Napa Valley Charter School has alleged connection to Waldorf teaching of Anthroposophy
A charter school that espouses Waldorf teaching methods will become part of Napa Valley Unified School District next fall, despite concerns about low test scores, lack of diversity and religious ties.
The school, Napa Valley Charter School, opened five years ago under the oversight of a rural Nevada City school district and rents space at the Napa County Fairgrounds. A new state law requires charter schools to become part of local school districts.
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The school board’s 5-2 approval of the charter petition Thursday night did not come without controversy, but in the final motion to approve the charter application, trustees Jackie Dickson and Linda LaForge were the only nays.
The board’s qualms contrasted with the passionate support of parents and teachers, many of them founders of the young school. Dozens of them spoke at a public hearing in October about how the school had benefited their children.
At the start of a three-hour discussion, Superintendent John Glaser offered a “very guarded” recommendation for approving the school’s charter application. He said the school district felt caught between two state mandates: promoting school choice and conforming to state accountability mandates.
The school’s Waldorf curriculum does not closely match the content of the standardized tests that determine a school’s standing in state and federal rankings. The school’s low test scores could lead to federal sanctions.
Trustees also expressed reservation about the school’s religious ties, including its alleged connection to Anthroposophy, the religion that Waldorf founder Rudolf Steiner created, and the way it teaches religion.
The school flatly denied any wrongdoing. After the meeting, Bill Bindewald, the chief administrator, said the school does not teach Anthroposophy, adding that it isn’t a religion, or foster religious beliefs of any kind.
A pending lawsuit against two Waldorf charter schools in Twin Ridges Elementary School District — which currently oversees Napa Valley Charter School — argues that Waldorf public schools violate the first amendment of the constitution because they endorse and teach anthroposophy.
Napa Valley Charter School is not named in the lawsuit, but the court’s decision would certainly set a precedent for future litigation, according to a memo to the board from Sally Dutcher, NVUSD general counsel.
Still, public Waldorf schools are becoming more common. There are roughly 20 in California.
Superintendent Glaser questioned the appropriateness of how religion is being incorporated into the curriculum. He said that when he visited the school recently, he saw a Bible story written on the board in one classroom.
Representatives of the school said ancient stories and mythologies from many traditions are taught, but as history and literature, not to foster religious beliefs. For example, said fifth-grade teacher Justin Medaris, this month his students “are studying the gods of Egypt, not worshipping them.”
Trustees also raised questions about the school’s lack of diversity. Nearly 80 percent of students are white, and they only have one student classified as an English learner. The student body does not reflect the demographics in NVUSD, which is nearly 40 percent Latino.
School administrators promised to work on recruiting more Latino students, and said they believe the Waldorf method is appropriate for students who are second-language learners.
The debate over whether to accept the school’s charter petition turned into a debate about the merits of charter schools in general. Charter schools are meant to be alternatives to traditional public schools, but they are held to state and federal accountability measures.
Balancing the desire to offer a unique school and reach testing goals is vital if the school wants to survive, warned trustee Michael Douglas, citing the five Napa schools that are currently under federal sanctions due to low test scores. “We must find a way to align them.”
The Waldorf method delays the teaching of reading and writing until late in first-grade. California public schools are required to teach kindergarten students to write a sentence on a topic with supporting details.
Although charter schools have greater flexibility over curriculum than traditional public schools, Superintendent Glaser urged trustees to diligently monitor the school’s progress on standardized tests in the coming years.
Because they teach subjects on a different timetable than most schools, following what they consider an appropriate pace based on the developmental stages of a child, Waldorf schools tend to have lower test scores until fourth- and fifth-grades, said Ann Matthews, the school’s program director.
Trustees urged the school to consider how it could improve scores in lower grades. “The tests are not going away,” said trustee Alan Murray.
The next step is determining where the school will be housed. A new state law — Proposition 39 — requires school districts to provide facilities for charter schools under their jurisdiction.
The school, which plans to change its name to Stone Bridge School, will also have to hammer out agreements with NVUSD on sharing special education services and other financial matters.
The school has applied to be an independent charter of the district, meaning state funding will go directly to it instead of being funneled through the district.