Waldorf 2.0?

PEC cites concerns with organizers’ outreach efforts

News Sun Mountain Community School applicants (front: Briana Bassler, Jayita Sahni and Zoe Wilcox) answer questions at a July 10 Public Education Commission meeting about their charter school proposal. (Mo Charnot)

Upwards of two dozen parents, teachers and students from the recently-shuttered Santa Fe Waldorf School spoke in favor of a plan to create a Waldorf education-based public charter school at a community input meeting on July 10. However, the state’s Public Education Commission cited concerns with the school’s ability to reach out to the wider Santa Fe community.

Kai Fireheart-Laney, a former Waldorf student who began attending El Dorado Community School after Waldorf unexpectedly announced its closure in 2023, recounted the different experience she had receiving a Waldorf education compared to traditional public education.

“Waldorf, which is primarily hands-on learning, in a supportive, stress-free and nurturing environment, learning was so much fun…in comparison, in regular public school, I found myself ahead in most subjects, so much in math, in fact, that I was moved to Honors math,” Fireheart-Laney said. “The environment was very stressful, with little to no hands-on learning material in those classes. Most of the learning was digital, and there was a lot of pressure to perform well on the online tests. I scored well on my tests, but now, a few months later, I do not remember the information in the way that I know I would have at Waldorf.”

Several former Waldorf parents and teachers in attendance credited the Santa Fe Waldorf School with post-graduation success, citing college and employment opportunities their children received and emphasizing the school’s “holistic approach” to teaching students. Additionally, parents noted that turning a previously inaccessible private school to a public charter school would present more economically diverse students in Santa Fe with the opportunity to learn from a Waldorf education.

A few PEC commissioners expressed support for the Waldorf education model, but PEC commissioners and the independent peer reviewers expressed uncertainty that the proposed school—to be named the Sun Mountain Community School—adequately demonstrated community support outside of its pre-existing community.

The Sun Mountain Community School, like all Waldorf schools, would utilize the hands-on, outdoor learning and imagination-centered education philosophy of 19th-century philosopher and occultist Rudolf Steiner, but adapted to fit with the state’s Common Core standards. In its current application, this school plans to have a capacity of 108 students in grades K-4 (with a conservative estimate of 82 students in its first year), before slowly expanding to a K-8 school serving a maximum of 208 students.

However, a recent report from an independent peer review team states that out of 51 indicators required to meet the New Charter School Application’s criteria to become a charter school, the Sun Mountain Community School only meets eight; “approaches” meeting 22; and does not meet 21. The report raises several concerns with the school’s proposed academic, organizational and financial frameworks.

The peer review team notes that the applicants surveyed 115 families, and that nearly one-third of respondents stated they did not have children. The report also states, “It is unclear how many of the 115 responses to the outreach survey were from outside the community of the previous Waldorf school.”

Commissioner Rebekka Burt asked the applicants how many of those surveyed previously attended or had a child attending the Santa Fe Waldorf School, and Zoe Wilcox, who would be the head of the Sun Mountain Community School’s academic team, says the survey didn’t include that as a specific question, but that more than 90% of respondents said they were either “very knowledgeable” or “knowledgeable” of Waldorf education.

“The numbers that most point to your question is, ‘Would you send your child to a private Waldorf School?’ 73% said they would. The following question is, ‘Would you send your child to a tuition-free public Waldorf charter school?’ 94% said they would,” Wilcox said. “At least 27% of the population that we interviewed didn’t go to our school.”

July 10 Public Education Commission meeting PEC members expressed concern about the former Waldorf school's plans for outreach.

Wilcox also responded to a question from Commissioner Stewart Ingham asking how the school plans to reach out to families in different socioeconomic groups, noting the school has set up informational booths in parts of town that the majority of the former population don’t live near, including the Southside Library and the Genoveva Chavez Community Center, among other locations. Wilcox said the booths have drawn “a lot of interested families,” while co-founder Jayita Sahni said she feels “the best way to do outreach” in specific areas is “to go there.”

Additionally, Sahni noted that they plan to construct the Sun Mountain Community School as a New Mexico Community School—a designation for schools that partner with local nonprofit, private sector and public businesses to provide wraparound services to students within the school site that include health, nutrition and housing assistance.

Burt, however, said the main reason for her concern is that charter schools in New Mexico are often inaccurately described as private schools despite being state-funded, and that the 40-year history of the private Waldorf school may give potential applicants the impression that the school isn’t tuition-free and open to the public, and would thus only attract former Waldorf families.

“I do think it is of interest to see how many people in the community, outside of those who already believe this school’s accessible to them, would be interested in it,” Burt said. “I just don’t know if booths are quite enough, because if they see it, there may be a misconception right from the beginning that they don’t have access…I am worried about being able to reach folks that deserve access, that are furthest from access and opportunity, and I don’t have the data from you all to see if that actually is being effective.”

When it came to outreach with other schools, nonprofits and businesses in Santa Fe, co-founder and community outreach coordinator Daniel Wendland told the committee that he visited the Santa Fe Preparatory School, the Santa Fe Girls’ School and the Santa Fe School for the Arts & Sciences. He didn’t name any specific nonprofits or businesses he reached out to, but the charter school application states that organizations such as Children’s Adventure Company; Climate Advocates Voces Unidas; Dragonfly Art Studio; Many Mothers; Reading Quest and more expressed support for the school.

“Overwhelmingly, across the board, everybody has known about the Santa Fe Waldorf School and was in support of a charter option of a Waldorf public school,” Wendland says.

When asked about Indigenous communities, Wendland said they reached out to the Cochiti, Tesuque and Pojoaque pueblos, and that all three were “not responsive in terms of wanting to know more.” Sahni clarified to the PEC that the school’s mode of outreach to Indigenous communities was to “let them know what we were doing and wait for a response,” saying that they “don’t want to insinuate tribal schools aren’t working.”

PEC members also expressed concern about the Sun Mountain Community School’s proposed literacy program, as the Waldorf philosophy specifically waits until second grade to directly teach reading to students. Wilcox said the school will implement New Mexico’s structured literacy program and will go through common core through “auditory learning,” as the Waldorf education model says children need to understand verbal language before learning to read.

Lily Miller, a former Waldorf parent who spoke in favor of the Sun Mountain Charter School, said her child’s experience with this form of literacy instruction worked well for her, and that she plans to apply her children to the school if approved.

“They provide age-appropriate education and they meet the children’s needs…a five year old in public school being pushed to start to read doesn’t make much sense,” Miller said. “I love that they treat the child as a whole and meet them where they’re ready.”

Commissioners still had plenty of questions for the charter school applicants, but had to cut the meeting short to attend another charter school application meeting in Bernalillo. They will send remaining questions to the charter school applicants to respond to at an Aug. 16 PEC meeting at which commissioners will vote to approve; approve with conditions; or deny the charter applications scheduled. If approved, the Sun Mountain Community School would open in the 2025-2026 school year.

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