-old Clinton supporter and 13-year-old Trump supporter that was respectful, engaging, and ended with both parties feeling good. If only more adults could communicate like this
As it happened, the student-organized school sleepover took place the night after the election, which gave it a unique energy of togetherness and mutual support. Discussions that night led to the creation of the “We the People” seminar series, which ran for a few months. In this series, a new presenter prepared a seminar on a different social-justice related topic every other week. Topics included Native American history, youth rights, and nonviolent activism. It was moving to see the number of people who elected to attend these discussions, bringing to the table a wide range of perspectives but a universal openness to conversation.
Later in November, Blake Boles paid us a visit to speak about The Art of Self-Directed Education. His talk was part of a continued effort from the Outreach and Fundraising committees to make high-quality programming related to our model available to the public at no cost. Blake is a friend of mine, so I was particularly excited to show off our school to him and have our people learn from his work as well.
One final highlight from the fall was the construction of our Gaga pit (click here for a video of Gaga if you’re unfamiliar.) The idea for this came from students who attended Camp Stomping Ground last summer (which continues to draw lots of our students!) and wanted to play Gaga all year long. With great support from David O’Connor, one of our in-school volunteers, students were able to plan, purchase supplies for, and construct the Gaga pit. It continues to be enjoyed by community members of all ages today!
In January we passed a budget to expand our staff from 5 to 5.5 FTE for the upcoming school year. With the announcement that I am leaving after this year, we began our search to fill 1.5 FTE spots for next year's staff. Our Staff Hiring Subcommittee has met weekly throughout the spring to facilitate the implementation of our hiring process, which has gone better than many of us imagined it could! New staff elections were held in late May, and we’re now negotiating contracts with a number of talented, exciting candidates we hope to have on board next year.
Also in January, the group game “mafia” was a big trend, with many variations and twists played. I enjoyed being part of a number of these games and seeing students improve their logistics and crowd management skills as they tried to accommodate more and more players. A number of tween girls fell in love with singer songwriter Grace Vanderwaal, resulting in lots of ukulele playing and singing concerts
Warm days in February led to lots of outdoor play and a number of well attended staff-led park trips. One day while playing outside, a student mentioned to me that she’d like to organize a tea party at school, and I had the great pleasure of supporting her to hold a Valentine's Day tea party that was widely enjoyed. Later in the month, we also held elections for returning staff, all of whom earned more than 50% yes votes. The PFS Snow-Ball, our first school dance, took place in late-February as well. After months of planning from a Dance Committee (comprised solely of students!), it was a huge success!
For me, it’s always interesting to see how activities trend and go in and out of fashion at PFS. One spring trend I’ve really enjoyed watching evolve is “slime” making. I think it began with just one student making some at home and bringing it in, and has grown infinitely since then. Students of all ages have tried out countless different recipes, colors, and editions of the substance. Many recipes have gone awry--including too much glue, too much water, and the discovery that it doesn’t work with apple sauce! Businesses that make and sell slime have been created, dismantled, and created again. JC has ruled on whether or not you can play with slime on couches, and what to do when slime gets stuck to the ceiling. If you buy slime from a student business that is too sticky and makes a mess, is the business liable, or are you the one who needs to clean it up? Talk about #RealLifeRealLearning!
The roleplaying game Pathfinder also took off as a trend this spring, with students organize intensive ongoing games that involved lengthy character development and extremely detailed map-making (a student working on a city plan for the game recently asked me for the average width of a canal so they could appropriately add it, to sale, in their draft.)
A group of teen girls visited Haverford College in early April to attend professor Adam Rosenblatt’s “Introduction to Peace, Justice, and Human Rights” class and talk with students about their school experience. While I wasn’t able to join this field trip, I enjoyed hearing reflections from our students afterwards. Later in April I was able to join in on a field trip to the Arden Theatre for a showing of “The Light Princess” with a number of students, which I thoroughly enjoyed.
Mid-April gave way to our 6th annual Spring Fling, this year themed “Over the Rainbow.” The event incorporated hundreds of volunteer hours from about one hundred volunteers, including tireless event chairs Jean Finlay and Sarah Becker. Over 200 guests attended, and we raised $15,000 to benefit our sliding scale tuition program. What a huge success!
At the end of April our diploma candidate, Kate, defended her thesis and earned 3 yes votes from her panel. Kate’s graduation process has been yet another shining highlight from the spring for me. While her thesis was strong from the start, I was especially impressed with the way she integrated feedback and relentlessly revised to reach her final product. Her Motion to be granted a diploma was universally supported at our Assembly meeting in late May, and we celebrated her commencement with a powerful ceremony this past weekend.
One of Kate’s thesis defense panelists was Hanna Greenberg, a founder of the Sudbury Valley School. Along with serving on Kate’s panel, she also visited our school and spoke to our community during her late-April visit. Many parents reported her talk as a highlight of the year in our Inreach event survey. It is certainly rare to meet someone with over 40 years of experience in our educational model, so I think all of us at school who got a chance to talk with Hanna benefitted.
As our year comes to a close, Nerf gun wars are in and Mafia is out. Last week many of us enjoyed Field Day at Bartram’s Garden, a chance to relax and play outside. I particularly enjoyed playing and watching games of Capture the Flag, and seeing people try to figure out how to use a boomerang.
Now, we have 77 students enrolled and about 20 more in process, not all of whom will be able to secure a spot with us for the fall. School Meeting is facing new, but joyful, problems, including how to manage our waiting list, and how to differentiate expectations between full and part time staff. Overall, I feel a sense of settling in our community as we transition from a start-up to a known quantity. This transition is certainly not without its own stresses, but they come with a sense of satisfaction and delight in knowing how much our community has already achieved.
I originally wrote this letter with fundraising and donor appreciation in mind, so I concluded it here with a note about thankfulness for their gifts enabling our school to thrive. Maybe you, reading now, are not a donor--and that’s ok. Most likely you are invested in our school in some way--maybe someone you love goes to school or works here, or you support our cause and the existence of these vital spaces for kids to be free. Regardless of how you are invested, I hope you feel the same sense of satisfaction in your investment that I know I do. When I re-read this letter for editing purposes, I was literally teary eyed in awe of this school year and this community. Our school changes lives.
In my time at PFS I’ve learned how to use Salesforce and how to play the Scary Game (and that it’s too scary for me.) I’ve seen amazing young people work hard through the graduation process and transition gracefully into their adult lives. I’ve spearheaded the creation, development, and implementation of a staff hiring process. I’ve scrubbed a lot of walls. It’s a weird job, and I’m going to miss it.