Friday Feature: Waldorf School of New Orleans

Colleen Hroncich

In the post‐​Covid era, many schools cite every child having a computer as a selling point—even as young as first grade sometimes. But the Waldorf School of New Orleans takes a different approach. The school is technology free until eighth grade, according to Reginald Coleman, the school’s administrative director. They want to encourage imagination, independent thinking, and strong relationships, and they find technology at a young age gets in the way. Students begin using computers as research tools in eighth grade to help prepare them for high school.

The Waldorf approach is based on the work of Austrian philosopher and teacher Rudolf Steiner (1861–1925). Steiner visited the Waldorf Astoria cigarette factory in Stuttgart, Germany in 1919, and the owner asked him to establish a school for his employees’ children. The Independent Waldorf School opened that September, incorporating Steiner’s philosophy of human development and a focus on the whole child—head, heart, and hands.

The Waldorf School of New Orleans, which I was fortunate to tour recently, goes from nursery to eighth grade. The youngest children learn through activities that children typically love to do, including arts and crafts, life skills like cooking and gardening, creative play that includes a lot of freedom, and story time.

In grades one through eight, they still learn by doing, but the amount of structure increases as the kids get older. The school has a rigorous curriculum that incorporates the arts, academics, and hands‐​on learning throughout. The science curriculum covers chemistry, biology, physics, and more, using age‐​appropriate experiments. Language arts are particularly strong because storytelling and writing are important parts of the Waldorf model. This hands‐​on approach is also used in math, where manipulatives and stories are used to make difficult concepts more understandable. Many WSNO students move beyond Algebra 1 before high school.

There are two very special rooms at the Waldorf School of New Orleans that really set it apart from most other schools. The handwork room is where the students learn knitting, sewing, embroidery, cross stitch, and more. In addition to being useful skills, handwork helps encourage a creative perspective while developing dexterity, spatial concepts, and even math abilities. The music room is also remarkable. Every student studies music, starting with recorders in first grade and moving on to stringed instruments in fourth grade. They also sing and learn to read music.

Students have the same teacher for their main subjects from first through sixth grade, which Reginald says allows them to really know the children and their strengths and weaknesses. It also helps foster the school’s strong family spirit because the teachers and parents get to know each other so well. In seventh and eighth grade, students have different teachers who help prepare them for the transition to high school.

Reginald, who previously taught and led public schools, has seen the impact of the Waldorf approach on his own daughters. He says when his older daughter was in second grade, she was stressed about standardized tests that didn’t even count for anything. Now she’s thriving in third grade at WSNO and loves school. Reginald says the school doesn’t have attendance problems because the kids want to be there.

One constant challenge the school faces is funding—figuring out how to pay teachers and rent without having a tuition that is out of reach for most families. Reginald was happy to hear that broad school choice could be coming to Louisiana under the new governor. If it has a lot of flexibility so the school could retain its unique approach to education, he says a scholarship program could be enormously helpful as they want to pay their teachers more and lower the tuition. They also want to expand to eventually include high school. But all those things require more funding.

From a small beginning at a cigarette factory in Germany in 1919, the Waldorf/​Steiner education philosophy has spread throughout the world. Now there are more than 1,000 Waldorf/​Steiner schools in sixty‐​four countries with thousands of students learning at them. There are also many Waldorf‐​inspired schools that follow the general principles of a Waldorf model but aren’t officially linked to the program—including The Garden School and Gather Forest School in Georgia. As more states adopt flexible school choice programs, like education savings accounts, it’s likely that more families will have access to Waldorf and Waldorf‐​inspired schools.

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