Lagunitas terminates Waldorf program

David Briggs
Vanessa Cudabac is one of three teachers who will likely lose their jobs when Lagunitas School cuts its Waldorf-Inspired program, one of three distinct elementary programs, this June.

One of the few public Waldorf-inspired elementary programs in the country will be terminated at the end the school year, a decision the Lagunitas School District’s Board of Trustees made Wednesday night in a 4-1 vote. Persistent instability, frequent teacher turnover and the transfer of students out of the Waldorf program and into its sister programs led the district to hold a community forum on the issue last Thursday. 

This week’s board meeting was set to include a vote on whether to maintain current staff, cut one of three teachers, or end the program itself.

“With pain in my heart and with love for all in this community, I move that we close the Waldorf program,” board trustee Trustee Megan 

Oaks-Potter said. She and her colleagues heard more than an hour of public comment. Trustee Richard Sloan cast the sole dissenting vote. 

The reaction of the audience was mixed. Some, including Matt Andrews, one of the parents on the program’s administrative council and a leader in a recent effort to petition the district for charter status, felt some measure of relief. “I’ve worked really hard and I’m tired of doing this, tired of doing this every year,” Mr. Andrews said.

But one teacher wept and other attendees embraced, choked up with the loss of a unique, 10-year-old program.

The Lagunitas Waldorf-Inspired Program, or LWIP, emphasizes the development of body, mind and spirit. Each school day begins with some kind of dynamic exercise—yoga, or studying math by skip-counting—and then focuses on one topic for an extended period of time. The program is designed to adapt to the natural rhythms of the school day, with more physically or mentally challenging activities at optimal body-rhythmic times. Immediately after lunch, when it’s harder to think, the students might work on more physically-geared activities, like handcrafts. Every Friday morning the students go for a hike. One teacher’s classroom looks like a tiny home, with a kitchenette and red floral placemats laid out for snack time. 

“I think there’s something about the gentle approach to childhood—there’s almost a purity,” Laura Shain, the school’s principal, said in 2012 about the program’s appeal to parents. “The academic pressure is not as stressful I think for some kids. I think it’s the emphasis on arts and nature and the natural rhythms.”  

But the program’s enrollment has been lagging, leading to a lower student-teacher ratio compared to the more popular programs and creating discontent among some faculty and parents. This year LWIP has 46 students and the three full-time teachers. By comparison, the Montessori program has 76 students and three teachers. The Open Classroom program has 96 students and four teachers. 

Advocates of LWIP say the tenet of “parent choice” is central to the district’s mission statement, and have argued that more money could soon come to the district under new statewide rules that would bring additional money with inter-district transfers.

But others say inter-district parents might be wary of enrolling their children in a seemingly fragile program, and at Wednesday’s meeting some argued that the district should not rely on transfers to sustain the program.

The three current Waldorf instructors—Vanessa Cudabac, Dorothy Iselin and Marlo Kindermann—were hired in the past three years. Since the program’s inception, 12 others have either left or not had their contracts renewed. 

In 2011, the district sent pink slips two its two teachers with the least seniority—both were Waldorf teachers—though the slips were later rescinded. In 2012, LWIP’s administrative council applied for a charter to achieve greater autonomy and control over staffing. But after fears that the move would negatively impact the district’s funding were voiced, the council abandoned the application. That same year the district denied tenure to Bill Kobabe, a teacher beloved by many parents.

These kinds of decisions have destabilized the program and led parents to question the school’s commitment to its future. Last year, 11 students left the Waldorf program. By comparison, only two students left Montessori.

Robert Ovetz pulled his daughter out of Waldorf last year because he was unhappy with the instruction of one teacher—now gone—who had been quickly hired to replace Mr. Kobabe. He still believes in Waldorf, he said, but he does not have the money to send his daughter to a private school. (The county’s private Waldorf school costs $17,950 a year for elementary and middle schoolers, and a Waldorf charter in Novato has a wait list with over 300 names.)

At last Thursday’s community forum, Open Classroom teacher Anita Collison said bluntly that the Waldorf program was “unable to have a sustainable number of students” and that the only fiscally responsible action was to cut one of their teachers.

The district has been in the red for years; if projections for a $150,000 deficit for the current school year prove accurate, it will have had five straight years of deficits, requiring it to pull about $530,000 from reserves, leaving about $800,000. 

“After a few years it will start getting pretty panicky if we can’t turn this around,” said the school’s business manager, Bruce Abbott. He said property taxes plateaued after the economic turndown while school expenses continued to grow, leading to the ongoing shortfall.

Lagunitas is one of a few school districts in California whose revenue from property taxes meets general funding requirements; these are designated “Basic Aid” districts and generally receive no additional general purpose money from the state. Because inter-district transfers do not bring in more money to basic aid districts, Lagunitas has discouraged such transfers in tight-budget years.

But changes to the state’s funding policies could mean the district could benefit from outsiders as early as next year. The new formula is simple: Schools will receive a certain amount per student, plus additional funding for low-income students and English-language learners. Districts will exercise more authority in the use of the funds, and the vast majority of California districts will receive more money. 

Next year, Lagunitas might be pushed into the new program because the state allocation will probably be greater than the district’s property tax revenue. The district expects it will actually lose some funding initially because the switch will cut off other current funding streams. 

Waldorf-inspired advocates have argued that their program could attract new inter-district transfers, and therefore thousands of dollars in extra funding. Despite the current low enrollment, Mr. Sloan said parents from greater Marin would enroll their kids at the district’s Waldorf program if they just opened their doors. “I’ve been assured by parents that anywhere from 15 to 25 people are ready to come out,” he said.

Kindergarten and first-grade LWIP teacher Dorothy Iselin, a longtime Waldorf educator, stays in close contact with many former students. The best way to judge the program’s merits, she said, is by looking at the people its graduates have grown up to become.

“I’ve graduated a class who are now having their own children, and another class who are now in the middle of high school,” she said. “They’re extraordinary people. The thing I would say that’s most characteristic is they know themselves—they’re able to speak with confidence and I think many of them choose to make a difference in the world.”

Between storytelling, drawing and mid-morning snack of oatmeal, yogurt and raisins on Monday, kindergarten and first-grade teacher Ms. Cudabac taught her students Spanish and led them in songs of thanks to the sun and the earth in two languages. The singing, the toys made of wood and natural fibers and the baking of bread foster a natural and inspiring environment for the children to learn and grow, Ms. Cudabac said.

Stories often form the backbone of lessons because they keep students engaged, she says. When teaching numbers, she strives to turn abstract ideas into something more concrete. In her classroom on Monday, after the students finished writing Ps on a big sheet of paper and drawing their own colorful version of the parrot in an Indian myth their teacher had read, they sang a verse to end the lesson. “When I have done my very best/wisdom strength and love will grow/and I will help all those I know.”