Exton's Church Farm School Celebrates 100 Years
The all-boys private secondary boarding school has been a Main Line-area fixture since 1918.
CFS students work the farm circa 1930.
Stacey Shreiner Kley all but grew up at the Church Farm School. A board member and the founder’s granddaughter, she volunteered over vacations and answered the switchboard during the annual Christmas appeal, which awarded donors farm-produced scrapple.
Kley shares how her grandfather, father and brother served in succession as headmasters, though she acknowledges that the preparatory boarding school for grades nine to 12 has “definitely been a boy thing.”
“It was overwhelming as a kid,” she admits. “I remember mostly going to chapel with the boys, then midday dinner in the dining room with boys lined up in formation, and walking through that gauntlet of boys as a teenager. It was painful. I put my head down and didn’t look at anyone.”
Back then, there weren’t many girls on campus. Today, as CFS commemorates its centennial on April 1, there are more female teachers, along with a coed staff of housemothers and women like Kley on the board.
It all started 100 years ago, when Kley’s grandfather, the Rev. Dr. Charles Wesley Shreiner, an Episcopal priest, moved five promising but penniless boys recruited from West Philadelphia churches into a dilapidated carriage house and cannery on a farm in Glenloch—now Exton. Much has changed since then. Community service has replaced farm work, and the diverse student body represents many faiths, races, ethnicities and economic backgrounds. But the mission remains tied to its history as a boarding school for fatherless boys—“boys of promise who have the opportunity to lead lives of impact,” says Kley.
The school’s charter sought “white minor boys”—until the word “white” was struck in 1963. Now, 80 percent of CFS’s 190 students are of color. “Don’t expect girls as students anytime soon,” Kley says. “My grandfather would probably roll over in his grave. It’s not even something we talk about at the board level. There’s not a need, and it’s not the mission of the school. There’s a place for single-sex education.”
Even so, CFS has had to evolve—most noticeably in the level of academic requirements, rigor and standing during Rev. Edmund K. “Ned” Sherrill II’s tenure, which began in 2009. Recent college acceptance lists are impressive. Last fall, the Class of 2017 headed to Johns Hopkins, Brown, Yale, Williams College, Emory and Villanova, with more than $3 million in grants and scholarships.
Sherrill has hired visionary faculty and fostered both collaborative learning and STEM education. Many students now fashion themselves engineers, computer scientists, chemists and biologists. All are loaned laptops, so learning flourishes beyond the day’s 70-minute classes. On a nearly 150-acre campus, the 174-bed residential cottage setting offers arts, ethics, athletics and social-emotional learning, with the goal of allowing “a band of brotherhood to take hold,” Sherrill says.
Years ago, the boys participated in a work program that had them milking cows, tending chickens and pigs, or working in vocational trades in the campus print or machine shops. These days, those physically demanding lessons are conveyed differently, perhaps through healthy athletic programs. “A small fish can be a big fish here, and boys leave with tremendous confidence,” Sherrill says.
All of this thanks to three generations of Shreiners, each named Charles. The first was “The Colonel,” who passed away in 1964. Then there was his son, Charles Jr., who died in 2004, and grandson Charles “Terry” Shreiner III.
The son of a clergyman and schoolteacher, Sherrill landed at CFS after unraveling multiple familial connections there. It helped that his wife was from Paoli. Professionally, he’s always sought social-justice work—through politics, Yale Divinity School, time overseas and eventually a career at boarding schools. “I loved my time at St. Paul’s (Concord, N.H.) and St. Mark’s (Southborough, Mass.), but there were so many kids of privilege. I became bored by it,” Sherrill says. “Rather than polishing the bell on the flagship, here we’re in the engine room.”
CFS’ centennial theme is “A Seat at the Table,” because Sherrill believes that supporters who’ve nurtured this service mission are truly offering meaningful lives to young men. “Almost all alumni have six words on their lips: ‘Church Farm School saved my life,’” Sherrill says. “We’re planting seeds, and we know that these kids who germinate have every opportunity to contribute a meaningful application of their talent. It’s a vision they lack when they first come here.”
By the mid-1970s, the working farm faltered, and by the ’80s and ’90s, swaths of nearly 1,700 accumulated acres of farmland were sold. The proceeds created a $140 million endowment. Of the $10.5 million annual operating budget, $7 million comes from the endowment, $1.5 million from tuition—families pay what they can afford—and $2 million from fundraising. Much of the latter is historically—and somewhat secretly—Main Line driven, by the likes of the late Jack Dorrance of the Campbell Soup Company and Jim Buck of the Philadelphia Phillies, both long-term board members at one time. CFS invests an estimated $200,000 per boy over four years.
Walt Smith, an alumnus and former CFS board member, grew up in a divorced family in Blairstown, N.J., home to Blair Academy, which his family couldn’t afford. He found CFS in 1980 as a seventh-grader, then graduated six years later as the valedictorian. When his father relocated to Malvern, Smith could’ve transferred to Conestoga High School for his junior and senior years, but he stayed at CFS, where he learned to take ownership of himself and his life. “CFS should pull even more national rank because it’s a school unlike others around,” says Smith, who is senior vice president at Nasdaq and now lives in Devon. “With such a diversified student body, the real world isn’t a shock to you. CFS is a hidden gem.”
And one that ought to attract some attention this spring. In March, CFS hosted the Chester County Historical Society’s Antiques Show. On April 15, past and present CFS organists will hold a concert. May 4 will feature the school’s Centennial Gala at Longwood Gardens, and a Centennial Community Celebration will take place May 19 on campus.
Despite Main Line proper notions and settings, Kley says CFS doesn’t fit the stereotype, nor does it try to compete head-to-head as a Main Line school—academically or athletically. “We’re molding a different student, with families with different expectations,” she says. “But philanthropically, Main Line support is how the school has been built. It’s such a compelling, different mission to this day.”