Oakwood Friends School: A legacy of integrity, equality

Social responsibility and high academic standards at school’s core

Published Wednesday, April 10, 2019
by Bob Dumas, Editor

Oakwood Friends School, A legacy of integrity, equality

Left to right: Head of School Chad Cianfrani, Middle school students involved in the sustainability class pick early-spring greens from the four-season greenhouse, An upper school engineering student solders components for a theramin instrumentation design project, Middle school students work with their (beetle) lab partner during a biomechanical strength project.

For more than two centuries, Oakwood Friends School has upheld a strong commitment to educating the spirit, the scholar, the artist, and the athlete. Today, it offers some of the most comprehensive contemporary learning programs, challenging students both inside the classroom and within the local community.

Located on a 66-acre campus off Spackenkill Road in Poughkeepsie, Oakwood Friends School, founded in 1796, is New York’s oldest co-educational boarding and day school. It remains true to its founding principles that students learn best within a diverse community dedicated to collaboration, social responsibility and high academic standards. Early students included Danial Anthony, father of Susan B. Anthony, and Lucretia Mott, the noted abolitionist. Oakwood’s first international students arrived in 1860 and in 1934 it admitted its first black students. Today, the school draws students from nine countries, multiple states and surrounding New York towns.

“A culturally, socio-economically, and religiously diverse program enriches the learning for all members of the community,” said Head of School Chad Cianfrani. “When students discuss material in courses such as globalization or ethics, they gain a deeper understanding from classmates who bring their own perspectives from Rwanda, China, Afghanistan, Poughkeepsie and all places in between.”

Unique aspects of the sixth through 12th-grade program include a curriculum that stresses depth over breadth, multiple sustainability initiatives and a commitment to community engagement and service learning. Of particular pride, Cianfrani said, are the offerings within its STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, math) curricula. The classes provide a true hands-on experience, offering practical application layered over foundational material. Cianfrani believes it is essential to provide students with the tools to think critically, adapt quickly, collaborate effectively and solve open-ended problems creatively.

The ceramics and technology program, for example, exposes students to a traditional throwing wheel, glazing and firing techniques as well as work with a 3D, Arduino-based, clay extrusion printer. Working with the printer, students bring their projects from concept to computer screen to reality.

“It is fascinating when a figure designed on screen transforms into a tangible form ready for glazing and firing in the kiln,” Cianfrani said. “These intersections of creativity, chemistry, and mechanics are fun to watch.”

Courses such as Science of Sounds and Robotics provide further opportunity for research collaboration and creativity. In the sound course, students look at the fundamental properties of sound and signal processing. In past years, students have met with Bose researchers, toured the local IBM facilities, and analyzed noise cancellation technologies. They have even designed, soldered, built and learned to play the Theremin, an early electronic musical instrument. Robotics is a lab-based course that uses Arduino micro-controllers to build small autonomous vehicles and explore programming, logic, and circuit design.

Having offered several of these courses for over a decade, it is rewarding to see alumni return and share their perspective. One alumnus, who recently finished his PhD research in Stanford’s electrical engineering program, talked with the students about his work. He pointed to aspects of the program that prepared him for further studies and now a career in nanotechnology. Another alumnus pointed to her Oakwood lab work on bio-instrumentation design, which launched her undergraduate, graduate and career in bio-medical engineering.

“The goal of many of our classes, not just in the math/sciences, is to give students a foundational understanding, while showing them the real-world applications and career opportunities,” Cianfrani said.

The Oakwood program also strives to take learning from the classroom to the community. Cianfrani is particularly proud of the school’s Theater and Arts for Social Justice program. This program starts in the classroom where students research artists, actors and plays that focus on race, class, and gender in society. It then moves into the field, where one recent unit on nutrition and food scarcity led to service opportunities at several community gardens, CSAs and food pantries.

Under the same umbrella, the students have engaged with local muralists and professional artists. Multiple public parks and buildings throughout Poughkeepsie show colorful signs of planters, benches and wall murals completed by the students. Professional collage artist, Jonathan Talbot, a 1957 alumnus, who’s exhibited pieces in Museum of Modern Art and the National Academy, has returned several times and worked with students in the classroom and in his studio.

Political writer, commentator and best-selling author Juan Williams, a Class of ’72 alumnus, has returned to Oakwood several times, speaking powerfully about the influence the school had on him. When asked by one of Oakwood’s student reporters about his high school years, Williams replied, “What I notice when I am back at Oakwood is that there still is this sense of small community, where everyone is of value and people are engaged. I think this sets Oakwood apart - there’s a sincerity about trying to be yourself and trying to be of value to a community and believing in the idea of progress and positivity. That’s the Oakwood experience for me.”

Oakwood’s educational philosophy remains focused on inquiry, reflection, and action.

“The diversity of our classrooms and educational approach reflect a multi-cultural world and evolving workspace,” Cianfrani said. “Students are encouraged to collaborate academically and step outside their comfort zone. Actively engaging students in a shared ‘search for truth,’ we attempt to model deep listening, respect for competing viewpoints and active participation in society.”

To learn more about Oakwood Friends School, visit OakwoodFriends.org