Joan 'Penny' Colgan-Davis, innovative educator and clerk of Quaker meetings

Joan “Penny” Colgan-Davis, 72, a distinguished Philadelphia educator and Quaker leader, died June 19, of melanoma at her home in Mount Airy.

She had battled the disease for six months, said her husband, John.

Ms. Colgan-David was an innovator whose progressive approach to education mirrored her Quaker upbringing. She began her career as a teacher at Miller Elementary School in Philadelphia in 1967.

Six years later, Philadelphia’s public-school teachers went on strike, partly over what they viewed as excessively large classes.

Camera icon Courtesy of the family
Joan “Penny” Colgan-Davis

“We struck for weeks,” Ms. Colgan-Davis told family and friends, “and when it was over, I was still one teacher in a classroom with 33 students. That was not good for the students or for me.”

She had some innovative ideas that she wanted to try, so she joined a parent-run cooperative school in West Philadelphia called the University City New School.

While there, she helped develop curriculums that featured research projects powered by student questions, lots of outdoor play and study time, hands-on learning, and student-designed art projects.

“These ideas were important ones to her, and they became hallmarks of her later work at other schools,” her husband said.

In 1985, Ms. Colgan-Davis became a teacher and then director for the Friends Select lower school in Philadelphia..

For 11 years, starting in 1993, she served as principal of the Miquon School in Whitemarsh, where children learn through inquiry and self-directed study.

She returned briefly to Philadelphia as the first head of the Russell Byers Charter School in 2004.

In the mid-2000s, Ms. Colgan-Davis became the head of Frankford Friends School, a private Quaker elementary school in the Frankford section of Philadelphia. She retired in 2015.

“At each place she worked, she brought the vision and values she believed in and helped change each school in meaningful ways,” her husband said.

In retirement in 2016, Ms. Colgan-Davis led volunteers to reopen the library at Kelly Elementary School in Germantown. It had closed in 2014.

“It had become a dumping ground,” Ms. Colgan-Davis told CBS3 TV. “There were boxes all around and a lot of dusty books.”

The volunteers discarded outdated books, cleaned up the current ones, and added signs to the shelves and colorful artwork to the walls. Every weekday during the school year, they held library classes, the station reported.

Born in Wilmington to Tom and Joan Colgan, she grew up accompanying her parents to civil rights marches and developed an interest in social justice.

She graduated in 1967 from Claymont High School in Delaware, and from Guilford College, a Quaker school in Greensboro, N.C.

A member of the Germantown Monthly Meeting, which is a Quaker worship group, she eventually became clerk or leader of the meeting. Later, she became clerk of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, the organizing body of Quaker meetings in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware.

“She combined personal faith with amazing administrative abilities that were both loving and visionary,” said Melissa Elliott, secretary of the Germantown Monthly Meeting.

Ms. Colgan-Davis enjoyed camping in a tent and bird watching in Arizona, Canada, New Mexico, New York, and Pennsylvania. Her garden was a wildlife habitat and a migration stopover for hummingbirds, butterflies, and finches.

Besides her husband, Ms. Colgan-Davis is survived by a son, Evan; two brothers; and a sister.

A memorial service will be held from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday, July 21, at Germantown Monthly Meeting, 47 W. Coulter St., Philadelphia, Pa. 19144. Burial is private.

Contributions may be made to the Kelly School Library Fund, c/o Germantown Monthly Meeting at the address above; or to the Ridgeway Scheirer Fund for Peace and Justice, Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, 1515 Cherry St., Philadelphia, Pa. 19102.