Alumni Spotlight: Zack Smith (’03)

July 2nd, 2021
Category: Alumni News

Zack Smith (‘03) has always loved math, so it will be no surprise to any of his former PMFS teachers or classmates that he recently received his PhD in Operations Research, a type of applied mathematics, from the University of Texas. “I have to give Plymouth a ton of credit,” he said, “for building my love of learning and pushing me ahead of my grade level in math and every other subject.”

Zack has already found plenty of applications for his expertise. While earning his PhD, he worked at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, of Manhattan Project fame. The facility is so secure that Zack’s office was an underground vault. “Every time I wanted to go to the bathroom, there was a five-step security sequence to lock [the vault] and then [on my way back] I had to go through it again,” he laughed. “It was like going through airport security every day.” Zack was in charge of planning and acquiring inventory for the lab’s manufacturing, and the National Laboratory funded his degree. “It was definitely an interesting experience, but I’m not really supposed to talk about it,” he said with raised eyebrows.

Now Zack is living in Santa Fe doing a postdoc, and his first project would have definitely impressed his Sixth Grade self. Zack developed a model to help Austin, Texas’s new Major League Soccer team, Austin FC, decide which players to acquire and how to manage their salary cap. The team is now in their first season.

Zack’s postdoc continues through the summer at a different national lab, where he is immersed in a project on machine learning and decision making models. Somehow he still finds time to practice electric guitar two hours a day, a passion of his since his Plymouth days when he took acoustic lessons with Bill Alberts. When his postdoc is over, he and his fiancee Caitlyn hope to move back to the East Coast to be closer to both of their families. They are planning an October 2021 wedding, which will look a bit like a PMFS reunion. “Four of my groomsmen are from my PMFS graduating class,” Zack said. “I talk to those guys every day, basically.”

Along with fostering the close-knit environment that helped him make his best friends for life, Zack said PMFS “is the best educational institution [he’s] attended.” He even credited Plymouth with the lifelong love of learning that led him to get his PhD. Zack explained that PMFS’s culture of creativity, curiosity, and student-led learning made him want to push himself academically. “I was so devoted to learning in those early years,” he remembered. “It felt important to me. I wanted to do my best.”

Zack’s favorite PMFS memories are of class projects and the freedom he got to take things in the direction of his interests, like when he made “a whole papier-mâché model of the Aztec capital city, which is still hanging on my bedroom wall.” “When you do projects like that,” he said, “you never forget the lessons you learn.”

Soon-to-be-Alumni Luncheon

May 14th, 2021
Category: Alumni News

PMFS alumni RJ Edmonds (L) and Haven Arms (R) returned to campus to speak to the graduating Sixth Grade class

Soon-to-be-Alumni Luncheon

Sixth Graders were the guests of honor at the annual “Soon-to-be-Alumni” Luncheon on Thursday. For this special event, PMFS alumni who are about to graduate from high school are invited back to campus. They share their experiences of transitioning to middle school and answer Sixth Graders’ questions over a catered lunch, and everyone goes home with plenty of gifts.

This year’s alumni speakers were Haven Arms, who will be graduating from Germantown Friends School and attending Pratt Institute, and RJ Edmonds, who will be graduating from Penn Charter and attending University of Maryland, Baltimore. Haven and RJ both agreed that PMFS prepared them well academically and socially for their next schools, but RJ added that “asking for help is the greatest thing you can do” and an invaluable life skill. When one Sixth Grader expressed worries about making new friends, Haven advised, “Do what you love and the friends will come” and “Surround yourself with people who make you want to be the best you you can be.”

Echoing PMFS’s ethos of respect for childhood and feeling nostalgic, RJ and Haven hoped the soon-to-be-graduates would enjoy being kids as long as possible. “The world doesn’t end,” Haven reassured the class, “it just gets a little bigger.”

Circus article in the Times Herald!

May 6th, 2021
Category: News

Zoom on Zoom: PMFS students find a way to stage annual circus

By M. English For MediaNews Group

PLYMOUTH — In recent greetings to members of the World Circus Federation on World Circus Day, a Vatican spokesman called such productions sources of “pure joy”; circus artists and workers, “artisans of beauty.” The latter was coined by Pope Francis himself to describe for men and women whose “pastoral care…is among the tasks of the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development,” noted Peter K.A. Cardinal Turkson.

Papal approbation aside, the annual Fourth Grade Circus powered by Plymouth Meeting Friends School’s young “artisans of beauty” has delighted hundreds of fans over the years. Sadly, COVID-19 put the kibosh on 2020’s circus mere hours before opening weekend. But this year – despite continuing pandemic protocols – fourth grade teacher Will Starr and his students found a way to keep “the spirit of the circus…alive and well” via a 40-minute video set to air on PMFS’s Facebook page May 7 at 7 p.m.

The show’s title – “Zoom on Zoom” – is a riff on a popular 1970s-era TV show called “Zoom.”

“When I was a kid, I loved that show,” says Starr, whose passion for circuses goes back just as far. “It was a huge part of my childhood. Basically, it consisted of kids putting on plays, reciting poems, telling jokes, singing…a whole bunch of different segments presented by these kids. So, following that format allowed the kids here to do a lot of different, really creative stuff at home in their own neighborhoods…or here at school.

“In a typical year, we would introduce them to a variety of new circus skills…unicycle riding, trapeze, tight rope walking, et cetera. This year, we, naturally, had numerous limitations, including keeping the kids six feet apart, not having any of our circus partners able to join us on campus and not even having access to the gym (which is being used as a classroom to allow for physical distancing) at all.”

Also problematic, creating acts that combined students attending school on campus and virtually as well as regrouped class “pods” that merged third and fourth-graders.

“By putting all of the kids in one big Zoom meeting, we were able to work with them in a new and unique way,” Starr says. “They all had their own little picture frame in which they could speak, sing or do an act. We also filmed a number of scenes together on campus, showing…how we worked with both live and online kids throughout the year.

“Each year, younger students…come to the circus and dream about when they will participate. Often, they assume that they’ll learn the same skills and have a somewhat pre-defined image of what their show might look like. This year was much different. None of us had any idea how to do this online, so we created a whole new approach that focused much more on the filming of individual and group acts than on the mastery of specific circus skills and presentation. The result is a very sweet and emotionally supportive collection of skits that don’t look anything like what we’ve done in the past.”

But might just redefine future PMFS circuses…

“I think the biggest thing is that it’s opened my mind to the possibility of doing things in a totally new and different way,” Starr says. “Instead of thinking about how the audience will see us, I’ve learned to think about ways to use the camera to create completely new experiences. It isn’t the same, and I do miss the actual performances, but I love what we’ve done. Moving forward, I wonder how we can combine the two.”

Bottom line, viewers “can expect a variety of skits that demonstrate just how playful, hard-working and resilient these kids have been all year.”

“In a time when all interactions have been severely limited, this group of kids has found a way to safely work together and create a wonderfully sweet and engaging show,” Starr continues. “Clearly, everyone had hoped that we would be live, but that wasn’t to be. By keeping an open mind and encouraging the kids to think the same, we have hopefully built a circus that will be remembered for its originality and spirit. That said, we all really hope to be performing in front of an enthusiastic crowd again next spring.”

Starr invites the public to view this year’s virtual circus by logging on to May 7 at 7 p.m.

“Anyone is welcome to join us,” he says. “They don’t even need to have a Facebook account.”

See this article on the Times Herald website

Alumni Spotlight: Eric Toensmeier (’83)

April 22nd, 2021
Category: Alumni News

Eric Toensmeier (‘83) describes himself as a “plant geek.” But really, he’s an accomplished permaculturist, an expert in approaches to sustainable agriculture inspired by natural ecosystems. He’s also a policy advocate, award-winning author, international trainer, former appointed lecturer at Yale, and former Senior Biosequestration Fellow with Project Drawdown (an organization with the goal of reaching “drawdown” – the point in time when the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere starts to decline). Among other things, Eric has managed an urban farm project, run a seed company, and co-developed a farm business training curriculum that is now used all around the US and Canada. Eric’s most recent book is The Carbon Farming Solution. “This last decade I’ve been working on agriculture’s potential to fight climate change on an international level,” Eric said in summary. 

It all started when Eric was a student at PMFS. Eric credits an extended field trip to the Schuylkill Center for Education in Roxborough with awakening his love for the natural world. “It was great to be outside and in nature,” he recalled. “They had you do this thing […called] the ‘magic spot.’ You would sit quietly every day for five days in the same spot for fifteen minutes. Then you would draw or write about what you were observing.” Eric said the Quaker values he learned at PMFS and as a member of Plymouth Monthly Meeting about being still, present, and mindful continue to be important to him and to his work. “I don’t attend [anymore], but I am quiet sometimes,” he laughed.

After graduating from PMFS, Eric attended GFS, spent a year working at the Schuylkill Center, then went to Hampshire College and Goddard College where he created his own major, “Permaculture and Social Ecology.” In 2004, he and a friend turned a tenth-of-an-acre lot near his home in Holyoke, Massachusetts into an “edible garden oasis.” The garden features over two hundred types of edible plants, all working together to enrich their own soil, control their own pests, and keep weeds down, as they would in a natural ecosystem. Eric and his nine-year-old son Daniel now enjoy fruit from the lot for eleven months out of the year. “We’ve been eating citrus out of the greenhouse all winter long. Our garden is something we’re really proud of,” Eric said. The garden is the subject of Eric’s third book, Paradise Lot

With the pandemic putting his international lecture tours on hold, Eric has been able to focus on his writing and continues to teach, just virtually. One current project is a manual about cultivating trees with edible leaves “which, it turns out, are among the most nutritious vegetables in the world and are easy to grow.” Interested? Eric says that linden trees, which grow in the Philadelphia area, have tender young leaves that are good in soups or on sandwiches. Though be warned – some people find them slimy!

When asked if he has advice for current PMFS students interested in plants, Eric emphasized how much work there is to be done in his field by the next generation. Fifth and Sixth Graders at PMFS study farming and sustainability as part of their curriculum, so we might be growing the next “plant geek” right now! Eric also advises students to “Take Spanish seriously. It can really help you in life.” The start he got with Spanish at PMFS has helped him collaborate on perennial food projects with people all over Latin America, from Mexican agronomists to Mayan villagers. Not to mention, his wife Marikler was Guatemalan.

And to the rest of us concerned about global warming, Eric believes that investment in agroforestry systems, meaning growing trees alongside other crops, is “one of the best things we can do for climate change.” Although nearly a quarter of human emissions come from food production, agriculture “has great potential to fight climate change, too, if it’s done right.” And that has been Eric’s life’s work. You can see a full list of his books and read about his other projects at

Alumni Spotlight: Isaiah Barlow-McGee (’13)

March 5th, 2021
Category: Alumni News, News

Isaiah Barlow-McGee (’13) joined the Plymouth Meeting Friends School community as a Third Grader, and he thrived at Plymouth from the get-go. Now a young adult, Isaiah can look back at Plymouth and recognize how the school and its community helped build his character, his confidence, and his independence. He says he was taught to see the world with an open mind and to embrace differences, from immersing himself in another culture on the Mexican Exchange, to celebrating the diversity of his classmates. Isaiah appreciates the freedom Plymouth gave him and his friends to be creative and lead discussions about topics beyond academics, which helped him learn about the world.

After graduating from Plymouth, Isaiah went on to the DePaul Catholic School, then to Bishop McDevitt High School in Cheltenham, where he enjoyed playing football. At one point, when Isaiah felt his workload in high school was unreasonable, he navigated the challenge by communicating with his teachers. Isaiah explained that self-advocacy is a skill he learned at Plymouth.

Isaiah is now a Sophomore at West Chester University studying Respiratory Therapy. With this focus he will be an advocate for those with respiratory concerns like asthma or bronchitis. This is an especially important field now, as Covid is a respiratory virus. After graduation Isaiah is considering additional schooling for a nursing degree. Isaiah also spends his time focused on his hobby of singing, and joyfully recalls PMFS’s music teacher Frumi Cohen (now retired) and her brilliant rendition of the musical Wicked.

At Plymouth, Isaiah found he was treated equitably and was taught that everyone is equal. The real-world experiences Plymouth provided set Isaiah up for success for the rest of his life.

Blasting Off in Pre-K

November 12th, 2020
Category: News

A few weeks ago, Pre-K students were building with blocks when they began creating a rocket ship. This led into a discussion of how rocket ships are built, what they are made of, and where they go. The class took this opportunity to learn about spaceships, space travel, and the solar system. They used a box to design and paint their own spaceship.

As they discussed space travel and the solar system, they came up with some questions to investigate. Questions ranged from “How does the rocket push upwards?” to “How are planets made?” and “What’s outside of space?” The class also had an impromptu lesson in the sandbox on the principles of gravity.