On Thursday, October 27th Head of School Debbie Zlotowitz spoke at the Friends Council on Education‘s annual Heads Gathering Dinner. Serving on a panel of five veteran heads of school, Debbie talked about the importance of Quaker education as it relates to MMFS’s mission. Here are her remarks:
Thank you for inviting me to speak to you this evening. I’m honored to be joining my esteemed colleagues on this panel, and I’m happy to be sharing my thoughts about the importance of Quaker education as it relates to the students of Mary McDowell Friends School, a school for students with learning disabilities.
In 1984, Mary McDowell Friends School opened with five students, in the basement of the Brooklyn Meeting House. It was named for Mary McDowell, an outstanding Quaker educator who was dismissed from her teaching position at the New York City Board of Ed when she refused to sign a loyalty oath in support of World War I. In attendance when the opening of our school was announced was civil rights leader and member of Brooklyn Quaker Meeting Bayard Rustin. We have a tradition of honoring notable Quakers by naming our classrooms after outstanding Quaker figures. To name just a few: We have the George Fox Room and the Lucretia Mott Room at our lower school, and Bayard Rustin House at our middle school.
To those of us who teach and learn here, the connection between Quaker education and special education is, hopefully, evident in everything we say and do.
Our mission statement lays out the relationship very clearly:
Grounded in the Quaker values of equality, integrity, and social responsibility, we cultivate a diverse and anti-racist community in which all students can reach their full potential.
“A community in which all students can reach their full potential.” That is the key to a Mary McDowell education. Our students come to us with a variety of individual skills, talents, and abilities, but also with a variety of challenges. We provide them with ways to reach their full potential by understanding how they learn, by drawing on their strengths, and by encouraging them to meet their challenges. At Mary McDowell Friends School, we ensure that every learner shines.
We talk all the time about “revealing brilliance” in our students. In fact, “Revealing Brilliance” is the tagline of our logo. And what, after all, is brilliance? It’s light. So when we reveal brilliance in a student, we are revealing their “inner light.”
And that is a fundamental Quaker belief—that anyone can have access to “inner light.” It reinforces our belief that any student can succeed, given the right support. Our students are smart, but their struggles with learning are real. We teach our students to say, “Yes, this is hard for me because I have a learning disability. But this is what I’m going to do to compensate for it, and this is what I need to do it.”
A fundamental Quaker practice that particularly benefits students with learning disabilities is Meeting for Worship, which we hold in large groups weekly. It is a vital part of our school experience. Silent Meeting teaches our students important skills like sitting quietly, calming their bodies and their impulses, and engaging in self-reflection during a stimulating school day. Plus, “sharing” gives them significant practice over the years speaking to a large group, a skill we all know is one of the most important for students’ futures. The Mary McDowell Friends School community, including our families, values Silent Meeting as a way to support one another and to grow together. In addition to our regular meetings, we hold Meeting for Worship in times of joy—such as on the eve on Commencement Day or to celebrate the accomplishments of members of our community. Our community also turns to Silent Meeting for solace: after 9/11; to mourn the death of a student; after the election of Donald Trump; and in the aftermath of January 6.
At Mary McDowell Friends School, we translate George Fox’s words “that of God” to the belief in “that of Good” in everyone. We strive to develop a community of learners who recognize “that of Good” in each other and work to ensure that our actions, both as individuals and as a community, foster this belief, in our school and in society.
As part of our adherence to the Quaker testimonies of peace, equality, community, and integrity, we are called upon to live our values by embedding social justice and social activism in our teaching, our training, and our policies. Throughout our community, we are learning to view our work through a lens of anti-racism, so that our curriculum, our hiring and admissions practices, and professional development all move us toward our goal of becoming an anti-racist school. When we assign reading, we ask, “Whose story is being told? Whose perspective is being shared?” We strive to amplify previously marginalized voices and build a community that actively and intentionally disrupts moments of racism, classism, and sexism.
We challenge our community and in return, our community challenges us. It was a student-led protest, for instance, that led us to change the name of a classroom originally named for William Penn—who was, after all, a slaveholder—to Benezet Room, after Anthony Benezet, a teacher and vocal opponent of slavery in 18th century Philadelphia. Our students have organized demonstrations against gun violence and participated in youth climate strikes. It is our families who organize our annual MLK Day of Service. And every other year a group of faculty, staff, parents, and students goes on the MMFS Civil Rights trip to Montgomery, Selma, Atlanta, and Birmingham, visiting monuments and museums of the civil rights movement and “walking in the footsteps of history.”
One of my strongest beliefs after 30 years as head of school at Mary McDowell Friends School is that both special education and Quaker education provide Excellent Education. They both start from where the student is, and they both help them reach their full potential.
I want to end on a personal note about Quaker education. At the end of this year, I will have spent 30 years as the head of a Quaker school. I did not set out to spend the better part of my career teaching and hopefully living Quaker values. I am the daughter of a rabbi. Nothing in my background prepared me to be the head of a Quaker school. But my life has been considerably enriched by my years steeped in Quakerism, and I will continue to carry the tenets with me. If I live my life finding and bringing Peace, acting with Integrity, contributing to a Community, working for Equality, and being of Service, then I will have reaped the same benefits of a Quaker education that I hope our students have. Maybe once I retire in June, I can finally add the first “S” — Simplicity—to my life.