By Besha Rodell
By Patrick Range McDonald
By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
Steiner called his beliefs anthroposophy, which, according to the dictionary, is a religious system centering on human development that incorporates theories of pantheistic evolution and reincarnation. Like a New Age religion, Steiner’s anthroposophy blends Christ and Buddha, and merges scientific inquiry with Eastern and Western spiritual traditions. There also happens to be an element of racism in some of Steiner‘s works. He wrote against intermarriage between races and contended, for example, that ”blond hair actually bestows intelligence“ and ”the more the fair individuals die out the more will the instinctive wisdom of humans vanish.“
Operators of Waldorf-style schools insist that they use only the best of Steiner’s ideas on child development, while specifically avoiding sectarian teaching, not to mention outmoded notions of blond superiority. For that matter, the term ”Waldorf-style“ means different things at different campuses.
Even accepting such disclaimers, however, the Waldorf philosophy clearly moves counter to mainstream school reform in California, which emphasizes phonics, computers and hardcore academics in the early grades. A strict Waldorf school would use no textbooks through the fifth grade. The use of computers is discouraged, because using a computer is regarded as an isolating activity. In fact, no plastics of any sort are permitted in Waldorf primary classrooms.
The Yuba River Charter School, about a 90-minute drive northeast of Sacramento, sits in the epicenter of the charter movement, where there are more charters per student than in any other region in the state. Yuba River‘s friendly Waldorf classrooms retain an aspect of play and exploration that students elsewhere leave regretfully behind in kindergarten. Third-graders still have sandboxes in the classroom and a kid-size kitchen. And students keep the same teacher for eight years, building a familylike relationship. Every child learns to play musical instruments, the recorder in the third grade and the violin in the sixth grade.
At first blush, the experience seems a refreshing antidote to the constant drumbeat of ever-more-rigorous academics for young children. During my visit, I had to remind myself that experts who know more about education than I have decided that Waldorf is all wrong; that it’s more ”effective“ to go for highly structured, no-nonsense, formal studies.
Conclusive data that would settle the debate is wanting. Yet at the Yuba River school, even the act of citing test scores would seem like justifying Mozart‘s piano lessons on the grounds that they develop coordination for adjusting widgets on an assembly line. Something other than the unmitigated push for success on multiple-choice exams is at work here.
The Yuba River Waldorf school is one of four charters assembled at the Bittney Springs complex, a ’70s-era business park near Nevada City, in Northern California‘s Gold Rush country. The schools include the Waldorf operation as well as a school of the arts, a school for the disabled and a small high school.
The mastermind is 56-year-old Superintendent Dave Taylor, who, with his tie and insurance-company-exec haircut, doesn’t look like an education radical. But he comes pretty close.
For his charters, Taylor has leased about 60 percent of Bittney Springs, which once was corporate headquarters for an electronics firm, but had lain largely dormant for several years.
In this case, the ”park“ part of ”business park“ is no euphemism. The four-building, 40,000-square-foot campus stretches across 15 wooded, gently rolling, pine-needle-strewn hills. There are no athletic fields, but there are man-made creeks and vistas of fish ponds and mountains.
”You can‘t duplicate this,“ said Taylor during a recent visit as he appreciated the view. ”No way.“
All told, Taylor has started 13 charters, all but two outside the territorial jurisdiction of his tiny Twin Ridges Elementary School District, which has but 698 students from within his school-district boundaries. Six of the schools use Waldorf methods. (Four other state charter schools also list themselves as using Waldorf methods.)
High school charter parent Tiana Trumbo noted that the 83 11th-grade students have access to three foreign languages, with class sizes of eight to 13 students. ”There is the potential to really learn, to not get lost in the shuffle. If a student is not doing well, they’re staying right on top of it.“
But Trumbo, who volunteers at the school, also understands that the school‘s survival is anything but assured, because of the constant need to recruit. Other school districts, she said, have been refusing to provide student names or contact information for fear of losing students (and the state funds that come with them). ”This is competition for the other schools,“ she said.
This notion of charter schools inducing competition is the ideological pedestal on which advocates predicate their hope for reform. Nevada County, the location of Bittney Springs, is home to 21 charter schools in a county with a total of only 13,000 students.
Nevada County had comparatively high test scores both before and after the influx of charter schools. But charters have pushed its traditional schools to be better, said Nevada County schools Superintendent Terence K. McAteer. ”Competition is a good thing,“ he said. ”And what they’ve done for Nevada County is that you no longer live solely in your school district. You have a myriad of choices. And our student population is declining, so the competition for those students is profound.“
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