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Like little butterflies, the children have been fluttering in for half an hour. School starts at 8:30, but that's not a hard and fast rule. Parents drop them off and they join the others in free playtime, building forts with sheets and blocks and small wooden chairs in the middle of the room. A white-haired woman in a grandmotherly apron stands nearby; the children call her Miss Dorothy. Miss Dorothy drops off a packet with the curriculum and remarks, "We're part of a much bigger picture here."
Shining Star Kindergarten in northwest Houston is indeed part of something much larger: Waldorf methods, a philosophy based in part on spirits and the cosmos at large. The watercolors on the wall hint at the gentle, pastel, Monet-like existence that Shining Star, now three years old, strives to cultivate. There are no TVs, no computers and no commercial toys. In a childhood world painted Pokémon, Shining Star is a burst of Little House on the Prairie. "We don't use plastics, we don't use play cloth -- all our cloths are cotton or silk -- and we don't use any nylon," says Miss Dorothy. "A lot of things are very toxic to our children." These toxic things include worksheets, testing and learning how to read.
A parent of a prospective student sits down at a low table, and Miss Dorothy brings over a basket of sandpaper and blocks and a sheet of paper. It reads "No spectators in our Kindergarten Room" and explains how the visitor must be engaged in a task that can be imitated by the children. The visitor goes to work, rubbing at the tree block. A few minutes later, sure enough, three children float over to the coarse sawing noise. They, too, begin sanding without instruction.
"Clean our room, clean our room." Miss Dorothy's singsong voice loops over their giggles and chatter like wind chimes. She gets the room in order, as both parents and children gather in a circle around a violet candle.
"Let's see what Dusty Gnome says," Miss Dorothy asks, pressing her ear to a small hooded doll. Ten feet away, Dusty Gnome's response is not audible. The children and adults raise their hands toward the ceiling. "I reach high into the sky and bring golden sunlight into my heart," they recite. A child lights the candle and the group bows before it. "Good morning, dear earth!"
A Shining Star brochure claims the Waldorf approach "allows the fantasy world of the child to develop, giving full reign to creative and individualistic expression." About ten children, ages three and a half to six, attend the school for up to five days a week. Their monthly tuition varies from $285 to $530, depending on whether they stay for the afternoon session. To a neurotic outsider, the day's schedule might look like it was designed by The Dude from The Big Lebowski(sans joint and white Russians): playtime in the morning, maybe a bit of watercolor or modeling with beeswax, snack time, free play outside, some storytelling, lunch, a nap, then back outside for more play.
"We've brought so much academics down to the K and pre-K level, they're miserable," says Miss Dorothy, whose last name is Ogle and who has been teaching Waldorf methods for more than 20 years. She bemoans the idea of "ditto sheets" -- wincing at the very mention of the copy-and-repeat exercises -- and stands firm against teaching children to read too early, exposing them to media and technology or giving them tests before high school. Waldorf believes children learn by imitation up to age seven, then advance into the feeling realm until they reach age 14, when they finally enter the thinking realm.
Although their classroom is located in the back corner of the Unitarian Fellowship church, school leaders say the connection is in rent alone.
"We're not religious at all, no, because we teach no dogma, we teach no certain way to believe," says Ogle. "I, as a teacher, recognize that these children came from the spirit world -- but I don't teach them that. That's a lot different."
They've learned a verse that's recited before they eat: "Earth, who gives to us this food, sun who makes it ripe and good. Dear sun, dear earth, by you we live, our loving thanks to you we give."
"So there's never at any time any type of dogma," she adds in a sunny voice.
Some are not so sure. The underpinning for the Waldorf education comes from a spiritual movement known as anthroposophy, developed by an Austrian named Rudolf Steiner. Steiner opened the first Waldorf school in Germany in 1919. According to the Association of Waldorf Schools of North America, there are now more than 850 schools worldwide, including 169 in North America -- they claim it is "the fastest-growing nonsectarian independent school movement in the world." Waldorf methods such as delayed reading and removing competition from school have never been tested quantitatively against public schools.
"It's hard to describe the value of this education," says Ogle. Waldorf educators and parents argue that the very nature of the curriculum makes it impossible to measure according to traditional standards, pointing instead to the anecdotal evidence of recent graduates.
"We're quite comfortable with the fact that children are seven or eight years old by the time reading clicks with them," says David Darcy, an administrator at The Harvest, a Waldorf school in Spring that opened two years ago. "In the public school, those would be considered learning-disabled."
"It sounds like voodoo to say something like that, and yet the person who started Waldorf education, he had some insights."
Critics of Waldorf question how forthcoming the schools are with those insights. They wonder if teachers trained primarily in anthroposophy wind up applying it in the classroom.
"My daughter was in a Waldorf school for about a year, and I noticed after a while there were a lot of things going on that were kind of curious and mysterious," says John Holland, a parent in Berkeley who established www.openwaldorf.com as a forum for discussion. He gives one example: "At the holiday craft fair, there were gnomes everywhere. There were no Santas, snowmen or anything. It was all gnomes."
Ogle recognizes that "there are elemental beings out there in nature beings who take care of the air and the water and the soil."
"I've never ever tried to teach them that," she says. "I'll tell you what they have done. I will sometimes, if I think they're not having the right respect for things in the room, I will have them take a gnome and, say, put it where the gnome is comfortable."
The TV and computer blackout is based upon the anthroposophic belief that a dark spirit called ahriman inhabits electronic media and binds people to the earth. "All of these things like computers and televisions can lead us into this pseudo-reality to live as though there's a whole world there," says Darcy, who acknowledges that he's open to the idea of gnomes. He also points out that Waldorf's stance on reading has to do with the fact that the body needs to push out the hardest force, the teeth, during the first period of physical transformation. "Illnesses later in life can be traced to this premature intellectuality that comes in childhood."
Holland had no problem with a religious foundation forming the basis of Waldorf methods -- he just felt they weren't open enough about it. "They say, 'We don't teach anthroposophy,' but anthroposophy forms the educational basis," he says. "I had this feeling from the very first day that something was going on that I wasn't quite getting."
In February 1998, PLANS, a Waldorf critics group, filed a federal lawsuit against two Northern California school districts, claiming that the Waldorf approach in public schools violates the First Amendment separation of church and state. The trial is set for September.
"It's hard to get out once you get in," says Debra Snell, president of PLANS and a former Waldorf parent. "It's a closed system." Snell says that through their Web site she has been in contact with about 100 Waldorf "survivors" -- although she would not disclose their identities, citing confidentiality concerns.
Scott Olmsted, administrative director for the Waldorf schools association, dismisses the merit of PLANS' lawsuit, claiming that any bad experiences are the fault of the individual teacher and not the system as a whole. "I think that the criticisms are based on anecdotal evidence and they in no way reflect the policies of the school," he says, later conceding that Waldorf praise is also based on anecdotal evidence. "With the critics, you have to wonder what their real issue is."
Some parents at Shining Star, a private institution not yet accredited, have no problem with the "spiritual plane" from which the school operates. Several say that they would have considered homeschooling, but prefer the artistic and social exposure that Waldorf provides.
Monette Chilson calls Shining Star "a breath of fresh air" after her daughter's public school experience. She's fascinated by some of the ideas about gnomes and teeth, even as those in her family wonder if it's not a little odd and hippie-ish. "My sister, she thinks we're crazy, so you have to be really strong in your convictions," says Chilson. Her only worry is that they won't be able to achieve the vision of eight full grades in coming years.
"There is some stuff that made me go, 'That sounds weird,' " says Carol Denson, a mother at Shining Star who is in Waldorf training and plans to teach its new first grade next year. Denson uses a comment she once heard to explain her view: "Sometimes you'll read something and think, 'That's really strange,' but if you just stay open to it and use it in working with the children, it just fits okay."
Back in the school's playroom, the parent of the prospective student joins in the circle of children for "music and movement" time. Their chants become song: "I came from the heavens to be here on this earth."
They march around the candle, miming the motion of chopping wood. It's a "spirit recital of Mother Earth" where "seeds and flowers await new birth."
Outside the window, the yard offers a pastoral panorama of forest, contrasting with the grocery store and strip mall across the street. Inside this room, the children look spacey and relaxed as they imitate tai chi stretches set to fairy tale musings.
And from a shelf nearby, Dusty Gnome watches over them with a blank expression, giving nothing away.