For decades, the spring trip to Echo Hill Outdoor School has been a mainstay of the 4th grade experience—a place where students can put into practice the values of environmental stewardship they have explored throughout the school year.
Seeing 4th graders engage as environmental leaders during this annual trip inspired their teachers to think about new ways to empower students as they transitioned out of Lower School. What if students had projects in which they could apply the skills, knowledge, and values they developed throughout Lower School to issues of environmental stewardship beyond Echo Hill? And what if they could apply them to other issues of equity and justice that captured their imaginations, such as those they explored in social justice groups and book club discussions?
Enter Ann Winkelman Brown ’55 (P ’80, ’83), who is bringing the 4th grade team’s vision to life through her endowed gift commitment. The Honorable Ann Winkelman Brown ’55 Ethical Leadership Program Fund is designed to create leadership and civic engagement opportunities for students to listen deeply, act ethically, and live peacefully—beginning with the 4th grade capstone projects, an anchor program for the Center for Ethical Leadership. Like Senior Projects, these ethical leadership experiences will enable students to advocate competently and confidently for issues they find meaningful.
This new chapter in Brown’s 71-year history with Sidwell Friends aligns with her previous experiences as a student, parent, and philanthropic leader at the School. Upon entering Sidwell Friends in 6th grade, she felt empowered by the School’s “wonderfully, intellectually stimulating” atmosphere. She began to understand ethical leadership through early interactions with her “political, active, smart, and funny” classmates and teachers like Richard Abell, the 8th grade social studies teacher who introduced Brown to politics and advocacy.
At Meeting for Worship, she realized that anyone could emerge as a leader: “You heard ethical leadership from everyone standing up in Meetings: people who were speaking honestly, without it being from a pulpit or ritualized.”
Perhaps it’s only appropriate that Brown first met Lower School Principal Adele Paynter at an event for Hilary (P ’97) and Chelsea (’97) Clinton’s The Book of Gutsy Women.
The conversation on stage about female empowerment and ethical leadership paralleled the discussion between Brown and Paynter, who discussed how to best encourage Lower School students to flex their leadership muscles.
“I was particularly impressed by this program that was going to start really young, and would allow students to be creative and imaginative,” Brown recalled. “My children [Cathy ’80 and Laura ’83] were Sidwell Friends lifers, and I know how important it is for students to learn about and practice leadership from a young age.”
When Paynter speaks about this program, it’s easy to understand why Brown was captivated. “This is a beautiful opportunity at the end of this portion of a child’s journey for them to take all of their learning that they’ve had and put it into action in a project that gives them voice, agency, and power,” Paynter said.
“In providing a Quaker education, our job is to prepare students so that they can go into the world, do good, and make the world a more just place.”
This program is a chance for the 4th grade team—Kathryn Bauman-Hill (P ’18, ’26), Tere Cuesta, Barbara Davison (P ’97, ’01), Courtney Reynolds, Jami Tomik, and Edith Zhang ’81 (P ’17, ’22)—to do that. “Our goal is to help students develop the knowledge, skills, and mindsets they need to be bold, empathic leaders who can take action on behalf of our common humanity,” Reynolds said. “The world will continue to change, but we hope the values and virtues we nurture throughout students’ Lower School experiences become deeply rooted in students’ hearts and minds.”
Fourth grade is an ideal time for these projects. Developmentally, students are focused on issues of fairness, justice, and equality in all aspects of their lives. They are more independent. They can develop inquiries, collect information from databases, and do basic research to answer their bigger questions.
“You see this in our food, educational, and social justice service learning groups,” Tomik said. “They are activists and passionate about making a difference in the world.”
“They don’t need us to be next to them as they plan out the steps of their projects; they can drive it and it becomes theirs,” Zhang added. “And that’s what we want. We want kids who are walking the talk. It will be a powerful experience at the end of their time in Lower School, yes, but in the global view of their K-12 education, this demonstrates to them that they don’t have to wait until they finish school to let their lives speak.”
Over the summer, the 4th grade teachers collaborated to begin developing the curricula that will move this program from an idea to a reality. Bringing a learner’s mindset to the challenge, they researched best practices in service and experiential learning; identified the key Learnings—to Know, to Do, to Be, and to Live with Others—that students will need to take action; and assessed their existing curricula through a Quaker lens of simplicity, so that the 4th grade educational experience flows purposefully toward this culminating project.
“The beauty of the yearlong program is that it’s not limited to a culminating ethical leadership experience,” Cuesta shared. “We are developing students as people so they can be ethical leaders, and as they apply their learning in a meaningful and authentic way through these projects, they will strengthen their belief in their own agency.”
As the program launches, students will be encouraged to create a more just world through projects that speak to them. “This will tie in well to the Quaker testimonies they’ve explored throughout Lower School, the China curriculum of 4th grade, and the sustainability and stewardship lessons they explore in our gardening program,” Bauman-Hill said.
Next up for this team is creating windows for students to glimpse unexpected opportunities. That’s where alumni and parents can get involved. “There’s a whole world of people we’d love to have come in and talk to our students,” Reynolds said. “We are interested in mining our community for expertise and experiences they can share with students.”
Of course, the 4th grade teachers are thankful for the involvement of one alumna in particular. “What Ann Winkelman Brown has done with her gift is gigantic,” Zhang said. “It gives their projects importance. It makes them public. It shows the students that their voices matter, that people are listening to them and investing in their ideas.”
And what are Brown’s hopes for the program, in its first year and beyond?
“I am just hoping they are going to invite me out to see it at various stages! I’m always looking for a reason to visit Sidwell Friends.”