Kevin Riordan: After 225 years, Westfield Friends School toots its own horn

Westfield Friends School as it looked around 1874. "The school creates leaders who lead from within, not from dominance," one parent says.
Westfield Friends School as it looked around 1874. "The school creates leaders who lead from within, not from dominance," one parent says.
Posted: February 08, 2013

After 225 years, Westfield Friends School is willing to toot its own horn. Mind you, just a bit.

"Our profile is very low," headmaster William C. Probsting says approvingly. "But with big anniversaries like this, we need to move more into the public eye."

Parent Kate Wilson volunteered to publicize the school in advance of its anniversary celebration March 9. She invited me to visit and sent along a chatty e-mail description of academic rigors and student achievements, as well as history.

The Quaker school in Cinnaminson - one of seven in the state - was founded in 1788. Westfield draws its 150 students primarily from western Burlington County.

A typical classroom contains between 15 and 18 youngsters. "It's like going to school with your brothers and sisters," Probsting says.

Westfield has been coed, as well as racially diverse, from the beginning. Only 17 of the students are Quakers, but all are "achievers," Probsting says.

Their families, he adds, share an appreciation for simplicity, community, service - and intellectual curiosity - that define the school and the faith.

Quaker values "radiate throughout the school and have made me an open-minded person," declares eighth grader Graham Laughlin, 14, of Riverton.

Probsting, 69, is a friendly but no-nonsense fellow who wears a tie and regularly teaches math. He lives in Riverton, where he grew up, and after nearly four decades at Westfield Friends will retire this year. "Friends believe that the purpose of a school is to effect change," Probsting says. "This is best done by having well-educated, innovative, responsible graduates."

On the day I visit, the resolutely unflashy Riverton Road campus is hosting a teaching performance by members of the Greater Pinelands Dulcimer Society.

The mellifluous music emanating from the multipurpose room is homespun, communal, authentic - a fitting soundtrack for a school where the quiet hallways are decorated with framed needlepoints, original artwork, vintage photographs, and the occasional antique. Even after the music stops, the vibe continues.

"Westfield Friends is a hidden gem," says Wilson, whose youngest daughter is a fifth grader. Her older daughter graduated from Westfield last year and now attends Moorestown High.

"The school creates leaders who lead from within, not from dominance," Wilson says. "It grounds each of the kids so strongly. They're given such a strong sense of confidence that when they go out into that big, scary outside world, it's an easy transition."

Amenities such as small classes, pre-K Spanish lessons, music education, and field trips don't come cheap; annual tuition is $11,000. Westfield also is the oldest Quaker school in America run by a meeting, or congregation.

The Westfield Friends Meeting is committed to "a deeply spiritual and communal vision of education," says Elaine Zickler, clerk of the school committee.

As I visit classrooms and chat with staff, I'm struck by how different the school is, or feels, from others - private and public - I've visited over the years.

As librarian Christie Biddle, whose children were eighth-generation Westfield graduates, says, "It doesn't feel like one of those industrialized school buildings."

Despite the winter gloom outside, there's a lightness here. "If someone were to walk down the halls of Westfield, they might notice students smiling," eighth grader Laughlin observes. "Some people may even find it alarming how happy and nice everyone is to each other."

Alarming? More like refreshing.


Kevin Riordan:

A day at Westfield Friends in Cinnaminson as it celebrates its 225th year: www.philly.com/quaker


Contact Kevin Riordan at 856-779-3845 or kriordan@phillynews.com.

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