Question and Answer with Leilani Brooks of Friends Western School, Pasadena

Leilani Brooks
Leilani Brooks

I recently toured Friends Western School in Pasadena, spending a morning with the leadership of this small, very unique Transitional Kindergarten-5th school. Below is my Q&A with Leilani Brooks, dean of students at Friends Western. Leilani holds a B.A. in Theater from UCLA with a focus on Arts Bridge Education. During 10 years at Disney, she performed in numerous stage shows and managed productions and events before transitioning into teaching. Leilani is outgoing and vibrant with a passion for creativity and a love of kids and teaching. I also met parents and teachers at the school who, along with the kids, were gracious and proud to show visitors their school.–Christina

Photo: Friends Western School

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Q: Friends Western School is truly one-of-a-kind because although it was founded in 2001, in 2010 it became the very first parent-run cooperative and the first Quaker co-op in the U.S. Can you talk a bit about how the co-op works on a given day, week or month? What role do parents play and how are decisions made?

A: While the faculty at Friends Western School are all highly qualified, experienced teachers, parents play important roles in the support and administration of the school.  Parents work on committees to oversee things like admissions, marketing, and community life.

On a daily basis, parents will take playground shifts during lunch and recess, or be a chaperone on a field trip or hike.  (Parents who can’t participate in co-op work, have an option each term to buy out of those duties.) This involvement in the daily life of the school creates a rich sense of community among both parents and children.

Parents also serve on the Board of Directors, which helps guide the school.  Some decisions are made by the Board, others are voted on by the entire school in our monthly membership meetings.  Decisions about the classroom, however, are made by faculty.

There are a few other cooperative elementaries in the US, but we are the only one in the Los Angeles area.  Being part of the school is being part of a small but vibrant community, and the experience stays with students long after they leave.

Photo: Friends Western School

Q: How would you describe the unique educational philosophy of the school?

A: We believe in the ‘whole child’ approach to education.  Although all of our curriculum fulfills the common core standards, our highly educated teachers and small class size allows our staff to create a thematic curriculum that ties in all aspects of learning into a hands on, dynamic experience for our kids. Teachers incorporate Math, Science, and Language Arts into each unit of study, and extend the learning even further with hikes and field trips, to give our students a completely dynamic experience. For example, a unit on Southern California History will include the following excursions: 1) A docent led trip to the Autry museum, 2) a hike through Monrovia Canyon led by a ranger who explains how the Chumash that once lived on this land built their homes and foraged for food, 3) a trip to the The Stunt Ranch Santa Monica Mountains Reserve, which is a 310-acre biological field station located in the Santa Monica Mountains and is composed of chaparral, coast live oak woodland, riparian, and annual grassland habitats, to learn about the landscape and how it has evolved. Students also visit Wishtoyo Village, the last native Chumash village, and spend the night in a traditional Chumash “ap” or hut. Students learned how to cook with acorn flour, used by the native peoples of this region, and culminated their unit by creating a Chumash festival for the school which included Chumash games, rituals (such as face painting) and food.

In addition to teaching the common core standards, we spend time every day on conflict resolution, social emotional growth, and building a student’s sense of integrity and inner strength. We also make time each week for the arts, including theater, music, visual arts and movement. Finally, we are committed to a small school and small classrooms, as this allows our faculty to tailor the academics to the needs of each child, so that children can succeed at their own pace. Classrooms are comprised of two mixed grades, allowing the children to work at their ability level rather than their age. Students spend 2 years with each teacher, allowing the teacher to deeply understand each child’s learning style and emotional development.

Photo: Friends Western School

Q: What kinds of families attend Friends Western? What qualities do you look for in applicant families?

A: A co-op school is NOT for everyone.  We look for families that want to be part of their child’s education. We recognize that many families today work during school hours, and may need to buy out of some co-op duties.  However, all families commit to attending monthly membership meetings and helping out to the best of their abilities.  We want families who, when faced with a problem, will work to help solve the problem rather than wait for others to fix it.  We actively seek a diverse membership, and have a need blind admissions process with robust financial aid.

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QFriends Western is a member of the Friends Council on Education and is part of a rich heritage that includes Bryn Mawr College, Swarthmore College, Cornell University and Sidwell Friends (the Obama daughters’ school), among others. Can you explain the hallmarks of Quaker/Friends Schools?

A: Quaker schools are well known on the East Coast for providing excellent education with an eye toward social justice. At Friends Western, we don’t teach religion in the classroom, but we follow core Quaker values like Equality, Justice, Peace and Community.

Like many Quaker schools, each week begins in the Quaker meeting house where our kids sit in silent contemplation of a weekly “query.”  The queries relate to issues students might face- how be a good friend, how to negotiate conflict on the playground, or what are fun activities to do that don’t cost money.

The Quakers believe in listening to “that of god” in everyone.  At Friends Western, we interpret that to mean that every child has a unique and important perspective.  We focus on listening deeply to each other, and empower our students to take an active role in their education.

Finally, we strongly believe in the Quaker value of service. Through the course of the year, every grade partakes in age appropriate “service learning.” This might include visiting a local senior center, raising money for charities, or participating in environmental cleanups.

Photo: Friends Western School

Q: Friends Western classes are small by design. How does class size and student teacher ratio help enrich a student’s experience?

A: Research shows that students in small classes perform better in all areas of academics, and are also more engaged in learning because they have more time to participate in class.  These findings show that it’s not just about student teacher ratio, but literally about the number of kids in a classroom.

At Friends Western, there are fewer than 15 kids in any classroom with an experienced teacher (only 7 kids in TK).  Our small class size allows for highly individualized learning and support.  It makes it easier for teachers to get creative and find new ways to engage and excite students.  And it allows even the shyest students a chance to fully participate and find their voice.  Small class size is the number one reason why parents choose Friends Western, and maintaining it is a top priority for our school.

Photo: Friends Western School

Q: Graduates of Friends Western matriculate to a variety of public and private schools like Waverley, Gooden, Immaculate Heart, Renaissance Arts Academy and Blair Middle/High School. How do you prepare students for the transition to secondary school?

A: At Friends Western, we try to blend the best of progressive and traditional education.  Our teachers use an emergent curriculum, drawing on kids’ natural curiosity with project based learning.  But we teach the California state standards for academics, and teachers individually assess kids at the beginning and end of every year. Starting in third grade, students are given limited, engaging homework that grows in amount as they get older.  By the time they matriculate, students have learned how to take responsibility for nightly assignments, and have been taught the same academics as their peers in traditional schools. While they can compete academically, we believe that Friends Western graduates carry with them a strong sense of integrity and inner strength, which helps them succeed in whatever school they choose.

For more information, visit www.friendswesternschool.org and check out the school’s gorgeous Instagram!

Photos: #1, 2, 4, 5, 7, 8 Friends Western School

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3 Volunteer roles L.A. Private Schools Are Super-Eager To Fill

Calling families at the Viewpoint Fund Call-A-Thon. I'm on the right, serving as class captain for 12th grade.
Calling families at the 2018 Viewpoint Fund Outreach Event. That’s me (Christina) on the right, serving as class captain for 12th grade. On the left is our campaign co-chair.

1. Fundraising. Raising money at private schools requires a lot of work from staff and parent volunteers. Fundraising for the school’s annual fund, which covers expenses like sports, music and financial aid, is a much-needed volunteer activity. You don’t have to be wealthy or well-connected to pick up the phone and dial for dollars! Anyone can spend a few evenings a year calling other parents to ask them to donate to the annual fund. Even though this position is relatively easy, it’s a hard one to fill because a lot of people hate dislike asking for money.

2. Food. I’ve never seen a school that has too much food! Providing food for the many school events that happen during the year is a major task, shared between the school and parent volunteers. Maybe you own a restaurant or catering company that can donate food for a school book fair? Perhaps you have friends in the restaurant business who’d be willing to donate salads and sandwiches for a school event? Are you a talented home cook who can bake 500 cookies or brownies? Delicious food is an essential part of a great event. Private schools rely on parent volunteers to plan all kinds of events from book fairs, picnics and boutiques to holiday and ethnic heritage celebrations. Every one of these events requires food and beverages, often provided by parents. If you can help get food for school events, it won’t be long before you’re asked to help out!

3. Donations for auctions/galas. These events are school money-makers and require a huge commitment from parents to make them happen. One of the most important volunteer roles involves securing donations for silent and live auctions which are part of the yearly auction gala. If you have contacts and can get these type of things donated: sports tickets, concert tickets, hotels stays, artwork from notable artists (painters, photographers), jewelry, wine, musical talent that can perform at big events or celebrities who can MC a huge event, your contribution will be invaluable. Schools are looking for big ticket items that dazzle! However: not to worry if you don’t have luxury donations to offer. Schools want to ensure that there are a range of items, from expensive to affordable. That means a gift card from a local restaurant or a facial from your favorite spa is an important donation. So, if you don’t mind asking local businesses and places you shop and eat for gift cards, you’ll be a much-needed volunteer.

My advice: If there’s a section of the application that asks about how you’ll help the school, mentioning these in-demand volunteer roles can definitely help get you noticed! Schools of all sizes need parents to help with donations, food and fundraising! I’ve volunteered to fundraise at both my kids’ schools for many years. One preschool director told me recently they recommended a family to a school in part based on the parents’ willingness to get involved in the school’s big annual event. If there isn’t a section on the application, make sure to mention how you can assist the school in your written application and parent interview or even thank you notes. Private schools want families who will jump in to take on the more difficult volunteer tasks, those that don’t involve helping out in the classroom since there’s never a shortage of parents for those jobs.–Christina

 

Follow Beyond The Brochure on Facebook for the latest Los Angeles private school news and events! You can get a copy of Beyond The Brochure: An Insider’s Guide To Private Elementary Schools In Los Angeles on Amazon.

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Should You Send Thank You Notes To Admissions Directors?

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We’ve received several reader questions recently about thank you notes, a topic we’ve written about previously, but one we think is important enough to write about again.

Imagine you’ve just spent hours interviewing three people for a job. After the interviews are over, two of the candidates send you a thank you note, but one person doesn’t send anything. Of the two who send thank you notes, only one of them personalizes it, not only thanking you for your time, but letting you know how much they’d like to work for your company and why. The note isn’t long, but it’s honest and hits all the right notes. Now, which of the candidates leaves a lasting impression?

The job interview analogy is appropriate for the admissions process. Both are competitive and you want to set your family apart from the competition in every way possible. Thank you notes are a great way to do it!

Some admissions directors expect thank you notes from families. Whether or not they are expected, they are always a nice touch–and more.
“One important purpose of a thank you note to the Admissions Director or team after the open house or tour is to have documentation in your admissions file of your visit and a reminder to the team of who you are. It should reflect at least one perception you had as a result of your visit that will jog their memory of you and let them know that you understand and value the school’s mission.” Anne Simon, Beyond The Brochure co-author and former head of school.

We often get asked whether a thank you note can be an email or whether it needs to be on paper. These days, email is a completely acceptable, efficient form of correspondence.

“Thank you notes are always appreciated! After an interview, it is a great opportunity to have another point of contact with the Director of Admission. You can reiterate why you think the school is a good fit for your child and family. It is best to be specific. Try to refer to something you discussed during the interview or saw during your school visit that made a lasting impression. Handwritten notes are more personal, but any thank you note is a sign of your appreciation. Lisa Marfisi, educational consultant and former admissions director.

So, when do you send the thank you note? You can send one after every step of the admissions process: after a tour, after a parent interview and once you’re finished with the entire admissions process. Or, you can send just one note at any time. If you’re applying for secondary school, have your child send a thank you note. What matters is you’ve taken the time to communicate your appreciation for the school’s time and to add a personalized note about why the school would be a fantastic place for your child and your family. Maybe it’s the fantastic teachers or the arts program. Perhaps you think your child will love the music program. Whatever it is, find something about that particular school and personalize it.

 

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