NEVADA CITY February 21, 2020 – On Tuesday, February 25, 2020 the Board of Supervisors will consider designating the site of the John Woolman School, now simply known as “Woolman,” as a historic Nevada County landmark. The public, alumni, and supporters are invited to attend as we celebrate the historical and cultural significance of the school.
The John Woolman School, a private Quaker boarding school, opened to students in 1963. Located in the Sierra Nevada foothills, the school is situated within the native homeland of the local Nisenan tribe on property that was also previously a working ranch. The school originally occupied over 300 acres and included a central campus with classroom buildings, a dining hall, a farm where students did chores, A-frame cabins that functioned as small dorm rooms, and open areas with trees and grass. Surrounding the main campus, 206 acres were left as wilderness — allowing space for hiking trails, land conservation, and to provide a habitat for area wildlife.
In addition to occupying a beautiful site, the John Woolman School is historically significant as an important example of the profound commitment of American Quakers to education. From the origins of the faith in the seventeenth century to the modern practice of the twenty-first century, Quakers have supported innovative schools while adhering to two foundational beliefs in their educational programs:
- Every human being has the capacity to personally experience truth.
- Discovering truth is a process of continuing revelation fostered by silent reflection.
Historically Quaker programs for youth emphasized simplicity, equality, community, and non-violence, while fostering an appreciation for the natural world, and the importance of studying and understanding science. The John Woolman School was founded based on these educational principals in a place where the magnificence of the natural world in the Sierra Foothills would be an integral part of the educational experience.
The John Woolman School holds a unique place in the history of Quaker education. In 1668, George Fox, Quakerism’s founder, created the first private Quaker schools in England. By 1689 notable Quaker William Penn established the first Quaker school in America, the William Penn Charter School in Philadelphia. It was part of his Holy Experiment which extolled a “virtuous colonization” as a way to promote religious liberty, political freedom, and pacifism. It is the oldest continually operating Friends school in the world. As groups of Quakers settled in Ohio and Indiana at the start of the 19th century, schools spread with them to the middle of the country and the first three Quaker colleges, Haverford, Guilford, and Earlham, were established east of the Mississippi River. Soon the population in the west burgeoned with the California Gold Rush and the transcontinental railroad construction, and Quaker families were among the expanding population. During this period Quaker beliefs were undergoing changes as an evangelical movement arose. A group of Quakers moved from New Hampshire to Iowa and finally to San Jose, California who were opposed to the new evangelical direction of Quakerism. In 1889, the San Jose area Quakers reorganized their local meeting as the College Park Association of Friends which later grew to become the group that initiated the creation of the John Woolman School.
Three Quaker colleges, originally started as high schools, opened west of the Mississippi from 1869 to the end of the nineteenth century. William Penn (Iowa, 1873) George Fox (Oregon, 1891), and Whittier (California, 1896). However the west still lacked Quaker secondary schools and consequently parents had to send their children far from home for a Quaker education. When this continued into the mid-twentieth century, four families from the Berkeley area decided to work toward the creation of the first Quaker boarding school in the western United States. This effort took place at an important historical time when the political climate was particularly hostile to Quaker beliefs, with both McCarthyism and international tensions looming over the country. Quakers reacted by standing up for freedom of conscience and freedom of speech. This created conflicts as many states at the time imposed loyalty oaths on employees, students, and even on church bodies. The school would be a safe haven to explore simplicity, equality, community, and non-violence in troubled times.
The group planning the school, College Park Friends Educational Association (CPFEA) came under the care of the College Park Quarterly meeting in 1958. They spent several years in the Quaker process of discernment, planning the school and searching for a location, ultimately finding and purchasing the Nevada City property in 1961. They reached consensus that the property’s untouched riparian areas, meadows, deep forest, streams, and ravines provided the ideal place to create an educational institution rooted in the land , the first Quaker boarding school in the western United States. The school was named for John Woolman, a Quaker born during the 1700’s, who was known for walking thousands of miles across the U.S. urging Quakers to abolish the institution of slavery by freeing their slaves and boycotting various goods made by slave labor. He worked diligently to promote peace among settlers and indigenous tribes, truly “letting his life speak.”
The John Woolman School opened in 1963 with a curriculum based on the philosophy that each person has a unique and valuable perspective that must be heard. The Woolman campus provided a unique and rich opportunity for students to explore the schools pedagogical practices of inquiry, reflection, collaboration and experience in a community setting and through a full complement of academic classes. The innovative program continued until the boarding high school program closed in 2001.
After the closure in 2001, CPFEA recognized the importance of using the school campus to continue to further the Quaker educational goals for young people. A period of restructuring followed and the Woolman Semester program opened in the spring of 2004. The new program focused on the intersections of peace, social justice, and sustainability in an intensely rigorous one semester academic experience attended by students from all over the country. The beautiful natural environment provided the setting for students to spend a semester deeply immersed in contemporary topics and explore issues first hand. Students and staff engaged in small, intensive academic classes, with a lot of time devoted to the hands-on work of the community: the garden and orchard, the kitchen, and the forest. Students completed independent study projects and did off campus trips to see in-person what they were studying in the classroom in a program that was fully accredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC). When the Woolman Semester School closed in 2016 over 300 students had completed the coursework.
Current Site Usage
The modern site consists of 236 acres after the sale of portions of the original land. The remaining campus represents the central core with administrative buildings, classrooms, dining hall, and numerous other structures. Our mission is to steward diverse learning communities and educational programs that weave together spirituality, peace, sustainability and social action, and the land continues to be integral to our programming. Adults and youth of diverse identities and geographies come to our site to experience programs based on Quaker ideals. They reconnect with the personal values of fairness, diversity and equality in our social systems, and learn to take action to heal the planet while living in a nurturing community on the land. Each of our program areas reflect this commitment.
Unique aspects or properties of proposed landmark.
- We are the first Quaker boarding school to be located on the west coast.
- John Woolman School students helped build the Independence Trail with John Olmsted
- We have an original Noborigama Climbing Kiln, one of the largest wood-fired kilns in existence in the U.S.
- The school founders helped start the local BriarPatch food co-op
- Gary Snyder, the Beat Poet, sent his daughter to Woolman
- John Tecklin, a former student, founded Mountain Bounty Farms
- Shana Maziarz, an alumna of the school, founded Three Forks Bakery and Brewery
- Malaika Bishop, a former student, founded Sierra Harvest
- Lew Sitzer, founder of the Sunflower School, taught at Woolman
- Songwriter Kate Wolf visited the school in 1977, and wrote a song called “Fly Away” about our rope swing tree, which appears on her album The Wind Blows Wild and on a DVD of one of her concerts.