Scattergood Friends School celebrates 125 years of innovative education

The Instruction Building at Scattergood -- image courtesy of Scattergood Friends School and Farm
The Instruction Building at Scattergood. — image courtesy of Scattergood Friends School and Farm

How can a private Quaker school in rural Iowa — one that opened in the late 19th century with just 20 students — manage not just to stay open, but to stay relevant for 125 years?

The answer can be found on a patch of land in West Branch, Iowa, nestled between plots of commercial farmland that stretch for miles in every direction, at the Scattergood Friends School and Farm. According to the school’s communications director Jody Caldwell, staying open for over a century has required an ability to evolve with the shifting social and environmental landscape without losing the school’s values to remain progressive in both its educational and farming philosophies.

“At Scattergood, you’re learning to interrogate the world around you,” Caldwell said. “It’s not about yes/no answers, and fill in the dot tests. We really push that actual, physical learning by doing.”

Instead of studying textbooks to learn about modern agriculture, for instance, students work with Scattergood’s head farmer, Mark Quee, on the school’s organic farm. The farm provides all of the meat and most of the vegetables consumed at the school.

“At Scattergood, you’re learning to interrogate the world around you.”

— Jody Caldwell

Sustainability, and responsible environmental practices are important to Quee, who is heavily involved in Practical Farmers of Iowa, a group that coordinates agricultural research statewide. With Quee’s help, students use the farm as a living laboratory where they can design their own experiments and examine current trends in the agricultural industry.

In March, the students presented their findings at the Iowa State Science Fair, where one student exhbited a pigfeeding system which is less reliant on corn-based feed than traditional methods. If implemented at Scattergood, Caldwell says, the system could cut their financial costs while also improving the health of their pigs, and reducing the farm’s overall environmental impact.

Next year, Scattergood plans to further integrate this work into its curriculum, requiring all freshmen and sophomores to spend the first seven weeks of classes working on the farm.

“They’ll apply their knowledge from math, science, social studies, language, writing — and they’ll use those things to investigate our fields and pastures and the prairie,” Caldwell said. “That way, they’ll be successful interacting with the farm the rest of the time that they’re here.”

Shumpei Yamaki, Scattergood’s ceramics teacher and current artist in residence, says he likes to think of the wood-fired kiln he built with his students last year as an extension of the farm itself.

“With the farm, we try to be sustainable,” Yamaki said. “We’re not 100 percent, but we try to grow our food to serve our community. It’s the same concept. We’re using recycled material, reusable material, renewable material, to fire the kiln.”

Community meeting in 1979. --  image courtesy of Scattergood Friends School and Farm
Community meeting in 1979. — image courtesy of Scattergood Friends School and Farm

During the first quarter of his classes, Yamaki teaches his students about the materials that go into creating his wood-fired ceramics. They dig clay from the ground and process it by hand; they collect enough wood from downed trees around the property to fire the kiln for the 48 hours required to heat it to 2400 degrees. It teaches the students about using what you have and not being wasteful, Yamaki said. Throughout the rest of the school year, he teaches students basic and advanced throwing techniques and gives them an introduction to the kind of conceptual art work usually reserved for college students.

“We critique,” Yamaki said. “Asking them, why do you make it? Why do you like it? What do you want to show here? We try to get their expression, or character, through art. It’s not just their skills.”

Yamaki is currently working to create 125 bowls to be sold during Scattergood’s 125th anniversary celebration, set to take place June 11-14. During that time, former students and interested community members alike are invited to come out and tour the farm, participate in a barn dance, play soccer and ultimate frisbee, and look back at the school’s long history.

Looking forward to the years ahead, faculty members at Scattergood are also excited to teach students about the farm using advanced DNA analysis equipment they were able to purchase last year using funds they received through a grant from the Toshiba Foundation of America. They’ve already used the equipment for agricultural projects where they tested various food products for evidence of GMO’s. Next year, they hope to get the materials necessary to study whether their farm is affected by pesticide drift from the conventional farms that surround their property.

According to Academic Dean Louis Herbst, the idea to purchase that technology came last May when the school’s geometry teacher, David Cohen, told Herbst he was unhappy with the “somewhat traditional” way they were teaching math at the time. Cohen, while looking for a new, exciting way to teach geometry, found a CSI-style program another school had used.

With the new equipment — a T100 Thermal Cycler for replicating DNA, a “gel electrophoresis setup” for sequencing it and crime scene investigation tools donated by a parent who works for the Drug Enforcement Agency — ready to go, the Scattergood faculty knew what they had to do: Stage Herbst’s imaginary murder in the art studio, and set the kids to work gathering and analyzing genetic evidence from the scene.

After the students in the biology and geometry classes compiled their data, they passed it along to their peers in the government class to prepare for a mock trial.

Photo of a Scattergood student from the archives. -- photo courtesy of Scattergood Friends School and Farm
Photo of a Scattergood student from the archives. — photo courtesy of Scattergood Friends School and Farm

“So not only are the kids thinking really deeply about the content and using it in interesting ways,” Herbst said, “but then other students became the teachers because they had to take these really complex scientific processes, and they had to describe them in a way that was meaningful for other students to be able to read and understand.”

On the day of the trial, the school was shut down and Herbst’s “murderer,” none other than Jody Caldwell, was given her day in court.

“I was not convicted,” Caldwell said with a laugh. “I had really good attorneys.”

Indeed. The Scattergood Friends School has come a long way since it opened 1890 with only 20 Quaker students from the surrounding community. During the school’s early years, it was a place where Quaker children could receive a broad foundational education that would prepare them for college, while shielding them from what members once called “early knowledge of, or contact with, the evils of the world.”

In the late 1920’s, Scattergood was hit hard by the economic downturn that would come to be known as the Great Depression, and in 1931 a decision was made to close the school. Caldwell says that in the years leading up to the closure, families who were unable to pay tuition were allowed to pay in farm produce, but those kinds of arrangements became unsustainable as the economy worsened.

The closure was meant to last for one year, but the school remained closed for the next seven. It was reopened by the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) in 1938 as a hostel for European refugees fleeing the Nazis during World War Two. During this period, the refugees lived at the school and worked on the farm. While living and working at Scattergood, they learned English, and according to Caldwell, left an imprint on the surrounding community that would help to further expose Scattergood to the outside world.

As state officials consider moving away from standardized testing and toward skills-based methods (like The Smarter Balanced system), the Quaker approach may be at the forefront of a new era for educational assessment.

“Back in the ‘50s, there was a very strict head of the school, and the kids weren’t allowed to listen to music, and things like that,” Caldwell said. “Like in other schools, it was a product of its time. Today, the Quaker education is one of the most progressive educational philosophies that exists.” 

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