Clients in Conversation: Betty Staley & Chip Romer

Betty Staley & Chip Romer in conversation with Bette Mc Donnell, Editorial & Events Manager at RSF

A shortened version of this piece originally appeared in the recently published RSF Quarterly (Winter edition ’10), but the full conversation is posted here.

In 1984, RSF made its first loan, which was to the Pinehill Waldorf School in New Hampshire. Thus began RSF’s dedicated support of Waldorf schools which continues today. Over the years, more and more educators and parents have begun to see the great value of Rudolf Steiner’s educational methodology, which seeks to provide a curriculum and environment that support all aspects of a child’s development. Including grade schools and high schools there are now 144 independent Waldorf schools and 50 public schools and initiatives inspired by Waldorf education in the U.S. This interview features two RSF clients, Betty Staley and Chip Romer, who are intimately involved in the work of education.

What inspired you to start a Waldorf school?

Betty: I helped found the Sacramento Waldorf High School in 1974 as there were none in the area for the students of the grade school to graduate to. In grades 1-8, children learn through their feelings of interest, joy, enthusiasm, and excitement, and while high school students visit many of the same subjects, they now approach them through the cognitive aspect- comparing ideas, analyzing them, reaching a synthesis, and coming to their independent judgment. At this time, the young person enters into the wider world, integrating their studies with the deep questions that have been part of the whole human experience as well as those particularly of our time. This supports the unfolding of their individuality and stimulates a feeling of responsibility.

Chip: My son was a kindergartner at an independent Waldorf school that closed in bankruptcy because there were not enough families who could afford private school tuition. With six other parents from that school, I decided to start a charter school. This was both a practical and a moral decision to make Waldorf education available to every child. That school, Woodland Star Charter School, opened in 2000 in Sonoma and now serves over 200 students in grades K-8.  Now I’m leading the founding of Sonoma County High School for much the same reasons Betty started the Sacramento Waldorf High School: because the curriculum is K-12, and there are currently about 140 annual graduates of the North Bay’s seven public schools inspired by Waldorf education who have no Waldorf high school to attend. They deserve to receive the cognitively focused Waldorf high school curriculum, the thinking that complements the feeling and willing that have been addressed in the early grades. I believe that students who have the rich and complete K-12 experience will awaken to the great responsibility that comes with a Waldorf education. They are truly prepared to make a contribution to the betterment of our world.

How do you think access to Waldorf education may change in the next 10-20 years?

Betty: For the independent Waldorf schools there are three ways access will change:

1) More financial aid so that more students can enroll, 2) Expanding what is called Accessible to All programs where parents pay what they can afford. These programs require that a school has enough people (parents) who can contribute more so that others need pay only what they can afford, and 3) By strengthening the knowledge of the importance of independent education, free of government control so that more businesses, funding groups, and individuals will support independent Waldorf schools.

Chip: I think the number of charters will increase wherever they are allowed. These schools will be accessible to all students. The challenge will be to ensure that the teachers are Waldorf trained so that parents are confident that the school is working out of the heart of the Waldorf educational approach. I think there will continue to be a growing number of public schools inspired by Waldorf education. In the North Bay, eight new Waldorf inspired public schools have started in the past 15 years, increasing the number of students served by close to 400%. If the North Bay continues to be a harbinger of social trends, as I hope, there will be continuing growth in new public schools inspired by Waldorf education elsewhere in the country.

I am committed to this. I’m part of a new non-profit called Awakening Entelechy. Entelechy is defined as a vital force that motivates and guides an organism towards self-fulfillment. Our mission is to promote cultural transformation by cultivating, supporting, promoting, managing, and funding schools inspired by Waldorf education. Sonoma County High School is the first school we are developing, and we are intentionally making it a replicable model. My goal is to have the option of Waldorf education—public or private—available in every neighborhood in the US. Not sure this will happen in 10 or 20 years, but I will work to see the North Bay trend continue elsewhere. Nationally there are now 40 public schools and 10 initiatives inspired by Waldorf education, and in California, there are 21 schools and seven initiatives. The Alliance for Public Waldorf Education seeks to support these schools and initiatives in their success.

In your 35 years of teaching, Betty, what tenet has proven to be of most value to you as you prepare young people for adulthood?

Betty: The tenet that has been of most value to me has been understanding the human being from a threefold perspective—willing, feeling, and thinking,  or body, soul, and spirit, and continually deepening my understanding of Rudolf Steiner’s perspective.  With this perspective, my commitment to high school education inspires me to continually work on my inner life so that I can deepen my skills of observation to perceive the uniqueness of each student, to strengthen my teaching methodology to support their talents and awaken new capacities in the students.

This tenet guides me to build a school community that creates a safe, joyful environment in which teenagers can explore ideas, challenge themselves, and respect each other, and most of all, find meaning and purpose in life. This tenet also deepens my commitment to a larger movement for social renewal that aims for spiritual freedom, social cohesion, and healthy physical development for all children and students.

Chip, did you ever consider becoming a Waldorf teacher?

Chip: In a parallel life. I am an artist and a writer and I would enjoy teaching these things to a class of students. I think I would enjoy forming the social unit of a class. In THIS life I have a stronger calling to be an entrepreneur—to work with others to form the social unit of a school, to create an environment that supports teachers and expands the opportunities for children to access Waldorf education.

Waldorf has been terrifically successful in the public sector. We are unquestionably improving public education. I would dare to say that public schools are also improving Waldorf education—increasing access, accountability and diversity—within the student population and within the curriculum itself, broadening the curriculum’s German roots.

Chip, how similar are the Sonoma County High School teaching methods to Waldorf methods?

We developed our curriculum based on three foundations: California state standards, UC admission requirements, and traditional Waldorf high school curriculum. We have studied six longstanding Waldorf high schools in this process. I believe there will be great similarity, as there is in the K-8 schools.

What are the major differences between the two?

Chip: 1) I believe the public schools have more accountability and more support—at the student level, with annual state testing and in-house assessments, and a requirement to serve all students including English Learners and learning disabled students; and at the teacher level, with strong administrative support, Special Education and EL support, annual performance reviews and required professional development. 2) The public schools serve a significantly more diverse population–socioeconomically, ethnically and culturally.

If a parent asks, “What would help inform my decision when considering enrolling my child in a Waldorf school or a Waldorf inspired charter school,” how do you respond?

Chip: I’m first very clear about expectations of a Waldorf inspired charter school—what parents and students can expect from the school and what the school expects from families. I talk them through the curriculum, explaining why we teach what we teach when we teach it. I ask them to think about whether they can be comfortable trusting the Waldorf approach in a contrary educational environment that is concerned with “more better faster.” Can they be comfortable that their child will begin to read in first and second grade when other children are reading in kindergarten? I show them a graph of standardized test scores that shows second and third graders of Waldorf inspired charters scoring poorly and seventh and eighth graders excelling.

I talk about all the specialty subjects and their important role in developing the will and emotions of their children. I talk about parent commitments: lifestyle, media, social participation, volunteer needs and the need for financial support. Public schools only get about $5,000 per child per year, 1/3 to 1/4 of independent Waldorf schools’ tuition in our area.  I talk about the school being a community of families and invite them to consider joining this community. If they are new to Waldorf education, I encourage them to read Understanding Waldorf Education by Jack Petrash.

From RSF’s experience of working with both Waldorf and charter schools, we understand that one of the great strengths of Waldorf is the fostering of community amongst all involved . . .

Betty: Yes, we create an environment that allows teachers, administrators, parents, and students to feel they are all—and each—integral to success. Success defined here is not a race as I’d characterize mainstream education today, rather it is fostering the qualities of thinking that allows a young person to look upon all of life with wonder.

Chip: I agree. A community where parents are actively involved in support of the teachers and students is vital and brings immeasurable reward to everyone. At our charter schools, shared values and experiences have launched deep and lasting friendships among adults as well as children. It’s my experience that Waldorf schools—both public and private—meet a human need for belonging in community that has become difficult to satisfy elsewhere in modern American society.

Betty Staley is director of Waldorf High School Teacher Education Program and the Public School Institute at Rudolf Steiner College. She taught for over twenty years at the Sacramento Waldorf School. She was the chairperson of the Committee that negotiated the first school inspired by Waldorf education, the Urban Waldorf School in Milwaukee, and directed the training for the John Morse Waldorf Methods Magnet School in Sacramento. She is the author of seven books, including the classic Between Form and Freedom: A Practical Guide to the Teenage Years. She is an investor in the RSF Social Investment Fund. She may be reached at betty.staley@steinercollege.edu.

Chip Romer is president of Awakening Entelechy, a non-profit founded to promote cultural transformation by developing and supporting schools inspired by Waldorf education. He is a developer of Woodland Star Charter School and Sonoma County High School in Northern California; a board member of the Alliance for Public Waldorf Education; and he has served on the Member Council of the California Charter Schools Association. Chip is a Waldorf parent and an investor in the RSF Social Investment Fund.

Note: The Association of Waldorf Schools of North America (AWSNA) now offers a license for the use of the term “Waldorf inspired” to public programs that apply and qualify, and provides guidelines for use of the term “Waldorf” for public and non-members schools.

Bette Mc Donnell is Editorial and Events Manager at RSF Social Finance.

In 1984, RSF made its first loan, which was to the Pinehill Waldorf School in New Hampshire. Thus began RSF’s dedicated support of Waldorf schools which continues today. Over the years, more and more educators and parents have begun to see the great value of Rudolf Steiner’s educational methodology…

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