There are plenty of myths and misrepresentations on charter schools and school of choice and plenty of them are coming from our side of the political divide. The first thing that I would like to point out is that yes there is definitely potential for abuse in the existing charter school laws in this country and no there is likely too little oversight. But Charter schools also provide opportunity, opportunity to try new and innovative teaching ideas or to try the hundred year old methods that worked great prior to the post WWII corporatization of US schools. They provide poor children the opportunity to receive the same education that rich kids get. And in a district with an average class size of over 30 it allows at least some students to experience the feeling of really mattering, of not just being another face in the crowd or a number on a budget spreadsheet. Dive on in to find out more about my school.
Now for a bit of disclosure; I work with a charter school volunteering personal time, money and equipment. My children both attend the charter school, I sit on the board of stewards for the school and my wife works at the charter school. So yes when you read, read with the understanding that I am biased. I am biased towards my community and my school. This diary is very specifically a look at a very specific charter school from the inside and I would very much like you to know and understand that as you read.
The charter school I am involved with is located in Colorado and is unusual in that it is a liberal arts school based on Waldorf traditions and methodologies located in a very politically and socially conservative community. Many of those with a more liberal mindset in my community are libertarians or moderate right leaners, with most folks I talk to either aligning with the tea party or “establishment republicans.” There are some leftists and democrats and even fewer left leaning independents, so the fact we got approved in the first place was mildly surprising to me even with a public generally in favor of charter schools.
Some facts about us as a school;
1. We are small, kinder classes are limited to 15, and grades classes are currently limited to 18 students.
2. We require qualified teachers and we require continuing education with Waldorf specific studies.
3. We are non-profit, and the property entity we lease from is also non-profit. No one draws salary from the property entity, it exists solely to obtain real property and facilities and then lease them to the school at cost. The only one enriched by this corporation is the lawyer that drew up the papers (he was already on retainer though to assist in creating the documentation for the school itself)
4. We do not turn away any students and have a slightly higher special education percentage than the local school district. The number of students that would qualify for free or reduced lunch is in line with the district average.
All of this adds up to some special challenges for us. We are not as monetarily efficient as a public school could be. We must also purchase property and buildings from Per Pupil Funding, something a district school is not required to do. We must also accept for enrollment any special education students even though we may not have the resources to properly support that student. With that being said we have still been largely successful both in educating students and in being stewards of taxpayer money.
The first year of school started in August of 2013 though the school itself started two years before that. A small group of parents who were interested in Waldorf educational philosophy began tossing around the idea of creating a publicly funded k-12 Waldorf inspired charter school. Locally there was a private pre-k and K Waldorf school but no option for that kind of education for older students or for poor students unable to afford private education. Some of the parents homeschooled with Waldorf curriculum, some had younger children in the private school and others wanted a Waldorf education for their children but had no viable option other than public school or local charter school with an aggressive homework and accelerated learning approach that many students found overly stressful. We’re talking about giving spelling tests of 15, 5-9 letter words to kindergarteners on a weekly basis. This small group of parents did an amazing amount of work in a short 2 years. They wrote and received approval for a charter and signed a contract with the local school district. They hired eight qualified classroom teachers, two kindergarten assistants, one highly qualified Special Education professional, three part-time specials (Spanish, Games, Handwork) teachers, one part-time music teacher, two administrators and one administrative assistant/School secretary. They also procured a lease on a property and purchased modular buildings for the school, built a playground and transformed a weed filled lot into a school where students feel safe and happy and can learn with friends.
We opened our doors as a k-6 school with the idea that we would add one grade level a year over the next 6 years. We started with two kindergarten classrooms and one each of grades 1-6. Next year if enrollment is sufficient we will have two first grade classrooms. Waldorf uses a unique method called looping in which ideally a teacher will stay with a group of children from first grade all the way through the grade school grades. This minimizes the classroom norming process at the beginning of each year and allows the teacher a huge advantage in knowing how best to reach each individual child in his or her care.
We are not a test oriented school and feel that pushing too hard on children to obtain favorable testing results can actually damage a student’s ability to learn in the future. The theory is that certain pathways in the brain are forged in certain stages of development. If a child is pushed to learn a concept before they are developmentally ready for it then they will learn it but they will not learn it using optimal pathways. It is for this reason that we have a play based kindergarten program. Kindergarten at our school is not about getting them ready to read or do math; it is instead focused on teaching them how to live and play together, how to be a productive part of a classroom and how to behave properly in school.
Even in First grade many students are no yet ready to read, so we focus on just getting them ready teaching them letters and sounds, giving them the tools to read. Then, about halfway through the year; amazingly, seemingly overnight, most of the kids just start reading. There is no pressure, no anger with those not yet ready yet, they just become readers on their own because they had the tools available and as soon as their brain was ready to make that leap, it did. Another batch of kids the same thing happens to sometime towards the end of the third quarter and the beginning of the fourth. Currently we have no children in the first grade who are unable to read and most of them are reading and comprehending above grade level. This philosophy makes it very important to make sure that children are grouped with their peers both physically (age), and developmentally (psychological). We will advocate retaining children in kindergarten who are just not quite ready to move into the grades to begin learning.
All of this puts us at odds with the prevalent educational philosophy of high pressure classrooms and high stakes testing. We try to teach the whole child; what good is a person that can perform equations if they have no ability to reason? What good a person who can read but cannot interact with others as a human being? We teach the mind of course, but we also teach the body with physical activity like games and play and even knitting and wood working. We even teach the soul (gasp! Yes I said soul!), not the religious construct (though that is often conflated), we teach the inner being that spiritual part of ourselves that is nourished with art forms of all kinds; dance, paint, literature, music, song. All of this is part of the human existence so all of this is part of the educational experience for our students. We nourish the mind with words and numbers. We nourish the body with nutritious food from our garden and our many activities on the field and with our hands in the classroom. We nourish the soul with the art and stories that are part of every lesson and with the music and verse and dance that the students learn.
I plan on posting more about our school, with no particular bent. Some entries may just be about how our school is doing, while other might be about challenges that we are facing, or opportunities that have come along. I plan on discussing at some point in the future how Common Core and PARC standards have affected us as a school as well as other legislation local and national. If you have any questions you would like me to answer please feel free to ask and of course my own role as a board of stewards member in no way makes anything written here official, I am writing as my own voice as a community member not the voice of the board or school.