District breathes new life into Lagunitas Waldorf program

08/23/2012

With attempts to form a public charter school put to rest, the Lagunitas Waldorf Inspired Program is gearing up for a new school year with two new full-time Waldorf-trained teachers and a renewed sense of purpose. The walls are repainted, the cubbies are waiting, the block-crayons are in their baskets and the watercolor paints are set up in their jars. Colored silks are ready for dress-up, and the wooden play kitchen is stocked with wooden food.

Earlier this year, parents of the program submitted a petition to form a charter school, with the hopes of fixing the school’s financial woes.

Understaffed and on a tight budget, with only 2.6 teachers covering kindergarten through fifth grade—parents felt the program was unsustainable and its future uncertain. But the charter petition, submitted in March, was met with harsh criticism from members of the community who voiced concerns that it could take funding away from the district’s other programs.

“We went through a lot of struggles with the charter proposal last year,” Lagunitas School Principal Laura Shain said. “Sometimes when you kind of put things out on the table like that, it forces you to deal with some issues that maybe should have been dealt with a long time ago.”
One of the few free Waldorf-inspired programs in the world, the Lagunitas Waldorf Inspired Program (LWIP) has proven popular with parents drawn to its creative, nature-based philosophy, but who can’t afford the hefty price-tag of a private Waldorf education. At the Marin Waldorf School in San Rafael, tuition is $17,450 per year for first through eighth graders.

If the charter had been approved, the 50-some LWIP students would no longer have been counted as part of the district. In a basic-aid district like Lagunitas, revenue depends on property taxes and not the size of the student body, and taking LWIP students out of the mix would have initially upped per-pupil revenue. However, since about $305,000 of local funds would have been diverted to the charter school, Lagunitas would still have been left with a deficit of about $109,000—a gap that would have continued in subsequent years.

Parents, teachers and residents took to the podium during open comment sessions to voice concerns that such a shortfall could result in drastic service cuts and even layoffs, to which the teachers at the new charter school would be immune.

“We realized that the charter was not the right direction to go because of negative financial and social impacts within the district,” program parent Katharina Sandizell-Smith said.

At the end of May, the petition’s authors decided to withdraw it “after much soul-searching and deliberation,” as program parent Matt Andrews told the Lagunitas School District’s directors at the time.

Now, although they are moving forward without the charter, parents have managed to raise the funds to cover some of their missing expenses, at least in the short term. The district has hired two new Waldorf-trained teachers, making a total of three, as the parent-raised funds have supplemented the previously part-time position.

Ms. Shain said that a “unity committee,” formed during the last school year, also played a role in sorting out some of LWIP’s problems, and that the program was now better organized and had a stronger sense of where it fit within the Lagunitas School District community.

“One of our big goals this year is to reach out to the other programs and district staff in an effort to work together in a unified, positive and collaborative way. We are thrilled about our two new teachers and the energy and enthusiasm that they bring with them,” Ms. Sandizell-Smith said.

In May, parents were surprised to learn that LWIP teacher Bill Kobabe’s contract was not renewed. Part-timer Krista Augustiatus will also not return. Instead, last year’s kindergarten teacher Dorothy Iselin will return to teach a combined first and second grade, and will step into a mentor role for her two newly hired colleagues.

Vanessa Cudabac, recently returned from a bilingual Waldorf school in Guatemala, will be teaching kindergarten. Jordan Walker, who has studied Waldorf education in a Rudolph Steiner-inspired community in New York, will be teaching third through fifth grades, also in a combined class. Ms. Iselin explained that students will undertake projects at their own grade level, but on the same subject as their peers from other grades within the shared class.

She added that teaching combined grade classes at LWIP takes creativity on the part of the teacher, and requires some compromises as well. “If you’re a Waldorf teacher, then you are already on the creative edge,” Ms. Iselin said. “It’s really a piece of art.”

Ms. Cudabac has taught at a Waldorf-inspired program in San Francisco that also focused on Spanish immersion, called Escuela Pacha Mama, or Mother Earth School. She also founded a Waldorf-inspired program that she ran out of her home for a time. She said she decided to become a Waldorf teacher after her son was born, when she found the environment was one in which her son could thrive.

“What I really love about Waldorf education, and what makes it very special, is this understanding that childhood is a sacred time,” Ms. Cudabac said. “As a teacher, that’s very important to me. It’s very important for children to have time for play and to develop their imagination.”

This will be the first Waldorf teaching position for Mr. Walker, who has also studied the philosophy behind “biodynamic culture,” a multifaceted philosophy developed by Rudolph Steiner that incorporates agriculture, health and the balance of the seasons.

“Waldorf is the fastest growing non-sectarian and non-religious school movements in the world,” he said, echoing remarks of various Steiner-related websites worldwide. “Once you step inside a Waldorf kindergarten, your whole view of what’s possible with school changes.”

Ms. Iselin said the charter petition process proved to be a valuable learning experience for her and others at the school. “Any time you take initiative like that, it’s a growth, and an examination of who are you. Not just as individuals, but as a program, and how to fit into the larger family we are a part of. We need to work in synch with the rest of the school,” she said.

To help facilitate that cooperation, Ms. Shain said that the work of the unity committee would continue to be a catalyst for discussion and positive energy. The committee doesn’t have a set membership, but each program sends at least one representative to meet monthly.

“They can talk about the things that bring us together and what pulls us apart,” she said. “We spend a significant amount of time just listening to each other. The goal is that we can ask for help, share successes and learn from each other.”