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International Friends School

Sue Brooks
On Teachers (September 2020)
Healing the World

The International Friends School (IFS) has a guiding spirit. This spirt teaches us, ultimately, that consistent renewals of joyfulness and love provide the sturdiest framework for everything we will experience in life. The smallest acts of love and joy – pulling beets, helping someone after a bike scrape, hanging towels to dry in the sun with a friend – are meaningful. Together with other gestures, behaviors, and practices, these have the power to change the world, as they multiply and create a generation of people who are world-wise and heart-strong. This spirit is evident every day at IFS, a dynamic new school that is intentional in design, molded by Quaker testimonies and practices, and braided gently together by love and joy.

The school I was envisioning could have been structured as a charter school, a model that I did explore. However, through conversations with the Friends Council on Education, I learned more about the model of Friends schools, which are independent not-for-profits with clear commitments to tuition assistance for families in need. This was the model for IFS, and Friends Council on Education supported me as I carefully developed and launched International Friends School.

IFS began, and continues, with very little funding. However, the Spirit guides: families seeking an alternative way to raise socially responsible children are applying, and because of this, the world will inherit biliterate, critical-thinking students who understand that there is a high calling to being human in a fragile, unequal world. The entire IFS community works towards creating a more caring and just society.

The first Friends school in Washington state, IFS is located on five beautiful acres of campus close to downtown Bellevue. Two acres are private wooded forest with trails and trees that beckon children to climb, run, and slide. The early childhood program is located on its own acre with three school gardens and three chickens who adore chomping on kale. The kindergarten class, Studio-K, opened this fall with twelve students. The model of the program is to add one more grade each year until we have grades K through 8. We plan for a school-wide renovation of our campus in our sixth or seventh year. For now, and for always, the gardens and organic, plant-based food creations are maintained by the children.

The world’s population will be approaching ten billion people by the time today’s three-year-olds are in their late twenties, and the population of the United States will continue to become increasingly multiracial and multilingual. The IFS curriculum is built firmly on the understanding that twenty-first-century world citizens will need to be compassionate and thoughtful problem solvers, and the IFS curriculum fosters the skills and dispositions that will be needed within that reality. IFS is the first Friends school worldwide to introduce a biliteracy framework and a balanced-year calendar. Both of these commitments answer the needs of students and the realities of working parents.

Ample research demonstrates the powerful benefits of the bilingual brain, especially when second-language exposure is acquired before the age of six. It is the birthright of the brain to be built for challenge. Neural plasticity is at staggering levels of sheer potential prior to age six, when the basic architecture of the brain becomes established. IFS has chosen the critical world language of Mandarin as the main second-language exposure for our students, with some Spanish along the way as well. The process of language acquisition is a marathon, not a sprint, and by the end of fifth grade, academic, cognitive, and social benefits are resoundingly clear. A bilingual education builds a beautiful brain and instills in a student a lifelong sense of cultural competency and a heightened sensitivity towards other cultures.

Of the three commitments that IFS has made – to biliteracy, to a balanced-year schedule, and to Quaker practices – the one that binds us together most profoundly is our commitment to being a Friends school. The testimonies of simplicity, peace, integrity, community, equality, and stewardship provide the marrow of our program. Teachers attend the “Educators New to Quakerism” workshop at Pendle Hill (suspended this year due to COVID-19), and our community sustains our Quaker identity through an ongoing process of self-renewal and study, guided by members of local Quaker meetings. I am a member of Eastside Friends Meeting in Bellevue, and as Head of School, I can encourage Quaker practices throughout our IFS community. Our Quaker Life Committee also includes other members from Eastside Friends meeting. This committee meets quarterly and applies Quaker advices and queries to the practices and testimonies of our school’s day-to-day life and learning. Guided by the testimony of equality, IFS offers a robust financial assistance program, which increases every year as enrollment grows. To date, not a single family that has applied for tuition assistance has been turned down.

The habits and behaviors of children are formed from daily understandings; from these, a strong collective culture is woven. Our teachers practice simplicity when setting the intention of learning, seeking simplification of each primary learning goal. They create learning spaces that are uncrowded and compelling, with natural wood furniture and with a wide variety of simple toys and books. Less is more.

All our learners, even the youngest, investigate the meaning of Peace through deep explorations of the causes of conflicts, like being bossy pants, not sharing fairly, and unkind behaviors such as snatching and exclusion. By recognizing moments for what they are, children are empowered to choose peacemaking. Children are taught about “decision moments,” how to benefit from a variety of perspectives, and how to determine a best course of action.

Our students practice Meeting for Worship, “anjing xia lai” (the peace comes among us), and they slowly develop the practice of thinking about real things (feelings, places, experiences) and the ability to distinguish those thoughts from fictitious thoughts.

As practicing stewards of their future world, our students tend gardens, make hand-soap, bake every day, and haul a lot of dirt around. Paper towels make more paper. IFS is a plant-based school, and every item is organic and free of products that rely on deforestation (like palm oil). The school purchases one single-use plastic container a month and even makes its own cheese.

Seeds of action are sown early, and students have raised money on their own initiative to help burned animals in Australia and endangered Bengal tigers (which eat a lot). They have also raised thousands of dollars to send to children of essential workers, through an initiative of the Boys & Girls Club.

As a change-maker in the world of education, it is the greatest hope of IFS that more schools will look for new ways to balance time and learning – to mitigate the detriment of students’ summer learning loss and the travesty of overcrowded curriculums. IFS is a strong advocate of bilingual education, as we know certainly that young children can easily become bilingual, which increases the power of their brains for life.

Most importantly, IFS seeks to promote the understanding that all of us are in this journey of life together, and the choices that we make have far-reaching consequences. The spirt of love and joy enables our students to become their best selves. With genuine conviction and kindness, IFS students are Letting Their Lives Speak, and this will be felt all around.  ~~~

Sue Brooks, Ed.D., is Head of School at International Friends School in Bellevue, WA. For more information about the school, see their website at: ifschool.org, or reach out to Sue at: [email protected]. Sue Brooks is a member of Eastside Friends Meeting in Bellevue (NPYM).

All photos accompanying this article were provided by Sue Brooks.

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