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Colorado Springs joins the Waldorf-charter wave

Think differently



The charter school movement was supposed to bring a sense of experimentation into education, a chance to throw new ideas at the wall and see what stuck. In reality, however, most Colorado charters have followed the same principle: "back to basics."

So some powers that be were a little thrown by Colorado Springs' Mountain Song Community School and its sister charter schools in Grand Junction, Wheat Ridge and Fort Collins. The schools employ "Waldorf methods," which despite a century of use in specialized private schools and growing popularity, continue to be seen as unusual.

Waldorf schools ("Control, Halt, Delete," cover story, Nov. 24, 2011) focus on age-appropriate, hands-on lessons and emotional connection to learning. They may reinforce math principles by teaching children to knit, or science skills via cooking classes. Technology is eschewed until the later grades, while teachers are given unusual control.

"These are teachers that see children in a much deeper way," says Neah Douglas, founder and director of Mountain Song. "They shake their hand when they come in the class in the morning; they look at them in their eyes. They check in with them, 'How are you today?'"

Douglas moved to Colorado Springs with her husband and two young sons two years ago from Portland, Ore. She had lived in the Springs before, but this time she grew homesick for the Waldorf schools her sons had left behind. Having previously run her own business, led a nonprofit, and worked as a consultant, Douglas decided the solution was simple: She'd open her own Waldorf charter school.

While not officially a part of the Waldorf chain, Mountain Song will teach based on Waldorf methods when it opens next fall in the old Whittier Elementary School building at 2904 W. Kiowa St. Teachers have been hired from across the state and the country. The school will feature a garden and domestic chickens that students will tend, a full-time nutrition and wellness teacher, and a block system of learning. It will start out as a K-6 school, but grow to K-8.

The school planned to open with 130 students, but due to high demand will welcome nearly 200. Some grades still have waiting lists.

Rita Issagholian, attorney and president of the school's seven-member board, says Mountain Song has partnered with Colorado's aforementioned other Waldorf charters — all except Wheat Ridge's are brand new in the 2013-14 school year — to train teachers and share resources. She expects their most difficult task will be balancing Waldorf principles with state standards.

But so far, so good. The Colorado School District 11 Board of Education unanimously approved Mountain Song, and when the board asked Douglas and company to license it through the state-run Charter School Institute, that body gave it unanimous approval. Ethan Hemming, CSI executive director, tells the Independent that Mountain Song was "a strong proposal."

Kathy Zlomke, program manager for new school development for the Colorado League of Charter Schools, says she was originally concerned that the school might not teach fundamentals. But she found that it would do so, just in a unique way.

"One thing I've found in this work is, you know, I can have preconceived notions of these things and see that different models can work," she says.

Issagholian, who plans to send her 6-year-old daughter to the school, says she thinks what makes Waldorf different is its focus on critical thinking.

"Currently we're facing certain global issues," she says. "We need to raise children who can think of solutions differently."

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