A Waldorf school for all. The Community School for Creative Education in Oakland / USA

Monique Brinson, Ida Oberman

The benefits of diversity are becoming ever clearer. It represents a win for everyone living under its influence. Brain research shows what many people have known intuitively: diversity promotes cognitive flexibility with the ability for innovation, adaptation and integration. Yet despite the growth of diversity and its increasing recognition, (racial) segregation is growing. In the United States we are more strongly segregated than 65 years ago. The question is, where are the promising practices which could take up this challenge? Waldorf education is one example.

The Community School for Creative Education

The Community School for Creative Education (CSCE) was set up in 2007 as a neighbourhood initiative in Oakland. On the basis of this initiative, local parents investigated the work of Waldorf and well-performing schools in poorer residential neighbourhoods in the flatlands and reached the conclusion that Oakland needed a Waldorf school. After three years of planning, the first intercultural,  municipal, public Waldorf school in the country was born.

The path there was not easy. Its establishment was twice recommended for rejection by the district and once by those responsible in the district office for educational affairs. Finally it was approved through a surprise turn by a member of the advisory board who was convinced that Waldorf education should be given a chance in the poorer residential neighbourhood. The approval was an example of the importance of engagement in the neighbourhood. People turned up at the public hearings with fifty-two different languages, backgrounds and roles to support the initiative. All of this happened a decade ago.

Today the CSCE consists of a transitional kindergarten and school classes up to grade eight. It looks after 283 pupils. In a diverse Oakland it is one of the most diverse schools. The student body is constituted as follows: 48 percent are learning English as non-native speakers, 15 percent – over double the average for charter schools and higher than the average in the district – qualify for special needs education, 82 percent come from low-income families. The student body is ethnically broadly based: 62 percent are Latinos, 18 percent African Americans, ten percent Asian Americans or Pacific Islanders, four percent Caucasian, three percent Native American and three percent multiracial.

The CSCE offers daily psychosocial services and free activities throughout the day until 6 in the evening, a daily meal and summer school. All-day teaching is supplemented by afternoon programmes. One characteristic of the school is the way it is networked with the neighbourhood, indeed it serves as a hub for all community activities; it is not separated or unconnected.

Our neighbourhood, its wealth and challenges

We live in a city community which is among the culturally most lively in Oakland. Vietnamese, Mexican and Cambodian restaurants vie for custom. Art from various cultures and religions decorates the walls in the surroundings and floats as music through the air. Conversely, the district is also known for human trafficking, drugs and violent crime, the rate of which is four times as high as in the state of California and in our neighbourhood one third higher again than in the city itself.

Three pillars of the Community School

The Community School rests on three pillars: our neighbourhood; our programme, inspired by Waldorf education, guided by standards, and aiming for fairness which is based on the foundation of the arts; and our research and adult education. The fruits we reap in this early phase include in the first instance our pupils, then our families, and finally our academic achievements.

Our community lives inside and outside the walls of our school. The year is filled with festivals from the Day of the Small Child through the Spring Festival, the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad to Black History Month. For each festival families come together to bring food, celebrate, decorate, share, listen to stories from the culture of others, learn and cook the other person’s favourite food.

Such integration does not happen by itself. It is based on constant confidence building work with the adults. Life outside the school is marked by tensions between ethnic groups and social classes. The dictum “it needs a village to bring up a child” is well known. In the Community School the motto applies: “It needs a child to bring up a village.” These groups all come together in our school and at the centre is located the most precious thing in the world for all of them: their child! This leads them to open up in a new way and together. It doesn’t happen without effort. But it is precisely the place from which the school takes its starting point.

Thus teachers, for example, start their first meeting in the autumn with an exercise based on the poem “Where I’m From” by George Ella Lyon to describe their own biography. The pupils in class 1 also write a short “Where I’m From” poem and all of them are put up on the wall.

At the first parents’ evening of class 1 the teacher asks the parents: “What is your greatest hope for your child? And what is your greatest worry?” One might say: “Going to a good university.” Another: “That he doesn’t get shot.” Now they sit together and start on the joint path with their child. That also comes to expression in the words of two mothers: “Our children would never have got to know one another; and we wouldn’t have got to know one another either without the Community School: together we are all stronger.” The basic principle of Waldorf education is relationships.

Last year there was a fatal shooting outside the school. The school had to close and for some hours the parents were unable to collect their children – and once it became possible only with police protection. Children and teachers sang, played, told stories and did craft work together. The older ones sat with the little ones. The trauma team looked after the children who were particularly fearful. All parents were phoned in all languages to tell them that their child was well. The police later reported that they had never before experienced a school community that stuck together in this way.

Our pupils, families and staff have joined together with a nearby district high school to make a mosaic which decorates the outside of our school building. This wonderful work of art faces the street and shows birds flying out of a cage to freedom. The work or art also integrates a telephone number for those seeking protection against human trafficking.

At the inauguration of the mosaic, the children from the Community School and the young people from the nearby high school were surrounded by the families of the staff while the neighbouring Cambodian Buddhist Temple of Oakland sang songs of peace. Pastors from neighbouring churches said prayers. Community leaders spoke about the strength and promise of our community.

Representatives from the authorities visit us as willingly as the police or members of faith communities. The mayor of Oakland came on the Monday of New Year as we welcomed a group of teachers from the Chengdu Waldorf School in China. We are invited to festivals in the Cambodian Buddhist Temple and to festivals of our brothers and sisters on Indigenous Peoples’ Day.

Our work focuses on education as art. Every morning we start the day as the whole school community with children, staff and families to recite: “This is our school / Let peace dwell here ...”, a verse which was first used by Cecil Harwood (1898-1975) at Michael Hall, the first Waldorf school in an English-speaking country. With drums, songs and poems in at least three languages, the children and the whole community start the day. This opening circle is intended to invite them to find their place in relation to their own body, their neighbour, the whole community and nature. As soon as this 15-minute ritual has been concluded, the children sing in their grades, go to their classrooms, and the day begins.

Handwork is a central pleasurable thread which runs through the life of the whole school. The founding member of the community, Nhan Le, knits and crochets with the lower classes. In the upper classes the pupils work on origami to decorate the rooms for the festive days and long-serving parents and staff participate in the creation of wreaths, dyeing silk and the making of crowns.

The power of the class play fills the children with vitality. We put the fact that the achievement of the English pupils in the Community School and of the children with special educational needs has exceeded the district average in the last five years down to an environment rich in language, drama and singing. Another significant characteristic of our school is working in the garden. Blessed with generous donors, we receive support in the all-day school so that the children can experience the growth of plants from sowing through flowering to the harvest and the preparation of the soup.

Training and networking

We have had our Waldorf teacher training under the leadership of Mary Goral, Delano Hill and Sara Alvarado since we were founded. At the same time we benefited from being able to send our teachers, with the generous support of the Arlene Monks, now deceased, to the Rudolf Steiner College Public School Institute. Most importantly, starting in 2018, the Mills Waldorf Professional Development Certified Program was brought into being through a partnership with the Mills College School of Education and Alanus University in Alfter, Germany.

The programme has now been recognised by the Alliance for Public Waldorf Education and the Association of Waldorf Schools of North America (AWSNA) as well as the Waldorf Early Childhood Association of North America (WECAN). Over two summers it offers a two-week programme under the experienced leadership of Bernd Ruf for emergency education and Jost Schieren, the dean of Alanus University, which leads to a Mills Waldorf Professional Development certificate. We are proud that we are starting our third year this summer.

In 2019, our African American pupils exceeded all other public schools in the city (district or charter) in the state test. Our low-income Latino pupils won a prize because they were in the top ten percent for learning progress in English, Art and Mathematics. Lastly, our pupils with special educational needs exceeded the district average for the sixth year running by double the figure.

The time has come for Waldorf education to take a lead and actively contribute to the search for innovative solutions for the crucial questions of our time: diversity and justice in our world and in education. Waldorf education can celebrate its strengths as a tried and tested model for managing challenges and making use of opportunities. The wind is in our sails. The growing number of research results on social and emotional learning and on brain development confirm what Waldorf education has made its own across  time, languages, classes and cultures.

About the authors: Monique Brinson, former school principal; Dr Ida Oberman, founder, teacher and chief executive of the Community School for Creative Education. An editorially abbreviated, revised and supplemented version of this text is republished here with the kind permission of the authors and publisher; original text in LILIPOH Magazine: https://lilipoh.com/