Reflections on 3 Years at PFS
by Margie Sanderson, PFS Staff

Reflections on 3 Years at PFS

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. 

Aftercare 2017 34562070435 O Our 2016-17 Aftercare Staff

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.

30534621564 2A8D04Db31 K Political variety at PFS!

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.

31453511052 Bf1Ab5614B Z Blake Boles speaks at PFS, November 2016

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!

31562793676 1409A04E5C K Gaga pit constructors at work

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

32092858854 E4C3Dd6F6D K Concert in the art room!

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!

34607481351 51053A1F08 K Experiments in Slime making

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.

34354628750 84C255Deb0 K PFS teens with Haverford College students

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.

34518061356 C769C897A8 K Kate and her thesis advisors (myself and Reb) after her successful defense!

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.

A Secure Future
by Michelle Loucas

A Secure Future

Universities used to prepare young adults for the real world. I dare say the graduates today go in without a clue and graduate without a clue. It's time to acknowledge the college degree is not worth what it was in the past. Times are changing, and so is the way we prepare our youth to survive in a competitive world.     --Dale Archer, psychiatrist

           Does a college degree get you a good job? In the last two years, employers such as Google, Price Waterhouse Cooper, Ernst and Young, and Penguin Books have eliminated the requirement that job candidates have undergraduate degrees to be considered for employment. This is based on studies showing that the degrees do not lead to employees being more successful at their firms.1 Trends like these have lead to innovative new college alternatives like Mission U, where educators partner with employers and offer a fast, debt-free track to well-paid jobs.2

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             Many of those who grew up in the 1950s, like my parents, believed that the key to financial security was obtaining a skilled job where they could remain for 30+ years. That generation felt that a college degree greatly increased the chances that one could obtain such a job, and strove to make college possible, often for the first time in their family histories. In an effort to move beyond factory  and farm work, many parents used education as a route for themselves and their children to build up a nest egg and work towards a more secure financial future.

         Today’s parents do not have such a clear course of action. To begin with, the cost of a college degree has grown exponentially over this period.3 According to the National Center for Education Statistics, “Between 2003–04 and 2013–14, prices for undergraduate tuition, fees, room, and board at public institutions rose 34 percent, and prices at private nonprofit institutions rose 25 percent, after adjustment for inflation.”4 What do these stats mean in constant dollars? In 2013-2014, average college tuition was estimated at $15,640 at a public institution (as opposed to $11,675 in 2003), and at $40,614 at private, nonprofit institutions (as opposed to $32,431 in 2003).5 This is a big shift from when I went to college in the early 90s:  even in constant dollars, four years of college now will cost two to four times as much as my own college degree did.6


          Saving up for this opportunity is now a much more difficult undertaking, even for those making a middle class wage. Nonetheless, many parents work hard to do this, and students put a lot of effort into getting scholarships, grants, loans, and work/study positions to make this possible. Loans create their own problems. Parents want their children to be financially independent, not saddled with debt. Yet, 70% of those who earn bachelor’s degrees graduate with debt, adding up to about 40 million Americans.7 The class of 2015 graduated with $35,051 in student debt on average, the most in history.”8Paying these loans back, even with a college degree, is not easy. According to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, 1 in 4 student loan borrowers are either in delinquency or default on their student loans.9


          We do all this because we want the benefits of a college education.  Indeed, a college degree can bring many advantages, including analytical skills, exposure to new ideas and networks, and accountability. But in today’s world, guaranteed employability is less and less certain.  Getting a job right out of college is hard in the current employment market.  There is still surprising evidence of unemployment and underemployment for college graduates. Despite the attempt to quell the worry about this trend by articles like this, the numbers are still alarming. For example, the entry-level wages earned by college grads, in real dollars, have only risen by approximately $1 for men and $2.50 for women since 1979. (Sadly, the wage differential between men and women is still $2.88/hour.)10  The payoff for the college degree isn’t what we would like it to be, leading us to question what it actually means to have a higher education. “A higher education, though, is first and foremost the capacity to self-direct your life, ” says author Blake Boles. “Sometimes college graduates lead self-directed lives, but sometimes they don’t; a college degree does not guarantee a higher education."11


            What’s a parent to do? As we age, we worry about our children’s ability to take care of themselves financially when they are grown, and eventually, when we are gone. Although I am tempted to simply repeat the steps my parents took when it comes to my own kids, I have to be realistic about the current climate. What are employers actually looking for? What kind of skills does a person need to find financial stability in the modern economy? We need to reconsider what the words “American Dream” mean today. As journalist Courtney Martin points out in an incisive Ted Talk on this topic, “It's all nonlinear from here. So we need to stop asking kids, ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ and start asking them, ‘How do you want to be when you grow up?’ Their work will constantly change. The common denominator is them. So the more they understand their gifts and create crews of ideal collaborators, the better off they will be.”12

What Do You Want To Be When You Grow Up 300X181

           Like all parents, I worry about my kids’ future, and I try to lay the groundwork for their future success. When I think about how one prepares for the modern workforce, I believe that schools like the Philly Free School are in the best position to help young people get ready for what awaits them. In contrast to conventional settings, at PFS, students spend all day building their communication skills, innovating, designing, assessing, self-directing and self-correcting. Our students solve problems creatively, a skill which will undoubtedly serve them well in the work world.  They fail, learn from those failures, and try again. One example of this is the SnowBall.

Dance Planning

           When two 14-year-olds decided PFS should host its first dance, they began by conducting a series of what the business world would call focus groups, gathering insight from younger students, teens, and staff, to design an event that would be embraced (and voted on favorably) by the majority of the school. They overcame obstacles with innovative thinking, and persevered when the going got tough to create a successful event. (More on the SnowBall in a subsequent blog.) 

         Given the current state of economic affairs, I cannot wait until my children are in college to begin developing these skills. I don’t know if college will be the direction my kids choose to go, and if they do, I am not certain it will provide what they need to succeed. I will support them in whatever they decide, but I will remember that the challenges of the 21st century cannot be met with 20th century solutions. A Free School education is the best way I can imagine to prepare my children for the big things they are capable of achieving.