46 minutes | Apr 28th 2020

We all need fresh air: Marcie Roberts of the Richmond Friends School

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After 16 years working at the Richmond Friends School, Marcie Roberts is wrapping up her time leading the local independent school through significant growth and change. The current public health crisis has altered what her final months as Head of School look like, especially for an institution that values getting kids outside together, but the commitment to quality education and positively shaping young lives hasn’t wavered. In this conversation I talk with Marcie about how RFS is different from other school offerings in the area, how COVID-19 has changed things for teachers, parents and students alike, and what she sees as important for all of us to be thinking about in our community’s approach to education, post-pandemic and beyond. Disclosure: I am a donor to Richmond Friends School and a parent of a student there. Transcript The below transcript was generated with the use of automation and may contain errors or omissions. Chris Hardie: Marcie Roberts, thank you very much for joining me here on Richmond Matters. I appreciate you taking the time. Marcie Roberts: Thanks for having me, Chris. Chris: You are the head of school at the Richmond Friends School. And for anyone who might not already be familiar with RFS, I’m wondering if you could tell us a little bit about the school and sort of what sets it apart from other education options in our area? Marcie: Sure, I’m happy to do that. We are a preschool through eighth grade independent school here in Richmond, Indiana. We are the only Quaker school in the state of Indiana that serves this age student. Obviously we have Earlham College, a higher ed option there. Which sometimes surprises people, given Richmond … Oh, sorry, Richmond and Indiana’s rich Quaker history. But we are the only Quaker school in Indiana and one of I think it’s 78 other Friends Schools across the nation. So we are a member of Friends Council on Education. They’re based in Philadelphia. But what does that mean? What does a Friends Education mean and how does that set us apart from public schools here locally and also other independent schools? We have a really experiential approach to education. All of our classrooms are multi-age, meaning more than one age or grade level per classroom. We’re also committed to small student to teacher ratios. We currently have, it’s usually about no more than 15 or 16 per classroom. Depending on the age and developmental needs of the students, there are often times two teachers in a classroom of that size, if we’re talking preschool or pre-K and K. We have, we start Spanish language instruction starting at preschool, which is awesome. I think we’re the only school locally who does that. We have other specials, music and art specials as well. We do a lot of field trips. We love getting our kids outside and exposed to different passionate people in our community. Whether it’s to do community service or to visit local museums or environmental resource centers, things like that. We do project-based learning, so that fits in with that experiential learning part. Starting in pre-K, K, our students have a research project. We have four and five-year-old who are doing two to three research projects a year, which can sound daunting if you’ve never done that as a parent, to help your student through that. Or even as a new teacher who’s trying to facilitate that. But what we know is never to underestimate the power and imagination and gifts of a child if they’re set up and given the tools they need to succeed. So, those are all distinctives. Another thing is, sorry, I’m just going to ramble here, Chris. Chris: No, that’s fine. Marcie: I get on my spiel and I can’t stop. But we really try to have a holistic approach to education. That is taking care of not just the academic sort of cognitive needs of a child, but also the physical and emotional and social and even spiritual needs of children. We get kids outside every day, and that’s all ages. And I don’t think any other school can say that. So I think that’s something we really value here, is just the opportunity to be outside and to be active and what that does for our everything. It’s a part of how we learn here, so it’s a valuable part of what we do. Chris: It’s really an amazing array of things offered. And I should disclose at this point that I’m a parent of a child at Richmond Friends School, so I have some particular enthusiasm for the way that you do things. I think sometimes if people are not a part of the Quaker community, they hear Quaker School or Quaker Education, and I know this happens with Earlham some too. But let’s just be really clear, does someone have to be a Quaker or believe a certain thing to have their child attend Richmond Friends School? Marcie: No. And I think that’s a great question and it’s a good thing to help break down for people. Because we don’t want that to be a barrier of any kind. One of our testimonies, so we’re sort of guided by what we call the SPICES, which is an acronym for different Quaker testimonies. The SPICES stands for simplicity, peace, integrity, community, equality and stewardship. Those are just sort of good morals and ways to know and navigate and live in the world, no matter what your spiritual background or religious background or non-religious background. We just believe those are good ways of engaging with people and problems. So, those SPICES sort of guide us formally and informally. But part of that, that equality piece, we really value difference. We think we learn best sometimes from people who are different than us. So, we welcome people from all backgrounds: socioeconomic, religious, cultural backgrounds. And we think, like I said, we’re better off with people, with having a really rich, diverse community. We have about, gosh, I should’ve pulled up this fact, but I think it’s about 15% of our students are Quaker currently, which actually is a pretty big percentage. There are other Friends Schools as I mentioned, around the country, with far fewer than that. But again, because we’re a small school, our handful of Quakers make a big impact in terms of the percentage. But certainly the vast majority of folks are not Quaker and you don’t have to be. Chris: Yeah. We’ll talk in a little bit about what life has been like at the school here in 2020. But I wonder if you could take us back to when you first came to RFS and what the school was like then, sort of what you thought you were getting into, what you noticed, any surprises and sort of help us think about that time. Marcie: Sure. So, the school was actually originally founded in 1971 but a woman, Chris Nicholson, who is a member of West Richmond Friends Meeting and a gentleman by the name of Warren Smith. He is a former professor at Earlham College. And it was founded as the Children’s School and not designated as a Friends School, even though it sort of always had those Quaker connections because of Chris Nicholson. Chris worked as a full time teacher for many years at the school. And it had a real rich history of I think being transformational for children and families. But there had never been an administrative structure to the school, other than they would designate what they called a lead teacher and assign that full time teacher additional duties working closely with the board and trying to take on some of the admissions duties and things like that. When I first was introduced to the school actually, my husband Jay Roberts who works at Earlham College, had been asked to join the board. He was really working with the board at that time to think strategically and sustainably and try to identify things the school needed to I think position itself a little bit better. It definitely was in some dire financial straights and running deficits and struggling with enrollment, as I think more organizations would if they didn’t have sort of someone other than … Just needing an ED, some sort of a leadership position to help the school. Anyway, they carved out a part time administration position, that at the time was called a school coordinator. And as a new young mother, we had just had our first child in April and I was working full time at Earlham. Anyway, my husband was like, “You should apply for this position.” Chris: Nice. Marcie: I have a background in early childhood education, so a love of experiential education and education. But also had dabbled in other sort of leadership positions in the hospitality field, at an online gaming company.Some kind of wacky things, but somehow they all came together and made sense for me to apply here. Because I thought, “Oh, I can do this as a new mom, it’s a part time job.” But we all know there’s no such thing as a part time job. Certainly a leadership position, it’s never part time. But I was really lucky that the school was the size it was and it fit sort of the flexibility of my needs and my family’s needs. Sort of as my family grew, my responsibilities grew and the school grew sort of all simultaneously. The school, when I started was I think just pre-K through eight actually. They had just started having … They tried a middle school for three years I think starting in the year of 2003. But we had to lay it down in 2006 for a variety of reasons. But I started right in the middle of that tenure. We all learned a lot about why it worked and why it didn’t. And luckily we were able to revisit the idea of a middle school in 2015 and our board decided to try it again. We added seventh and eighth grades, excuse me, in 2016. Chris: It’s pretty neat to think about what you’ve just described as I
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