Going Public

Schools weigh the Waldorf alternative
by Nora Mealy
California Schools: Winter 1997, p. 34, reproduced by permission

A sense of excitement was in the air. Eager parents packed the school board meeting room, armed with their proposal for a new charter school, based on Waldorf education.

One school board member was hesitant. She knew that charter regulations were complex. And she knew little about Waldorf schools. She had visited a private Waldorf school a few years back and could vaguely recall an abundance of natural objects, beautiful artwork. and some possibly religious overtones.

The board member knew the California Education Code allows charter schools considerable freedom from many of the restrictions governing a traditional public school. They are exempt from most state codes and district policies regarding curriculum, instruction and personnel.

However, charter schools must account for students’ educational progress and meet statewide performance standards. They must also participate in state mandated testing programs. If the school does not meet its proposed student outcomes. the school board can revoke the charter. The board member also knew that the school district cannot approve a charter for a school that is sectarian or religion-based because it would violate the constitutional separation of church and state.

What exactly is the Waldorf educational approach, she wondered. and is it compatible with a public school system? She knew that these questions would be a topic of discussion of the school board for the next several meetings.

Board members in districts across the nation, and especially in California. can expect to be faced with dilemmas similar to the hypothetical scenario described above. There are more than 600 Waldorf schools worldwide, 125 of them in the United States and Canada. and increasing numbers of them are public schools. The first public Waldorf school opened in Milwaukee. Wis., in 1991, followed by one in Detroit. Mich., and one in Flagstaff, Ariz. There are a handful in California, including a charter Waldorf school in San Diego and a magnet school in Sacramento. School boards in St. Cloud, Minn., and Anchorage, Alaska, have considered and rejected charter Waldorf programs.

With over 100 charter schools already established in California and more on the horizon. school board members shouldn’t be surprised if they’re asked to evaluate a charter or magnet proposal for a public Waldorf school. While Waldorf education is extremely popular with many parents and some school board members. many of the Waldorf schools have been clouded by controversy regarding their appropriateness in a public setting.

Waldorf schools are named after the first school started by Rudolf Steiner, an Austrian philosopher. Intrigued by Steiner’s educational views. the owner of the Waldorf-Astoria cigarette factory in Stuttgart, Germany asked Steiner to establish and lead a school for the children of the factory’s employees. This school, die Freie Waldorfschule or the Free Waldorf School, was opened in 1919.

Steiner Schools. as they are known in Europe, expanded and continue to be popular today and are headquartered in Switzerland. Schools are firmly rooted on a philosophy Steiner developed called anthroposophy. Teachers undergo a two to three-year program at Waldorf teacher training colleges. where they are immersed in anthroposophy and Steiner’s teachings.

Anthroposophy- which literally means “human wisdom” – can be difficult for an outsider to understand. According to the 1997 Merriam Webster Dictionary. anthroposophy is a 20th century religious system growing out of theosophy (a mystical late-19th century religion) and centering on human development. Steiner’s own descriptions of anthroposophy are even more obscure, and to some, smack of a New Age cult: “Anthroposophy is a path of knowledge, to guide the spiritual in the human being to the spiritual in the universe …. [Man] alone can acknowledge anthroposophy. who finds it in what he himself in his own inner life feels impelled to seek …. Anthroposophical ideas are vessels fashioned by love, and man’s being is spiritually summoned by the spiritual world to partake of their content.”

Religious as this may seem to some, proponents of Waldorf education deny that religion is taught in the public Waldorf classroom. They argue that while the schools are spiritually oriented, religious doctrine is not part of the curriculum. Children of all religious backgrounds attend Waldorf schools.

“We don’t use any kind of religious stuff at all,” says Ruth Mikkelsen. principal of T.E. Matthews school in Yuba City. a Yuba County Office of Education Waldorf school for juvenile offenders. “We are using the state curriculum. Steiner’s philosophy is not outright taught in the schools.” Mikkelsen is enthusiastic about the Waldorf courses – designed especially for public school teachers – that she and her staff have taken at the Rudolf Steiner College in Fair Oaks, Calif.. and pleased with how well her traditionally difficult-to-reach students have responded to Waldorf techniques.

Betty Staley teaches Waldorf education at Steiner College and directs workshops to train public school teachers in the Waldorf approach. She maintains that training for the public schools is different in many respects than for private schools. and that Waldorf teachers are careful to modify parts of the curriculum. Instead of teaching stories about saints in the second grade, for example, teachers might substitute stories of secular heroic figures. “We are supportive of adaptation.” she says. “Steiner maintained that we have to relate to differing situations.”

But critics of Waldorf schools vehemently dispute the contention that religion is kept out of the classroom. A group of Waldorf opponents, led by a parent of a former Waldorf pupil, is active both over the Internet and in picket lines outside Waldorf public school sites.

The purpose of their group, PLANS (People for Legal and Non-Sectarian Schools) is to “educate the public about Waldorf education.” They argue that, by its very nature, Waldorf education in the public schools violates laws ensuring the separation of church and state. The Waldorf movement’s denials that religion is not taught in the classroom are deceptive, they claim. “because anthroposophy and Waldorf education can’t be separated.”

WestEd, a nonprofit research agency, did an in-depth study of Harriet Tubman Village School, a charter school in the San Diego Unified School District that uses Waldorf methods. They found no evidence that religion was taught during the year of the study, although they affirmed that there were “some unusual practices … which may be susceptible to an interpretation that religion is being taught.” One such activity included burning a candle by a teacher, who said the only purpose was “to set a thoughtful mood and slow down the pace of modern life.” Teachers also led students in observing a moment of silence, with no mention of prayer, and used the Old Testament to teach the history of the Hebrews.

The WestEd report also mentioned the presence of a nature table in a kindergarten. a common feature of the lower-grade Waldorf classroom and the subject of much contention by Waldorf critics. Nature tables typically consist of displays of natural objects such as plants, wood and rocks, as well as candles. figurines. pictures and gauzy fabrics.

The WestEd Report did not comment on the function of the table, but Dan Dugan, secretary of PLANS, claims that nature tables are more than what they appear to be. In his article published on the Internet. “Nature Table or Altar?” Dugan claims that because “anthroposophy is a religion that endows all of nature with spiritual meaning,” activities surrounding the nature table, such as reciting verses celebrating nature, must be construed as religious. He alleges that “some of the behaviors and rituals performed at the nature table are much like those performed at an altar in temples and churches.”

Sectarian or not. Waldorf education is very different frown a traditional public school. Teacher training emphasizes “educating the whole child: the head, heart and hands.” Many subjects that are considered “extras” in the public school system are given greater emphasis in Waldorf schools. Children spend a great deal of time on art, toy making, building, knitting and gardening. Bible stories, mythology and fairy tales predominate in the elementary curriculum. Music and movement exercises are also emphasized and incorporated in the teaching of math.

What isn’t in the classroom disturbs many critics. There are no textbooks through the fifth grade: instead, children rely on workbooks they produce themselves during the year, based on their lessons and experiences. Teaching reading is typically postponed until the third grade. Computer technology is shunned, and parents are advised not to permit television watching at home.

How do Waldorf children fare academically compared to children in traditional schools? While little evidence is available, proponents of Waldorf education claim that Waldorf graduates have been accepted as students at, and have graduated from, some of the most prestigious colleges and universities in the United States. It’s also not difficult for students to transfer to a traditional high school after completing elementary Waldorf education, they assert. But even Waldorf defenders admit that such is not the case in the lower grades.

Staff at the Harriet Tubman Village School in the San Diego City Unified School District were shocked when the Abbreviated Stanford Achievement Test scores came out after spring testing in their first year of operation. Their students scored 11 to 2 3 percentile points below students at the neighboring elementary schools. which had similar student populations. Students scored in the lowest quarter of the nation in reading comprehension, math applications and language expression.

Staley argues that you must give a program time to adapt to a different methodology. She maintains that the strong emphasis on oral language in the early grades has done wonders for the inner-city, mostly African-American population in the public Waldorf elementary school in Milwaukee, where test scores have steadily increased in its seven years since the school adopted the Waldorf method.

According to the WestEd report, teachers in San Diego came away from the experience with a clearer understanding of how important test results are in a district and “with a determination to adjust their curriculum and assessment practices to better prepare students for these tests” in the future. As a result, teachers at Tubman now frequently supplement the Waldorf style with district textbooks in math, reading and literature. They now regard themselves as a “Waldorf-inspired” school with an integrated curriculum, according to Tubman’s director of education, Roger Sciarretta. In the words of one teacher, “we combine the best of Waldorf with the best of the district.” Parents are clearly pleased: there are over 400 students enrolled with a waiting list for each grade. Though the charter began as a K-6 school. it recently added a seventh-grade classroom so that students could continue in the program.

While many Americans may wholeheartedly agree with the Waldorf approach, there are many who don’t, and board members agree that parents shouldn’t be faced with unwelcome surprises when their children enter public schools. Some public Waldorf schools in California have run into problems when parents registered their children without knowing anything about the Waldorf philosophy. Based on interviews with parents, the WestEd study found that supporters of the school were those who had at least some familiarity with the program. Conversely. those who didn’t support the school were unfamiliar with Waldorf education. Many of the non-supporters identified by WestEd had less than a high school education. were non-English speakers, and were unaware that they could have chosen a different school.

Karen Young, a school board member in the Sacramento City Unified School District, believes that the key to success for a Waldorf public school is making parents aware of their choices. Oak Ridge Elementary School in her district started as a magnet Waldorf school, but mostly neighborhood children attended. The predominantly Hispanic and Hmong population balked when they learned of the emphasis on handiwork and the unusual spiritual practices. Many parents came from farming communities themselves, and the preponderance of the arts and gardening with no computer technology was not what they expected from an American school. Neighborhood. parents overwhelmingly voted against continuing the program at its current site, and the school board opted to open another Waldorf school at a “neutral” site this year. “The district really has to do its homework in helping people understand what the program is about,” Young says.

Young is a strong advocate for choice and maintains that Waldorf education absolutely belongs in public schools. “Not all forms of education fit all children,” she says. The future challenge to our school boards will not only be to accommodate choice, but to do so with open eyes. School boards need to assure themselves that proposed programs are sound and legal, and ensure that parents know what will be in store for their children.

Nora Mealy is a Davis-based freelance writer.