April 5, 2017

Profiles In Education: All the Threads Come Together At Princeton Friends School 

Jane Fremon, founder of the Princeton Friends School (PFS) and its head for the past 30 years, described the school’s central study theme for 2016-17: “All of us are tremendously excited about the ways in which the Roots and Routes theme will bring to everyone — students as well as adults — a heightened appreciation of the fact that people everywhere, throughout history, are deeply connected to the places they inhabit, are part of a long story that stretches back many centuries, and are active agents in the story of the future that is currently being written.”

Ms. Fremon was speaking specifically about the school curriculum and their current project to renovate the 1781 Schoolmaster’s House, but the story of her own life is also one involving a multiplicity of roots and routes that have brought her to her current position as a leader in “doing education differently.”

There were interesting, important episodes in West Virginia; Blairstown and Roosevelt, New Jersey; New York City; and England, but most of the roots and routes that shaped Ms. Fremon and her views of life and education are based in Princeton: Riverside, Valley Road, Princeton High School; Princeton University; teaching fifth grade at Princeton Day School; and the Princeton Quaker Meeting.

“Recounting all this,” Ms. Fremon reflected, “I see all the threads that come together.”

West Virginia to Princeton

Ms. Fremon was born in Charleston, West Virginia, where her parents started a school. “Because the schools in Charleston were so terrible, they started a little independent school called the Valley Day School,” Ms. Fremon said. “They hired a woman who later became my godmother to run it. This woman’s pedagogy was very much in the progressive mode. She created a curriculum that was based in the place where they were, very individualized, drawing on the interests of the students. Her life partner worked at Germantown Friends School, so I had early exposure to Friends education through my godmother.”

When Ms. Fremon was 3, the family moved to Princeton because her father was transferred to the New York branch of Union Carbide. Her mother was a freelance writer, and Ms. Fremon had three sisters.

“So when we got here,” Ms. Fremon noted, “my mother was very involved in local politics. She was on the school board and was president of the board in the years when the merger happened between the two districts.”

Transformative HS English

After elementary school at Riverside, seventh and eight grades at Valley Road, then on to PHS, Ms. Fremon found herself in a senior English class that shaped her future life’s trajectory. Years later, in October 2015, at a panel discussion at the John Witherspoon School Auditorium, she described that experience.

“In my senior year at PHS I ‘opted out’ of honors English in order to enroll instead in a class taught by David Carr, a teacher who was doing it all quite differently. Though Mr. Carr assigned some readings to the class as a whole, we were also expected to carry out and present to the group projects of our own choosing. And though Mr. Carr was obligated to issue grades for our work, he actually didn’t. Instead he asked us, at the end of each term, to present to him, with justification, the grade each of us thought we deserved. And as far as I know, he followed our recommendations.”

Also assigned in that class was a journal in which the students were encouraged to write about the course work and about their lives outside the classroom. “The journal was a vehicle for us to carry out our most important work — coming to know ourselves as thinkers, as learners, and as people,” she recalled.

In an entry from the spring of her senior year, as she speculated about possibilities for the upcoming summer, she wrote, “I may want to be a counselor at a day camp somewhere around here. Who knows? I may end up being a teacher after all.”

Ms. Fremon observed that 15 years later “Much of what I’d experienced in Mr. Carr’s class found expression in the founding vision of Princeton Friends. Like Mr. Carr, we too knew from the start that in order to create a true learning community, one in which students would feel free to take risks and welcome mistakes as part of the learning process, there was simply no place for competition in the classroom. We have never issued grades nor administered standardized tests at Princeton Friends, and instead we assess progress through observation and description. And just as it was in Mr. Carr’s class, student choice and voice are woven into the fabric of our work with children, as these inspire authentic student engagement and ownership of the learning process. And above all, just as it was in Mr. Carr’s class, a Princeton Friends education is about all of life, as the social, emotional, ethical, and spiritual dimensions of a child’s being are valued at least as highly as the intellectual and academic.”

College and Career

But before she would be ready to found her own school, there was the matter of college, graduate school, and 12 years teaching in elementary and middle school classrooms.

“It was 1970, the year of the Cambodia invasion, right at the time that Princeton University was opening up the gates in front of Nassau Hall. Before that the gates were closed. Then symbolically the gates opened,” Ms. Fremon said.

In the second class of women admitted to Princeton, Ms. Fremon described the difficulties of the early years of co-education. “It was a challenge coming onto campus the first day with banners hanging out of dorm windows saying ‘bring back the old Princeton.’ I put my head down, and swam and spent a lot of time in the ceramics studio.” She swam on the men’s team her first year, since there was no women’s team.

Graduating with an English major, Ms. Fremon, who had spent summers as a camp counselor, taught students with learning disabilities on the Rider campus, and done some coaching, knew she wanted to work with children and found a job as assistant teacher in the first and second grades at Roosevelt Public Schools.

Soon afterwards she enrolled in Bank Street College and during her second year at Roosevelt went into New York City for a day and a half each week to work towards her master’s degree in education. When a position opened up in the fall of 1977 at Roosevelt for fourth and fifth grades, Ms. Fremon became a full-fledged teacher.

She described her thesis work in completing her degree at Bank Street, a project that already foreshadowed beliefs that would help to provide the foundation for PFS: “Bank Street College is known for its progressive approach to education, and I was creating this curriculum for my master’s thesis on the Pine Barrens that was very interdisciplinary and essentially thematic.”

Princeton Day School

After a total of six years at Roosevelt, Ms. Fremon moved to PDS, where she taught fifth grade English for the next six years, steadily moving, along with middle school department colleagues Nancy Wilson and Sally Gilbert, towards views that were more and more closely aligned with Quaker thinking about education and life.

She described a week-long seminar that each of them attended at different times with David Mallory at the Westtown Friends School, bringing teachers together “to dig into what this work of teaching is all about.” The three also began to attend regular meetings at the Princeton Quaker Meeting House.

“Meanwhile at PDS,” she noted, “we were doing some exciting things in the middle school. We had these interdisciplinary week-long thematic courses that were eye-opening in terms of how you could mix ages just fine, and kids were engaged in learning even though there weren’t any grades attached, and the interdisciplinary approach was very exciting.”

In the fall of 1984, Ms. Gilbert and Ms. Fremon were asked by a leader of the Friends Meeting what they thought the Princeton Meeting should be doing differently. “We think there ought to be a school here,” they said. A month later they were invited to meet with the leadership group of elders, and that session launched a three-year process of feasibility studies, talking to people, creating a board of trustees, and preparing the groundwork for the opening of the Princeton Friends School with 19 students in the fall of 1987.

“It wasn’t that I wanted to leave PDS,” Ms. Fremon said. “I loved PDS. It was a great place, but there were things about size that made it impossible to do what I wanted to be doing. And I wanted to be in a school where there were no grades and no standardized tests.”

The PFS Vision

“These were the principles from the beginning: mixed ages, interdisciplinary curriculum, no grades or standardized tests, the notion of collaboration,” she explained. “It’s not an us and them relationship with teachers. It’s all about how we build our knowledge together. That fed in right at the beginning and it’s still with us. So much has grown up and continues to develop and change, but important aspects of the school have been absolutely consistent since day one.”

Though the school has grown from 19 to 125 students in grades pre-K to 8, Ms. Fremon emphasized that the teachers are constantly talking with each other, “and that allows us to collaborate very well and to know our students well and to share our expertise. The students are known across the grades here, because we’re talking to each other so much.”

She went on to highlight the role of education in amplifying students’ voices. “Everything we do is about supporting kids’ voices. That’s a huge thing here,” she said.

Ms. Fremon lives in Yardley, Pa. with her husband Paul Scutt, a co-founder of the Princeton Learning Cooperative who is now running the Bucks Learning Cooperative in Langhorne. She adopted her daughter Georgia from China in 1996 at the age of 2. Ms. Fremon likes to garden, still likes to swim, and said she’d “get back to clay work” when she retires.

In her closing reflections, Ms. Fremon returned to thoughts about roots and routes and the notion of placed-based education: “No other school is situated as we are, historically and environmentally, in this corner of Princeton. How can we make the most of this land on which we sit and all of the resources around? I believe that children can get a firm connection with this place and they will be able to transfer that to wherever they are in their lives later on. It’s a wonderful place to be.”