Germantown Friends School
31 W Coulter St, Philadelphia, PA 19144 / visit website
GFS is one of the “go to schools” right now for High School. It keeps coming up in conversations and it seems to be on the list for a lot of city parents.
I was not sure what to expect when I arrived at GFS but I was told by numerous friends that it was “super crunchy!” I actually LOVE when my friends blurt out their thoughts on a school before I go do a visit, because usually my visit proves otherwise. Outside of some kids rocking the boho style I would not exactly call GFS “super crunchy.” It is a cool campus filled with three different divisions and plenty of places to explore…
Ages and Stages:
GFS goes from Early Childhood (EC) starting at age three up to grade 12. If you are new to the school search most schools will call their Preschool / Pre-K programs Early Childhood Program (EC) or Early Childhood Development (ECD). The Lower School at GFS is Kindergarten to 5th grade. The Middle School is 6th to 8th grade and the Upper School is 9th to 12th grade. Touring schools that go up to 12th grade is new for me. I have learned that the biggest advantage of a Pre-K-12 school is the access to resources. To be competitive in Philadelphia the High Schools have to offer a wide variety of sports and extracurriculars, and in a Pre-K to 12 school every division benefits from that! I’ll name a few examples:
- The Middle School students have access to the Upper School’s sophisticated photo lab.
- The Lower School has amazing gyms for their PE classes.
- Programming and Robotics is big in Upper School and it all starts in the Lower School.
- The school has a great cafeteria that benefits many of the grades.
GFS is very dedicated to music education. All students learn music theory, song writing, and have the opportunity to play an instrument starting in Lower School. That sentence does not really do justice to the investment GFS has made in the areas of music and drama. It is however made very clear by their course offerings, annual productions, and multiple massive auditoriums, which I continuously kept mistaking for their Meeting House.
Art and Photography:
I lived in the art department in High School. GFS offers multiple large art rooms for each division. A full photography studio that teaches both digital and print is also available to the students.
There is nothing I love more at a school than an amazing gym. GFS has three gyms and the newest one, the Field House, does not disappoint. At GFS sports are seen as a healthy part of the school’s curriculum. Lower School students have gym 4-5 times a week. The gym classes at GFS include but are not limited to: rock climbing (I am a sucker for a school with a rock wall), field hockey, and every student will know how to throw a perfect spiral by the time they leave campus.
Starting in Middle School, students have an opportunity to play after-school sports. After school sports are optional in sixth grade but in seventh and eighth grade, two seasons of after-school sports are required. I did learn on my tour that if your child participates in a sport outside of school that counts. For example my oldest plays ice hockey at Rizzo. If he went to GFS ice hockey would count as one of his sports. In the Upper School two sports are required in 9th and one in 10th.
The GFS home fields for soccer, field hockey, baseball, lacrosse, tennis, track & field, and MS cross-country are located about a mile away from campus. The main campus houses basketball and wrestling. There are satellite facilities for squash, softball, and cross-country. Many students at GFS go on to play collegiate sports.
During my tour I would see random book bags, instruments, or sports equipment neatly placed at the entrances, both inside and outside, of all the buildings. I did not really think much about it until I walked into the Main Hall. The Main Hall is a grand space that is made homey by the multiple mounts of backpacks lining its main hallway. It was almost as if I was entering someone’s well kept home and all 30 of their kids had just gotten home from school. So by this time I had to ask… “What was the deal with all the backpack everywhere?” The Upper School students do not have lockers… because of this, the secure campus setting, and the trust in the student community, students are able to leave their backpacks anywhere on campus… and they do! I am not exactly sure how they tell if someone forgot something but it clearly works for the students.
When I visited the large Kindergarten rooms they were preparing for Grandparent’s Day and making Thunder Cake. I have no idea what Thunder Cake is but the room smelled amazing and I will be googling it. Both Kindergarten buildings were large and busy with outgoing kids that wanted to share with me everything they were doing that day. Kindergarten has access to a ton of on campus playspace and playgrounds at GFS. Kindergarten also kind-of has access to chickens right on campus. I say kind-of because right in the middle of the two Kindergarten buildings is a house owned by the Germantown Monthly Meeting. It was originally used as the Meeting caretaker’s residence. The Meeting currently rents the residence to a family with chickens. I am sure the kindergarteners did not give the chickens or the owners the option of not being friends.
The library at GFS is free-standing and is one of those buildings that makes you happy to live in Philadelphia. It is old, creaks in all the right ways, and has a beautiful staircase leading up to the upper balcony. The GFS library is open to the community during certain house and there are no late fees for students, parents, or GFS staff.
Relax …have a latte:
GFS stresses the importance of down time with their Upper School students and gives them plenty of green space and lounge space to do it in. Upper School students can seek refuge in the student lounge and the campus coffee shop. The campus coffee shop was cool enough to rival any Center City Spot and gave me serious FOMO. At any given time you can see a group of students catching up over a latte and texting. *Sigh… a far cry from my silent study halls in a giant and beverage-less cafeteria.
Programming is the one thing I get asked about the most and it starts with parents looking at preschools. If this is a hot button item for you GFS might be a great option. GFS is very dedicated to programming and robotics starting at the Lower School level (pictured below) and then offers more advanced programs at the Middle and Upper School level. I was really impressed with the set-up, options, and technology classrooms I saw at every level. GFS clearly provides a learning track for its students in all levels of programming and coding. If that is on your list you can check it off at GFS.
One of my favorite spots might have been when I stumbled upon the Lower School Wood Shop. Several young kids gripping hand saws turned around to greet me. I had a moment of mom panic. It was a “What happens at Dad’s house, stays at Dad’s house… please don’t tell me about it” kind-of moment. Which, is why it is so great these kids can learn how to safely handle saws, and all the other fancy tools I saw… at school and not at home. I normally don’t see woodshops outside of the progressive schools so this was a nice surprise.
Meeting for Worship at GFS:
If you choose a Quaker/Friends school that means there is a weekly Meeting for Worship. Each division meets once per week for Meeting for Worship. The Lower School meets for 20 minutes, the Middle School for 30 minutes, and The Upper School for 40 minutes. The students come together to sit in unprogrammed silence, and anyone who is moved to speak may do so.
I will fully admit that I toured a Friends school when Henry was two and the Meeting for Worship part of Quaker schools was something I was very unsure about. I do think it is really hard for parents of very young children to get their head around. It is another layer to think about when you are dealing with an already overwhelming process. Over the years I have gained a much better understanding of the Meeting for Worship at Quaker schools. That has come from all the tours I’ve done and friends that have been able to share their experience with their child at a Friends school. Now it is second nature to me and I can’t wait to see the beautiful meeting rooms and houses at the Quaker schools. They are peaceful, beautiful, old spaces with rows and rows of wooden benches. I can only speak for myself but for me the practice is less religious and more reflective.
I will just add that the general consensus is that as a teenager the Meeting for Worship can be tough to get used to or sit through but every single Quaker school alumni I talk to looks back at that time with such fondness.
GFS seems to have a really good mix of everything for its students. Which actually made this feature really hard to do. I can’t put them in one specific group or “bucket” like I normally like to do with a school. That might be the very reason why GFS is high on parent’s list right now. Students are able to arrive and still figure it out for themselves.
As for the “crunch factor?” For parents that have not toured the progressive schools in our area I can see how GFS would read more crunchy than the other options. There are chickens and a woodshop for kids to learn and tinker in, but there is also state-of-the-art facilities for sports and science and curriculum in programming and robotics. All of those things make GFS a great hybrid for a lot of families!
Take a tour and see for yourself!