Tossed Waldorf 

Hailey public charter school snags as plans for a Boise sister school gains momentum

Everything was breaking the right way for Syringa Mountain School. The State Board of Education, Charter School Commission and officials at the city of Hailey had given a thumbs-up to the Waldorf-inspired charter school, and Syringa administrators had submitted their plan to the Hailey Planning and Zoning Commission. With an opening date set in September 2014, Syringa would bring jobs to Hailey and educational choice to Blaine County. That was before some area homeowners caught wind of it.

At a Jan. 13 meeting of the Hailey Planning and Zoning Commission, about 100 residents of the Sherwood Forest and China Gardens subdivisions--would-be neighbors of the school--attended to voice opposition to Syringa, worrying that the school would decrease property values, increase traffic and introduce farm animals--a component of Waldorf education--to the neighborhood.

"Our interest is to surround the kids with as much nature as possible," said Dr. Mary Gervase, Syringa administrator.

City officials had concerns of their own. The P&Z commission noted that increased traffic could damage the thoroughfare used by students and subdivision residents. Police officials said the school layout and landscaping would be a hinderance in the event of a school intruder.

"When you plan a school, you want to provide as few places where people can hide, shoot or rape children [as possible]. You have to think about the challenges schools are faced with," said Hailey Community Development Director Micah Austin.

The meeting ended with the commission denying Syringa's application to build at its proposed location and scheduled a meeting Monday, Feb. 10, at which it will consider changing Hailey's school zoning ordinance from permitted uses to conditional uses. The shift would allow the commission to evaluate proposed school permits based on a wider set of criteria, including increases in traffic volume, the number of children attending the school (Syringa officials would like to enroll up to 300 students, ages 6-14) and other factors.

"It just gives the city an added level of review process to ensure the impacts [of the school] are thoroughly studied before something is approved," Austin said.

In a statement released by email following the Jan. 13 P&Z meeting, Gervase indicated that the school still plans to open its doors in time for the 2014-15 school year--just not at the originally planned location.

"We are refocused on locating our temporary site and taking a deep breath and regrouping as we consider our future permanent site," she wrote.

Meanwhile, Austin said Syringa will be a good addition to Hailey, providing jobs, cultural development and school choice to the area, and that the city is working closely with the charter school on its conditional use permit application.

"We really want these guys. This is a wonderful economic development opportunity for our city. In our valley, every job counts," he said.

Prior to the P&Z hearing, the sailing was uncannily smooth for supporters of Syringa, which will be the first Waldorf method-inspired public charter school not only in Idaho, but any of its surrounding states. The school has raised $500,000 from the Pilaro family and another $250,000 through the Albertson Family Foundation, and it cruised through its Aug. 15, 2013, hearing with the Department of Ed's Charter Commission, which voted unanimously to approve Syringa's charter, in large part because of its promise to bring school choice to Blaine County.

Syringa is part of a trend toward charter school expansion in Idaho. Currently, 47 charter schools across Idaho serve 18,000 students (out of a statewide total K-12 population of about 285,000 students). In 2014, that number could rise to 19,000. So far, 100 children ages 6-11 have enrolled in Syringa, many of whom are coming from The Mountain School, a private Waldorf school in nearby Bellevue that will shut its doors in 2014. Another private Waldorf school, Sandpoint Waldorf School, serves students in North Idaho.

Syringa's teaching method runs counter to many priorities of the State Department of Education, including early childhood mathematics and reading skills, as well as immersion in classroom technology--a pet project of Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna. But an important part of Syringa's appeal to state education officials is its offer of curriculum diversity and a laboratory for teaching methods.

"We've been able to learn a lot from some of the choices [charter schools] have brought forward. Any time a school has come up with an innovative idea, if it's worked, it's something we're more than willing to share with other schools," said Department of Education Communications Director Melissa McGrath.

Syringa's progress from idea to reality was rapid despite the Waldorf teaching method's emphasis on experiential learning over abstract learning and other pedagogies that contradict common practices at other public schools. But for education officials, it's all about giving parents options.

"I think there's a lot of interest in our community about this choice and I think that we're integrating the arts, sustainability curriculum, garden skills, Spanish, music--that's being approached in an integrated way," Gervase said.

Elements of the Waldorf teaching method have long given educators and scholars pause. The first Waldorf school opened in Stuttgart, Germany, in 1919, and from the beginning, its philosophy has centered on holistic teaching, emphasizing ethics and creativity in balance with instruction in mathematics, sciences and reading. Its qualitative, rather than quantitative, assessment methods have fostered a sometimes tense relationship with mainstream education, with some critics claiming Waldorf pedagogy traded in pseudoscience and detrimentally delayed instruction of central concepts like abstract mathematics, reading and technology.

As a public--albeit alternative--school, Syringa will introduce computer learning to students at age 9 so they can participate in statewide standardized testing, and other contentious aspects of the Waldorf method, like spiritual development, have been downplayed.

"We are still going to follow the Waldorf methodology," Gervase said. "Kids use technology at home; we're just not choosing to use it as part of our curriculum at an early age."

Interest in the alternative teaching method has reached Boise, where Julie Hairston is drawing inspiration and momentum from Syringa's success for a sister charter school in the Treasure Valley: Dry Creek Farm and School.

"We can share festivals and community information, opportunities. There's so much opportunity; the sister school charter movement is the wave of the future," Hairston said.

Application and fundraising processes for Dry Creek have already begun, and supporters are aiming for an opening date of fall 2015.

"Our next step is actually submitting our petition to the state of Idaho. We do have a goal; I believe we'll have it submitted by April or May," Hairston said.

Though fundraising for the school is just beginning, interest in a Boise Waldorf school is high. Hairston said she receives several emails and phone calls every day from people interested in making Dry Creek a reality, meetings in support of the school are held regularly and a Thursday, Jan. 30 film screening at Red Feather Lounge of The Challenge of Rudolf Steiner, a documentary about the Waldorf method's founder, has long been sold out.

Hairston became a devotee of the Waldorf method when she and her husband moved to California for work and sought schools for their children. After a fruitless search, they "stumbled" over a Waldorf school tucked in the woods.

"My husband and I had never heard of Waldorf before," sad Hairston. "We both had tears in our eyes when we left the school grounds."

In Hailey--P&Z hiccups aside--Syringa still plans to convene classes in September, when it will begin teaching students as part of what Gervase sees as a larger movement.

"This is a national phenomenon," she said. "I'm constantly hearing about new schools."

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