Imagine a school with no multiple choice tests, or even traditional textbooks. Imagine a playground full of hay bales, teepees and grass instead of asphalt. Now think how it would be if there were no computers in the classroom and parents were told to limit exposure to all mass media — even educational television — until middle school or so.
Scott McLewin of Lenexa doesn’t have to imagine. That was his childhood from kindergarten through high school at a Waldorf school in Spring Valley, N.Y.
And he loved it. So much so that he started looking for another one like it in the Kansas City area years before his daughters were even born. He’s now among a small but growing group of people who want to bring Waldorf schools to the Kansas City area.
“I reached out and joined play groups well before I had kids,” McLewin said.
Now his is one of seven families who commute to the nearest Waldorf school in the area, the Prairie Moon Waldorf School in Lawrence.
Waldorf is a growing educational method on the coasts, but it is all but unknown in this area.
There are now 160 Waldorf schools in North America and 250 early childhood centers, including two relatively new ones in Kansas City. The City of Fountains School was to open in the Westport Presbyterian Church last January but was destroyed by fire in January. It opened in the spring in the South Broadland Presbyterian Church in Kansas City and offers enrichment programs primarily for homeschooled and young children.
In the Parkville area, Autumn Paige started a Waldorf-inspired early childhood program at her home in January.
But the nearest Waldorf elementary school to Prairie Moon in Lawrence is Shining Rivers in St. Louis, which goes up to sixth grade. The nearest Waldorf K-12 school is in Denver.
McLewin and some others in the Kansas City area want to change all that. They have started the wheels turning with a November informational meeting in Waldo to explore the possibility of a Waldorf charter school.
Cheryl Herzog Arneill is one of the main organizers. She drives her 51/2-year-old daughter, Lainey, the 46 miles from her Waldo home to the Lawrence school three times a week because of the unique experience it offers. She discovered the school during her search for an early childhood learning center when Lainey was 3, she said.
“I saw the classrooms and got a sense of the community of parents here. And I saw the children really lifted to discover themselves,” Herzog Arneill said. “I was drawn to it immediately.”
Herzog Arneill arranged an informational meeting at the Waldo Library, which was attended by about 25 people. “I never dreamt we’d be doing this, but it means that much to me,” she said.
The Prairie Moon school has five classroom teachers, two early childhood teachers and 60 students from early childhood through sixth grade, said its administrator, Melissa Watson. There are also some support teachers who visit for other class offerings, such as violin.
The Waldorf teaching concept got its start in 1919 when German thinker Rudolf Steiner was asked to develop a school for employees at the Waldorf Astoria cigarette factory in Stuttgart. Steiner is also known for founding the philosophy of anthroposophy, which aims to develop spirituality through knowledge, imagination and intuition.
The Prairie Moon school in Lawrence illustrates the differences between a Waldorf school and the typical public elementary. Inside, the overhead fluorescent lights are off in some rooms. First- and second-graders begin the day by practicing a lengthy memorized nature poem with movements. There are no computers or overhead projectors. Outside, the grassy play area is dotted with small hay bale structures and a partially built wigwam. On the perimeter, some students are digging a hole with teachers’ permission.
Waldorf schools are markedly different from public and most private schools. For one thing, they are decidedly low-tech. Computers are not used at all in the early grades and parents are urged to curtail any kind of screen time at home.
Then there’s the reading. Waldorf schools don’t put much stock in early reading. In fact, students are not asked to read until the mid-elementary grades, although they do learn to write the alphabet and may learn to speak a bit of some other language. In Molly Mackinnon’s third/fourth grade class in Lawrence, students were spelling “soprano” and “armadillo” and answering questions in French.
“One of the first things you hear about a Waldorf school is that they don’t read as fast,” Rick Mitchell, president of the Waldorf Association of Lawrence told the group at the Waldo meeting. “It freaks parents out. They’re nine and they can’t read.”
But the students have internalized everything else about language through their studies up to that point, Mitchell said. That makes the actual reading a quick process, he said.
Students in Waldorf schools find themselves listening to fairy tales and folklore in the earliest grades. They may also sculpt or knit, build wigwams and practice eurhythmy, which is a rhythmic movement class.
Ideally, the same teacher stays with a class all the way through elementary school, though varying class sizes make it necessary to be more flexible in a small school like Prairie Moon.
The method is not without skeptics. Online, a debate rages about the approach. Critics say the curriculum amounts to superstition or even paganism and should not be supported by public money. They also point out that Steiner was a mystic who held controversial beliefs and that the effectiveness of the program is not well supported by independent studies.
One website, PLANS (People for Legal and Nonsectarian Schools) is devoted to cataloging articles critical of Waldorf.
Although some might take issue with the late reading or the time spent on crafts and movement classes, McLewin likes the way the schools approach learning. “A lot is taught in how to approach problems,” he said.
Most of the tests McLewin took were essays, he said. He had to learn how to take a multiple choice test for the first time so he could take the New York Regents test in 10th grade.
Instead of telling students which answers are correct, Waldorf teachers focus on what constitutes a good answer. “We got tools for coming up with our own answers,” he said.
“I find that so much more useful as an adult than filling in ovals,” he said.
By the time Waldorf students finish high school, they have a collection of textbooks they made themselves, complete with drawings and calligraphy. With all that art, a lot of people expect Waldorf graduates to gravitate to art careers, said McLewin.
But his own experience doesn’t bear that out. McLewin landed a finance job on Wall Street before moving to Lenexa, where he is manager of technical operations and software developer for a company that distributes television news content.
McLewin said he always loved school, and his daughters do, too. “Waldorf education set me up really well to figure out how to keep on learning,” McLewin said.