Difference between Waldorf education and a Waldorf-methods charter

Independent Waldorf School or Public Waldorf-methods Charter?

by Christina Jennings, former Aurora/Anchorage Waldorf School parent

By way of brief introduction, my eldest daughter attended Aurora Waldorf School in the fall of 1999. I found the faculty, administration and parents at AWS to be exceptional in their quest to develop a school that closely followed Waldorf pedagogy as put forth by Rudolf Steiner. The caliber of speakers, mentors and workshop leaders they attracted, not to mention the superior faculty, still impresses me to this day.

When a relatively small city suddenly has two Waldorf-based schools available, one independent and one public charter, the choice between them may seem simple to some. It’s the same education being offered at both, right? Only one charges a yearly tuition and one is free of charge. Well, no contest: we’ll take the free one, thanks.

Not so fast! It’s absolutely not that cut and dried, and here’s my story to illustrate why it isn’t. When my husband and I found the property of our dreams in Napa, California, in January 2000, we were disappointed that there wasn’t a Waldorf school in the area. However, we soon discovered that there was a group of parents going full bore to develop a Waldorf-inspired charter school with plans to open that fall. At the time, we knew very little about charter schools and how Waldorf  methodology could meld with public education. However, we felt strongly about moving to Napa, were convinced that Waldorf education would be the best for our two young girls, and, in theory, liked the idea of public education. It seemed like a winning combination and we went for it.

The Napa Valley Waldorf-Methods Charter School opened by the skin of its teeth that fall (with classrooms in party tents for three months because the modular buildings we had ordered weren’t ready) and Susannah attended kindergarten there. My husband and I quickly realized that the superintendent of Twin Ridges School District, the district that issued our charter was, at best, unfamiliar with Waldorf philosophy and, obviously, bound by the California Department of Education’s policies.  We began to comprehend just what this marriage of Waldorf and the public domain meant in real terms.

For example, the district handled our festival plans with kid gloves, afraid to allow us to fully celebrate, for example, the Lantern Walk, due to the fact that it “smacked of Christianity,” in the words of the superintendent. The words “soul” and “God” were, naturally, banned from the classrooms. The district had good reason to be wary of what it interpreted as religious overtones in the Waldorf curriculum, one reason being a suit against it by Dan Dugan, a renowned Waldorf critic. He claimed that the district was allowing the teaching of religion in Waldorf-methods charter schools under its jurisdiction. From what I hear, Mr. Dugan is still on the warpath regarding Waldorf education in the public realm.

For my husband and me, whose primary attraction to Waldorf was rooted in its aim to educate the soul, as well as the mind, this didn’t bode well. Fortunately, the case was thrown out, but not before the district asked the parents of our school to contribute money to offset the steep legal fees accrued during the trial.

In addition, out of fear that any effort to educate parents about Waldorf philosophy would be construed by the district or Mr. Dugan as promoting religion in a public school, a group of parents, we included, were forced to create a separate entity for this purpose. How strange it felt to approach the school from an outside perspective with parent education about the school itself! The 501c3 non-profit foundation we helped organize, the Napa Valley Waldorf Foundation, still sponsors, hosts and pays for all anthroposophical education for the Napa Valley Charter School community. This project required an enormous amount of money, time and energy, much more than it would have taken if parent education could have taken place directly in the school.

We encountered still more hurdles, such as the fact that the charter school attracted many families whose children had been unsuccessful in integrating into other programs and had high numbers of special needs. Our charter school, with its limited state budget, didn’t have the resources to cope with these needs, yet because it was a public school, we were required to somehow finance them. To further complicate matters, we were not allowed to screen applicants to save ourselves from this untenable situation. Thus, intensive fundraising among the parents was a full-time focus. During our year there, I’m certain my husband and I spent at least a private school tuition. We were not required to, granted, but the school could not survive without parental funds.

We depended upon donations and the hope of grants for our very site, which was not funded or provided by the district. The subject of grants was a moot one, unfortunately, as we had no one with the expertise or time to apply for them. It was yet another reason parents had to dig deeply into their pocketbooks. As a matter of fact, there were constant issues regarding site and site management. I can remember parents cleaning bathrooms and buying toilet paper because we couldn’t afford janitors or the bare necessities. Extension cords, signage, classroom materials: there was always a basic staple lacking that parents had no choice but to pay for themselves.

While our child was too young to be subjected to state testing, that would have become a factor starting in second grade, had we stayed at the charter school. Sure, you can keep your child home on testing day, but if your school pumps out low test scores, it does not put itself in an advantageous position for either an extension to your charter or increased funding. This is compounded by the fact that teachers teach differently when teaching to a test. The Waldorf curriculum is taught in a specific way, as you well know, and this way is not compatible with the specific standards of any state.

Beyond this, we felt that a majority of the parents at the school really had a very limited deep-seated interest in Waldorf philosophy; they were content with the notion of a nature-based, gentle school with a beautiful aesthetic. There’s certainly nothing wrong with that, but my husband and I wanted what we referred to as the “real deal,” that is, a Waldorf school where, among other things, parents were dedicated to upholding and learning more about the basis for Waldorf education.

Finally, since the Association of Waldorf Schools of North America doesn’t accredit public Waldorf -methods charter schools, there is no Waldorf body in an overseeing role to make sure the pedagogy of Waldorf education is kept intact. The group that ran our school was made up mostly of parents who had free-rein over how the school was formed, and my husband and I sorely felt the lack of depth of a Waldorf-trained and experienced presence.

So we moved, actually bought another home in another county, completely disrupting our life, to enroll our children at the private Marin Waldorf School after just one year at the charter school we had worked so hard to get off the ground. It was wrenching but, in our opinions, necessary and we have never looked back. Our current school is by no means perfect, but the framework it provides and the luxurious freedom we enjoy to freely interpret Waldorf education among like-minded souls brings us boundless satisfaction. All told, we pay about the same at this private school as we did at the charter that year and we get what we sought: an administration and faculty devoted to disseminating Waldorf education as it was meant to be disseminated.

Independent or Charter Waldorf-methods school? For me, hands down: Independent.

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July 2, 2005

To the editor of the Anchorage Daily News:

In response to your article (June 22), “Art, Movement form base of learning at new charter” I am writing to clarify potential misconceptions about Waldorf education. The article speaks well about the qualities of Waldorf education and what it has to offer children, parents and the community. The Aurora Waldorf School has worked for many years to create a home for Waldorf education in Anchorage. The intent to form a new charter school to make Waldorf education more accessible is admirable, but the use of Waldorf ideas in a school does not constitute Waldorf education, nor does it make the school a Waldorf school.

Waldorf education is an established worldwide movement of schools based on the work of Rudolf Steiner. Waldorf education (a trademark) requires fully trained and experienced Waldorf teachers (2 years training, with many weeks Waldorf classroom experience) who are thoroughly grounded and committed to the philosophical foundation of the education, who are capable in the dramatic and fine arts, and who are practiced in the specific methodologies of the Waldorf approach. In addition, a Waldorf school must be free from government regulation over the curriculum, free to determine its own qualitative methods of student assessment, and be an active member of the Association of Waldorf Schools of North America (AWSNA).

Both of your sub headlines give the impression that the Winterberry School is offering Waldorf education. The school, though it may become a good place of learning and may borrow ideas from the Waldorf curriculum, will neither be a Waldorf school nor offer Waldorf education. It is misleading to your readers to report otherwise.

AWSNA provides many helpful resources to parents on its website at www.awsna.org.

Michael Soulé
NW Regional Coordinator
Assn of Waldorf Schools of North America (AWSNA)