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In This School, Texts, Tests and Grades Take Back Seat

<i> Vicars is an Agoura Hills free-lance writer. </i>

Mary Hallbrook lived in Anchorage, Alaska, when her two children, Ezra and Jules, were born. When Ezra was 5, his mother enrolled him in the local public school. She also volunteered to help her child’s teacher in the classroom.

For three months, her sense of frustration grew as she watched her son being taught.

“I felt the teachers just didn’t understand what a small child needs,” said Hallbrook, who now lives in Northridge. Instead of nourishing her child’s soul, his sense of wonder at the world, the curriculum--with its emphasis on tests and mimeographed sheets--was “materialistic and cold,” Hallbrook said.

She believed the teachers resented talkative children. “Instead of working with that energy, they worked against it,” she said.

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Deciding that she could do better on her own, Hallbrook took Ezra out of school and, for the next three years, taught her two children at home.

But something was missing.

“I knew something was wrong,” Hallbrook said. “I’d ask myself, ‘Where’s the magic in this? Where’s the poetry?’ ”

Thus began the family quest for an education for Ezra and Jules that finally ended at the steps of Highland Hall, a private “Waldorf” school in Northridge.

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In November, 1982, Tom Hallbrook, a mechanical contractor, quit his job. For six months, the Hallbrook family toured the country in a motor home, passing through 23 states, finding schools through advertisements in parent and education magazines and the Yellow Pages. In Seattle, the Hallbrooks discovered a private school that offered a style of teaching they never knew existed.

Based on the work of Rudolf Steiner, a German philosopher who began the first Waldorf school in Germany in 1919, Waldorf teaching principles have been tested, primarily in Europe, for nearly 70 years. These principles are very different from those employed in most U.S. public schools.

For example, classwork in Waldorf schools is non-competitive; students are encouraged to help one another, and they are evaluated without grades or tests until the ninth grade. Teachers rely on parent-teacher conferences and detailed written evaluations.

In grades one though eight, the teacher moves through the grades with the same class, developing, Waldorf teachers say, an extraordinarily close relationship with the pupils.

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The curriculum in grades one through eight is centered around world history and mythology (Norse myths, Old Testament stories) and literature. All grades include a subject unknown in the public schools; eurythmy, for example, combines gymnastics and interpretive dance.

Art, music and crafts are used to develop understanding of academic concepts, and classes up to the eighth grade are taught orally, without textbooks.

The Hallbrooks found that Ezra and Jules flourished in their new educational environment. “They came home from school excited and filled with energy,” Hallbrook said. In the mornings, she said, the children were eager to return.

Intrigued by her children’s success, Hallbrook began to read about Steiner, his philosophical work and his teaching methods. It was a revelation. “I knew this was it,” she said. “My whole life just fell into order.”

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Deeply moved by what she’d read and buoyed by the success of her children, she and her husband decided to become teachers themselves and enrolled at a Waldorf teacher training school in Sacramento. (It takes two years to earn a Waldorf teaching credential.)

Today, Mary and Tom Hallbrook teach at Highland Hall, the only Waldorf school (grades kindergarten through 12) in the Los Angeles area.

Students at Highland Hall tend to be “children of educators and people interested in education,” according to Siegfried Othmer, president of the school’s parent association and a physicist at Hughes Ltd.

The Waldorf method is used in about 300 schools worldwide and, although Highland Hall is fully accredited, the school’s unconventional approach is problematic for some parents. One mother, who asked not be named because she was “speaking for others,” said some parents are initially attracted by the school’s “obvious success” with students. But the parents, she said, sometimes don’t understand the very different educational approach. They start to get anxious, especially when children from public schools start to make comparisons with Highland Hall students about what they’re doing in the classroom.

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Many Highland parents, however, praise the school. Eileen Wells--who acknowledges that she is sometimes concerned about her children being on a different educational tack than most--points to a quality of self-acceptance that seems to differentiate Highland Hall students.

Wells, whose children are in the first and sixth grades, says Highland graduates have “a naked honesty about themselves, a sense of who they are.”

And Highland teachers point to graduates enrolled in such institutions as Oberlin, Bennington and the Claremont Colleges. Out of 21 students who graduated from high school this summer, six are enrolled in the University of California system and four in the California State University and Colleges system. The remainder attend two-year or vocational schools.

Highland Hall graduate Joe Martarella, 19, a sophomore majoring in English at UCLA, believes that his unconventional education probably made it “a little easier” to be accepted at college. Martarella, who attended Highland Hall from the age of 3 through 12th grade, said, “Everyone was preparing me for a huge culture shock.” But he fit in surprisingly well, and credits his Highland Hall education for a high level of self-confidence.

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Martarella said that his Waldorf education gave him “a greater grasp of philosophy and thought” than his colleagues in the public school system and that the work he did in high school was probably “closer to college courses” than that in most high schools.

Tuition at Highland Hall starts at $3,400 a year for full-time kindergarten. The parents of a first-grader pay $4,195, and fees increase $80 for each grade, topping out at $5,775 in the 12th grade. (A Highland Hall spokesman described the school’s fees as “right in the middle” of the range for independent private schools.)

The school has a yearlong waiting list for kindergarten, and grades two through five are full, according to Gale Blair, admissions director.

A spokesman for American College Placement, a professional educational consulting service in Encino that has been advising parents on private schools and colleges for 15 years, described Highland Hall as “unique in Los Angeles.”

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Consultant Anne Kogen said she has recommended the school to parents who have come to her for advice. It “provides a wonderful nurturing education in children who need to be creative.”


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