Learning Experience : School in O.C. Follows a Tradition of Non-Tradition


Every school day morning, 35 children in kindergarten through second grade arrive by carpools to a Fountain Valley school site that from the outside looks like any Orange County school.

But inside, the experience is anything but traditional. Here, there are no printed textbooks or computers. There are no letter grades, traditional testing or a competitive rush to read. There is no principal, and students don't change teachers each year.

There is no cafeteria with chocolate cake and white frosting, or Garfield lunch pails. There aren't many Guess jeans or L.A. Gear high-tops. T-shirts with slogans are not allowed. And these children aren't talking about sitcoms they watched the night before, nor are they singing commercial jingles, because watching television is discouraged.

Instead, children at this school--which today ends its third year of operation--write and illustrate their own textbooks for everything they study. In addition to learning traditional subjects in very untraditional ways, both boys and girls learn to build a house, plant a garden, knit and make soup and applesauce from scratch. They also play the flute, practice Eurthymia (music and speech expressed through body movements) and speak German and Spanish.

Lunches are brought from home in natural wicker baskets along with cloth place mats. And teachers, who administer the school, stay with one class from first through eighth grades, charting their charges' progress through detailed written evaluations and parent-teacher conferences.

This is Waldorf School of Orange County, one of the newest such schools in the United States. The non-sectarian, nonprofit and largest private K-12 system in the world, Waldorf schools were started in 1919 in Stuttgart, Germany, by a wealthy industrialist who wanted quality and practical education for the children of his Waldorf-Astoria Cigarette Factory workers.

Having heard the theories of Rudolph Steiner, an Austrian-born educator and philosopher, the factory owner asked Steiner to start a school that would prepare children for all facets of life.

Within 10 years, the schools spread all over Europe. Now entering its eighth decade, there are 500 Waldorf schools in 35 countries on five continents.

In 1928, the first U.S. location opened in New York City and the system grew in this country to about 120 sites, with the largest number in California. These 20 schools are mostly centered in the Bay Area with others in Altadena, San Diego and Northridge, the oldest West Coast location, which opened in 1955.

Still, Waldorf schools are not well known in the United States, even among educators. But the latest educational, psychological and physiological research is proving increasingly to be in harmony with Steiner's theories, said school spokeswoman Cris Fredrickson.

"Yes, our academics span the traditional subject matter of Western education, but the difference is a matter of organization and presentation," she said.

"Cultural literacy is now a catch phrase," she added. "But Waldorf builds it into the curriculum starting in elementary school. Other things that the state is beginning to mandate, such as whole language programs and using writing to teach reading, have been done in Waldorf schools for 70 years."

Stanley Walters, a child psychologist in private practice in Santa Ana for more than 35 years and president of the California Assn. of Educational Psychologists, said Waldorf has one of the best systems in America.

Unlike other private and public schools that "bang little kids with letters," Waldorf schools are "developmentally appropriate," with a curriculum designed to recognize how children change from year to year, he said.

Walters, who specializes in testing children for school readiness and learning problems, said 100 years of research data indicates that fewer than 8% of children are ready for academics in kindergarten.

"I treat kids with migraine headaches, bleeding ulcers, depression and behavioral problems," he said. "When you introduce activities to children before they are ready, you'll probably turn them off."

That's why the "developmental" kindergarten at Waldorf School has no workbooks, no ditto sheets and no academics whatsoever. Instead, the children do a lot of baking, singing, storytelling, puppetry and creative dramatics--all activities that prepare them for academic work later on, said Fredrickson.

"We focus on oral skills and social skills," said Fredrickson. "One thing that attracts a lot of people is that we're not rushing children. By fourth grade (in public schools), children plummet and burn out. Parents here don't want to see that happen to their kids."

Waldorf School of Orange County, which beginning in September will have kindergarten through third grade, was started by a group of about 20 parents familiar with Waldorf education.

Fredrickson was one of those founding parents. Once a public school teacher in the Bay Area, she visited a Waldorf School there and was impressed with the curriculum.

After she moved to Orange County in 1987, Fredrickson got together with parents who had already established a play group based on Waldorf principles. In January, 1988, the group incorporated and the first Waldorf School, a kindergarten with 10 children, opened in Costa Mesa. The school subsequently moved to Laguna Beach and finally found more permanent space at Fountain Valley in January of this year.

Now 50 parents volunteer as many as five days a week each to help at the school that depends on fund-raisers and donations to supplement tuition. Teachers, who receive two years of special training, are the only ones who are paid, and a board of trustees handles financial and legal matters.

In Germany, New Zealand, Sweden, Israel and some Canadian provinces, Waldorf schools are state-funded. And the Milwaukee and Aspen school systems plan to open the first U.S. public Waldorf schools, Fredrickson said.

In Orange County, the fledgling school charges $335 monthly for kindergarten and $395 for upper grades. In September, a third grade will be added as the second-graders along with their teacher move up, and a new first-grade teacher comes in.

"Having the same teacher throughout provides a stronger bond, deeper understanding and consistency, thereby helping children reach their full potential," said Fredrickson. "And it's a challenge for the teacher because they can't keep just repeating rote lessons year after year. The teacher provides the model of a learner because every year she, too, has to learn freshly." In addition to the class teacher, the children also have specialists for languages and dance. As the school grows, special teachers for handwork and music will be added.

Fredrickson said parents familiar with Waldorf tend to move where there is an established school and are also willing to drive long distances to get their children there.

"Before we opened, people moved to Santa Barbara and Santa Cruz," she said. "Now people who are relocating from around the country call us and won't move here because we don't have the grades yet. But children here come in from every corner of Orange County plus Long Beach."

Fredrickson said that although most Waldorf Schools have long waiting lists, Orange County is not yet full.

"Orange County really has an opportunity here," she said. "People don't know about it because we deliberately remained low-key the last few years. It's really hard to advertise when you don't have a permanent address. But now that we have space, we have room to grow."

At 9 a.m., the second-grade teacher, Mechtild Weitzell-Howard , rang a bell and her pupils entered the colorful classroom. Placing their lunch baskets of all shapes and sizes on a shelf, they milled around until Howard sounded notes on a five-note wooden flute to gain their attention.

"Good morning, second-graders," she said in her German accent.

"Good morning, Miss Mechtild," said the children in unison.

Next, the teacher shook each child's hand, and the children shook each other's hands, some embracing and picking each other up with giant bear hugs and other jubilant greetings.

"As the teacher shakes the child's hand, she looks into the eyes," said Fredrickson. "That way she can tell if the child had a bad morning, she can tell their state of mind. Does the child need nurturing today? Does the child need to be left alone? When I was a teacher, I would never know something was wrong until they got in trouble."

Next, the children sang a good morning welcome song and lit the candle on the yellow and melon gauze-draped nature table on which is displayed an ever-changing array of flowers, nuts, nests, rocks, shells, potpourri, seeds, pine cones and seasonal items.

"The sun with morning light makes bright for me each day," they recited. "The soul with spirit power gives strength into my limbs. . . . "

After finishing the verse, the children quickly moved their desks to the perimeter of the room to make space to form a circle for 30 minutes of oral recitation accompanied by activities such as skipping, moving backward and forward and clapping.

"The children really have to learn to follow directions and not bump into each other," she said. "Copying pattern claps, foot-tapping and finger-snapping all translate to reading and other skills. Math especially comes into body movements, as they count and move backward by 12. They learn in the body the rhythm and innate sense of numbers. At this school, even first-graders can do math in their heads. Paper and pencil is just not enough."

After circle time, the children are relaxed and ready to start the two-hour "main lesson," subjects such as math and reading that require "deep learning." These subjects are taught intensively for three or more weeks at a time, a "block method" that provides greater concentration and refreshing change, teachers say.

Other subjects needing constant practice, such as languages, are taught regularly in shorter periods.

"The school day is organized so that academic work is concentrated in morning hours when children are most receptive and alert," said Fredrickson. "Games, gymnastics, handwork, music, painting, drama and other active subjects are taught in the afternoon, when energy levels are higher and concentration spans diminish."

Students make "main lesson books," or textbooks, for each subject studied. In these richly illustrated books, they write and express in pictures the essential content of the subject matter studied.

"Art is the keystone of Waldorf education," said Fredrickson. "Children are taught to draw from day one, in all mediums such as chalk and paints, especially watercolors. By second grade, they will have made several books on their own."

She said the early grades focus on nature, while the upper grades deal more with the sciences.

After the main lesson, the teacher sounds the flute and children sing another verse, gather their food baskets and sit down for snack.

"All the children bring cloth place mats with them," said Fredrickson. "It's magical. It has an amazing effect. A place mat totally changes the atmosphere and makes it special--you're not going to throw your lunch at a kid when you're using place mats."

"We're not trying to develop painters and musicians, but people who are creative in whatever they do," said teacher Howard. "It's that creative spark, the ability to break set--that's the key to Waldorf."

Only three California Waldorf schools, those in Santa Rosa, Sacramento and Northridge, offer grades kindergarten through 12. Others go up until eighth grade, and still others, depending on how long they've been open, offer only a few elementary grades.

But what happens if we have to move where there's no Waldorf school? ask critics. And what about college? How will they do?

Children make the transition to public school smoothly, said Fredrickson. SAT scores are consistently above average, and the children usually get into colleges of their choice, she said.

The schools are overseen by the Assn. of Waldorf Schools North America in Fair Oaks, Calif., said Fredrickson. Individual high schools may also be accredited by whatever regional agencies are offering accreditation, depending on the school, she said.

Kim Jacobs, spokesperson for Highland Hall, the Northridge Waldorf School, said that although parents have never taken children out because they disagreed with Waldorf philosophy, they are sometimes concerned that the environment is too protected, close-knit and idealistic. They worry that their children will later become lost in a university.

"We don't have a gym or a football team," she said. "But that's fringe--it's not what's really meaningful. We know from our graduates that they can handle whatever comes along, even if it is somewhat of a culture shock."

Anne Barricklow of Grenada Hills, graduate of Highland Hall and now a music major at California Lutheran in Thousand Oaks, spent 13 years going to the Waldorf school.

"I felt different from other kids but not in a bad way," she recalled of her elementary years. "People had never heard of Waldorf. I'd tell them about Eurthymia and they'd think I was off the wall."

Barricklow said the only drawback when she got to college was that she hadn't ever read a textbook before. But although it was a "big jump," she said she had done enough pleasure reading in her childhood that she was able to adjust.

"I don't regret the experience at all," said the aspiring opera singer. "It was small and family-like and I loved school. I was bummed when it let out for the summer and excited when we got back in.

"And as I get further and further away from it, I realize more and more what it has done for me as a person. It establishes a kind of trust in self and gives a firm foundation to work from."

And parents say Waldorf education has changed their children's lives.

Tom Sinclair, an Irvine pediatrician, put his son in Orange County's Waldorf School's first grade this spring.

"I tried him in public school," he said. "It was 100 yards from the house but a long and bitter story. When he came home and said 'I hate reading,' it was like an arrow at me. Something is really amiss when a 6-year-old hates reading."

Now, Sinclair says his son is a "different child."

"Not only is he reading again, but I'm seeing development of self-esteem, self-confidence and belief in self--an emotional and spiritual transformation. It's learning to be alive inside."

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