Sacramento has some of nation’s oldest, largest Waldorf schools – which are marking milestones

Sacramento Waldorf School, one of the oldest and largest Waldorf campuses in North America, is celebrating its 60th anniversary, and last weekend also marked the 100-year anniversary for Waldorf education worldwide.

The local celebration included an open house with tours, musical performances and lunch from the school’s farm and garden on its 22-acre campus in Fair Oaks. The festivities extended all over the globe, with more than 1,000 Waldorf schools in 64 countries.

Sacramento’s farming and agriculture scene, with a campus alongside the American River, provided an ideal outdoor environment for hands-on learning. Today the greater Sacramento area has five private Waldorf schools, as well as five Waldorf charter and public schools that operate in the public school system, serving a total of more than 2,500 students.

“It has been a collaborative journey over the last 60 years, between our school, our sister schools, and the greater Sacramento community, toward building inspiring impact of Waldorf philosophy and principles,” said Dean Smith, high school administrator at Sacramento Waldorf School. “As we celebrate 100 years of Waldorf education in the world, we look to collaboration as the key to building a sustainable future where Waldorf reaches more children and families.”

The first Waldorf school opened in Stuttgart, Germany, in 1919 when Austrian philosopher Rudolph Steiner began looking for a new approach to educate children amid the instability that followed World War I, according to Betty Staley, one of the founders of Sacramento Waldorf.

Students at that time were often segregated by class and income, but Steiner was committed to having the Waldorf education open to all children regardless of parents’ ability to pay.

“We need to rethink how we are educating children,” said Liz Beaven, president of the Alliance for Public Waldorf Education, and former Sacramento Waldorf administrator. “We really need to educate out of a loving picture of who the child is, who the human being is, where the child is, the time of the child, and the human capacities that a child is going to need to be able to draw on in order to be a contributing, positive, healthy member of society.”

Individualized learning emphasized

According to the Waldorf Education website, the educational approach emphasizes individualized learning with an emphasis on the arts and hands-on outdoor learning activities.

Some of the Sacramento-area public and charter schools were started by Waldorf teachers and former students who wanted their own children to have a Waldorf education. Charters include Sacramento City Unified School District’s George Washington Carver School of Arts & Science. It is one of three public Waldorf high schools in the U.S. Alice Birney Elementary and A.M. Winn Elementary are Waldorf-inspired public schools in Sac City Unified.

Staley, one of the proponents who brought Waldorf into local charter schools, attributed that much of that growth to former Sacramento City Unified Superintendent Rudy Crew in the early 1990s. Staley said Crew learned of the first public Waldorf school in Milwaukee, and began to collaborate with the now-closed local Waldorf teaching college, Rudolf Steiner College, to bring the Waldorf approach to the Sacramento community.

The district began to sponsor teacher development programs with the goal of establishing summer school programs, and eventually became magnet schools that turned into charter schools, Staley said.

Sacramento is home to some of the largest Waldorf campuses in North America.

Beaven said the relationship between the school district and Waldorf education was unique.

“There was a willingness to make space for this at a time when questions were being asked of how we can better integrate schools, how can we offer more opportunity, and how can we provide better access,” Beaven said.

The charter schools and public schools, operating under area school districts, are free for students. The private Sacramento Waldorf School is one of the more expensive K-12 schools in the region, with yearly tuition ranging from $12,000 to $19,000 depending on grade level. According to administrators, many families at the private school benefit from a “robust” financial assistance program that provides $1.5 million in discounted tuition yearly based on need.

Waldorf schools teach all core subjects, including two languages — Spanish and German. School officials say the program follows Common Core in a way that brings real observation into the curriculum. Elementary students, for example, learn about the speed of sound, through experiments like lining up outside and responding to their teacher’s clapping. The farther away a student stands from the teacher, the later they respond to the sound of the clap.

Students in grades 1-8 do not use textbooks, and the curriculum is often project-based.

“The school has freedom pedagogically,” said Beaven. “There are different limitations when you move into the public sphere because you have responsibilities to your public authorities.”

A look at student achievement

A Stanford University review of Waldorf education highlighted Sacramento City Unified’s Alice Birney Public Waldorf School in 2015, looking at standardized testing and student performance, and found high achievement – with African American and Latino students in particular showing gains compared to the student population as a whole.

The 2019 graduating class at Sacramento Waldorf School were all college bound: 72 percent chose to attend a four-year college or university and 23 percent chose to attend community college, according to the school.

The graduating class received more than $4.9 million in merit scholarships.

One student, Marley Dooling, received $315,000 in an alumni-endowed $315,000 scholarship to Duke University.

Steven Payne, who goes by Farmer Steve, runs the 3.5-acre farm at the Sacramento campus, where students learn how to plant, harvest, cook and compost.

“When you build a relationship to the land, you have more of a concern and a love for it,” Payne said. “When you build connections to vegetables, studies have shown that children will eat healthier. And when you develop connections and relationships to work, then students will innately and intuitively begin to have better approaches to being active and being able to tackle jobs that are given to them.”

Payne said he’s seen that translate in many ways. Students learn problem-solving skills that help with everything from getting homework done to learning the social importance of stewardship.

Erika Beernink of Gold River, the parent of two Waldorf students, calls it a balanced education.

“My kids are learning life skills beyond just memorizing facts and figures,” Beernink said. “They are learning how to communicate, in written and artistic forms.”

High school senior Tyler Cochran-Branson, 17, has attended Waldorf since kindergarten. She said the schools put a great focus on community.

Cochran-Branson is leading a school-wide campaign to reduce the campus carbon footprint by composting disposable plates and utensils.

“I am always pushed to follow my passions,” she said. “I am encouraged to not just follow, but lead.”

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Sawsan Morrar covers school accountability and culture for The Sacramento Bee. She grew up in Sacramento and is an alumna of UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. She previously freelanced for various publications including The Washington Post, Vice, KQED and Capital Public Radio.