On Homelessness: Learning at the Service of Society 

When Michael Gary, Friends Select’s head of school, addressed the faculty and staff at the beginning of the school year, he presented them with an overarching goal for the community: 

“Let our lives speak.” Michael was referencing the school’s educational philosophy and channeling our mission statement: “We work to achieve balance between the needs of individuals and our community, in an atmosphere of cooperation and concern for the betterment of all.” Moreover, we believe that “learning should be placed at the service of society.”

The multitude of ways in which teachers and students already practice these tenets of Friends Select’s Quaker identity is remarkable; the school community consists of activists, advocates, peacemakers, champions of change, and reformers with an ambition to have a positive impact on society. With his remarks, Michael’s intention was to draw 
on the existing energy of Friends Select. “I wanted to build community, empathy, and student agency around a common goal,” he explained. “If we collectively focus on and learn about a specific issue together, we can be of service to society while making a more meaningful impact.” This year, Friends Select inaugurated its school-wide service focus on the issue of homelessness.

Amy Segel, associate director of lower school, said that Friends Select students frequently come across homelessness, either on walking trips outside the school or because they live in the city. And, although they may be the youngest learners in the building, lower school students are empathetic and eager to take action. “Students’ reactions can vary by age and individual, but generally lower school students are very compassionate, and they want to do something to help those experiencing homelessness,” Amy said. “They are less likely to ‘accept’ it as we adults often do. Young children are more aware than we think, and they do want to make the world a more fair and just place.”

Amy added, “A collective focus on the issue of homelessness is an opportunity for our students to understand that having a dependable roof over one’s head and regular meals 
is not something everyone has. It is a chance for our school community to give back to the city, as well as prepare our students to be difference-makers in the world.” Lower school students regularly participate in service projects that impact the issue of homelessness, such as canned food drives for St. John’s Hospice or Philabundance, and faculty are discussing the topic more frequently with the collective focus.

Last winter, the middle school created a shift in its previous model of community service. It decided to transform its model from indirect service, a type of service that benefits people with whom students may or may not have come into contact, to a model that includes three types of service: direct, research, and advocacy. This new model had the middle school brainstorm the following guiding question: How can we, as advocates, educate and engage our school community in Philadelphia’s issue of homelessness? 
“Shifting the middle school model of service to one 
that includes the necessary service-learning element allows students to become more invested in service that they are doing, and gives them agency to become advocates at the same time,” said Desiree Harmon, director of middle school.

Two groups of middle schoolers researched and created presentations on homelessness. The finished projects were delivered at a Tuesday morning Gathering to educate the entire middle school on this important issue. Students researched not only the who, what, where, and why of homelessness, but also the very important question: How can we help? Students used a database of resources that included Philadelphia’s Office of Homeless Services, WHYY, and The Philadelphia Citizen, an advocacy group that encourages the people of Philadelphia to get engaged with issues that impact the city. At the end of the two-day learning experience, the middle schoolers took the Philadelphia Citizen Pledge. They also decorated over 100 lunch bags with positive messages, made sandwiches, and filled those bags with treats that were then delivered to the Hub of Hope in Suburban Station. 

Upper school students partnered with the Helping Hands club and the Parent Association to initiate a Socktober sock drive.  With the help of a friendly competition with their teachers, students collected nearly 400 
pairs of socks from all three divisions to benefit those experiencing homelessness. Additionally, upper school students and faculty participated in Friends Select’s first-ever Social Justice Week, which commenced the day after the Parent Association’s Martin Luther King Day Family Experience. Co-created by upper school students, Toni Graves Williamson, director of equity and inclusion, Margaret Smith, director of city curriculum, Norman Bayard, upper school dean of students, and Chris Singler, director of upper school, Social Justice Week provided an authentic learning experience by elevating student voice and agency and motivating students to take action in the city in a deep and meaningful way. The immersive curriculum included eight tracks—immigration reform, the drug/opioid crisis, community and police relations, unlearning hate, the LGBTQ community, food insecurity, mental health, and environmental justice—and included a guiding query to assist students in examining how each focus topic intersected with homelessness and housing security. 

Chris Singler said, “Students and faculty worked together to develop a program to elevate student voice and agency, and the students took joy in seeing their ideas come together. The goal of Social Justice Week was not only to honor the legacy of Dr. King but also to live his legacy. Service is always part of our mindset at Friends Select, but with a community focus on homelessness we have a more fruitful awareness and intentionality.”

Students in upper school art classes have also been fusing their talents with service to help those less fortunate. In November, photography students submitted their work to the Woodmere Art Museum’s Kids Care 26: Faces and Places in Our Town, a special exhibition in partnership with MANNA. The photographs were given as gifts along with meals to families 
in need during the holiday season. 

Deborah Caiola, upper school art teacher and faculty advisor of the upper school service club Helping Hands, added, “This year, there was an ‘art service’ component to the senior class, Portfolio Preparation; one option for student artists 
was to contribute their talents to Color Me Back: A Same Day 
Work and Pay Program.” Color Me Back is an innovative, new initiative from Mural Arts Philadelphia’s Porch Light Division that combines participatory art-making and access to social services while offering individuals who are experiencing economic insecurity an opportunity to earn wages. 

Sophie Gilbert ’20, Felicia Liu ’20, and Ezra Singler ’20 designed and led two mornings of workshops in Suburban Station for Color Me Back. “My favorite part of the experience was getting to sit down and speak with the participants. I had rich conversations with them about math, family, art history, and activism,” Sophie said. “I know that I have incredible privilege as a student at Friends Select, and it’s an honor 
to give my time and skills to those who don’t have the same opportunities and privileges as I have. I left each workshop with Color Me Back inspired to continue putting my skills towards giving back to our community.” 

Friends Select parents are as eager as their students to understand the issue of homelessness and learn how they can help. To assist families in talking about this subject, the Parent Association hosted “How to Talk to Your Child about People Experiencing Homelessness and the Issue of Homelessness,” 
a discussion led by Martin Wiley, service learning program coordinator at Project HOME. Martin has extensive experience working directly with those experiencing homelessness and 
with students, teachers, and parents who want to address 
the issue in a respectful and productive way. 

Martin was also the keynote speaker at the annual Martin Luther King Day Family Experience, a social change workshop focused on ending homelessness, which was hosted by the Parent Association and the 
Central Philadelphia Monthly Meeting. Martin discussed Dr. King’s legacy as a social justice leader and identified systemic problems that lead to homelessness, and families built a stronger awareness of the factors that can lead people to experience homelessness in order to dismantle the structures that have led to thousands of people in the Philadelphia area living without shelter. Families made care packages of toiletries for people experiencing homelessness, wrote letters to legislators, created a mural for a shelter, and heard stories of how people have challenged the systems that have led to housing insecurity.     

Friends Select will focus on the issue of homelessness for the foreseeable future. The school-wide service topic is not only creating opportunities for student agency and city partnerships—both objectives of the Advance Friends Select strategic plan; it’s also assessing Friends Select’s responsibility to the surrounding community. “Our commitment to the city is manifested by our collective focus on the issue of homelessness,” Michael said. “We are building community while learning about empathy and being true to our mission.”      

Amy added, “Having this focus feels particularly appropriate given our Center City location. It allows us to really embrace the curricular work that should go along with service learning so that we can be part of changing the injustices or structures that allow it to happen in the first place.”