Thursday, March 6, 2003

Waldorf goes against school grain

Reading not stressed in early classes; no principals

By Maggie Dons
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[photo] Cincinnati Waldorf School third-grade students (from left) Jackie Dauterman, Megan Shefchik and Sonja Thams knit during classes Wednesday.
(Craig Ruttle photo)
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About a dozen students stand in a circle, repeating a phrase as they quickly pass bean bags from hand to hand.

"Giving and receiving, through us love is weaving," they chant.

At Cincinnati Waldorf School in Winton Place, exercises like this one - which relates to a morning class on saints - are a daily part of the curriculum. It's a private school where reading is downplayed, the seasons are celebrated and beeswax is preferred to Barbie dolls.

The Waldorf system, started by Austrian philosopher and scientist Rudolf Steiner in 1919 at the end of World War I, is the fastest-growing independent school movement in the world.

However, the system is not without critics who think the schools are inherently pagan, often racist and covertly religious.More than 800 Waldorf schools exist worldwide, including 170 in the United States. The Winton Place campus, which is not affiliated with any religion, is the only Waldorf school in the Tristate.

The Cincinnati facility, which is celebrating its 30th year, began as an early childhood center and has eventually grown to a K-6 grade school of 127 students. Next year, seventh grade will be added, with eighth grade planned the following year.

Founded: 1973.
Address: 745 Derby Ave., Winton Place.Enrollment: 95 students grades 1-6; 34 kindergarten; 18 nursery.
Tuition (Grades 1-6): $6,980-$7,190 (tuition assistance available).
Tuition (nursery and kindergarten): $2,698-$4,629.
Information: 541-0220 or Web site.
But the school, which charges upward of $7,000 a year for tuition, is anything but conventional.

• From first grade on, students stay with the same teacher for several years.

• Curriculum, until about fifth grade, snubs printed books. Instead, Waldorf students make their own lesson books for each subject.

"These books are their memory of their knowledge," said administrator Vicki Mansoor. "It's more removed if you just pick up a text."

• Classrooms for preschoolers are distinctive from other nurseries. You won't find posters of Blue's Clues or plastic toys in bright colors. Instead, children play with tree stumps, pastel silk scarves and simple dolls without faces on the theory that unfinished playthings spark imagination.

[photo] Laurie Heldman, 3, and Patrick Scully, 4, play in the snow outside the Waldorf School nursery.
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• Administrative decisions are made by a board and teachers. There is no principal or superintendent. Administrators just help the two groups coordinate.

Waldorf education is based on the belief that human consciousness forms at a certain rate. Students are never presented with anything they can't fully grasp - which is why you will find chunks of beeswax and wooden recorders in a classroom rather than CD players or televisions.

"We provide for the children what is appropriate for that age," Mansoorsaid.

That's also why reading isn't stressed early on. Rather, children discover language arts first through an oral tradition.

Students learn to write before they can read, which usually happens around second grade. In contrast, most traditional schools teach reading in kindergarten.

"Our goal is to help these children unfold and become the best human beings possible," said sixth-grade teacher Eileen Frechette, who has been with the school for 20 years. "There's very little rote memorization in this educational process. These kids are more than just storage bins - they actually learn to think."

[photo] Children in a third grade eurythmy class form a star circle as part of acting out the story of "St. Michael and the Dragon" at the school
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From first grade on, students practice handwork, from knitting and crocheting to sewing and woodwork. Teachers say this provides a stealth way for students to master math and refine complex motor skills.

"It's about brain development and education, but it's also about creating something real and beautiful and useful," Mansoor said. "You're also learning about the process of nature, like when you make raw wool into a finished product."

This fits into the Waldorf motto of educating the whole child - head heart and hands.

"It's not only educating the intellect," Mansoor said. "Everything here is woven together, just like life."

These unusual approaches to education are exactly why Waldorf draws criticism, including the fear that Waldorf children don't measure up academically.

That was Dan Dugan's complaint when he pulled his child out of a Waldorf school in San Francisco.

"They were teaching Steiner's beliefs that were not science at all," he said. "I figured it was just a local thing, but when I researched it, I found it was systemic."

However, supporters say Waldorf students outperform students who attend mainstream schools.

Research on this issue is sketchy, though. Waldorf students do not take standardized tests. Many schools don't track students once they go to high school. And since the Waldorf schools in this country are independent, there is no umbrella organization to study the effectiveness of the method.

Evidence is mostly anecdotal, like in the case of Joy Fowler, a teacher at the School for Creative and Performing Arts in Over-the-Rhine, where many Waldorf graduates attend high school.

"They actually perform at a higher level," she said. "And I know everyone likes high-performing students, but the thing that really gets me is that they are their own people. They are not so swayed by peer pressure. They are real individuals. It's really beautiful to watch."

Dugan, founder of People for Legal and Non-Sectarian Schools (PLANS), is now one of the loudest opponents to the movement, arguing that founder Steiner's theories about human consciousness - Anthroposophy - is a religion.

"It became a church-state issue," Dugan said. "They are the missionary schools of Anthroposophy. The curriculum is more religious than it is in some Catholic schools."

The Waldorf schools are quick to counter. While Waldorf-trained teachers must study Anthroposophy, it's not a part of the curriculum.

"If you're a Catholic and you go to teach at a public school, you're not going to teach your religion," Mansoor said. "Because we study it doesn't mean we teach it."

Though Waldorf schools operate independently, they adhere to standards. For instance, all facilities emphasize the arts and creativity, an attraction to many.

"How rich the arts are really speaks to me," said parent Lori Kran of Clifton.

Kran, who holds a Ph.D. in history, discovered Waldorf almost nine years ago when she was searching for a school for her children. She became so passionate about the place, she's now a second-grade teacher.

Waldorf also emphasizes the environment, which extends to the school's land initiative for the 18.8 acres the school purchased in 2001. Located near the intersections of Winton and North Bend roads, the property will eventually be home to the school and will provide some outdoor classrooms for the children.

In the interim, the school rents its Winton Place building, where children are encouraged to spend much of their 25-minute morning break and hourlong lunch outdoors.

"In this city, I think a lot of people think of it as a hippie school or think it's focused too much on the arts or that it's not structured enough," Mansoor said. "Some people just don't know what to make of a school that looks at a person as a whole spiritual being."The Waldorf system has periodically been accused of racism, with many pointing to the writings of Steiner, some of which contain anti-Semitic sentiment or discuss a link between spirituality and skin color. Waldorf proponents explain that this is the work of a man who lived in post-World War I Europe.

Locally, one parent was disturbed when her child wasn't able to draw a picture of a family member because the classroom had no black crayons. The parent said she was told black was a "dead color."

"In early childhood, we emphasize pastel colors," Mansoor said. "It's about softness. Once the children go to grade school they have all the colors."

Meantime, students are oblivious to any controversy. Though this school is like no other, the kids are still kids.

"We don't get homework until third grade," said 8-year-old Zachary Simon-Leibfarth of Fairfield, when asked what he likes about his school. "And we get two recesses!"


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