In the name of Joan of Arc

Valeria Risi

The phone rings one, twice, three times. Then a friendly male voice answers the line at the other end of the world: “Juana de Arco school, how can I help you?” I introduce myself and a few months later, on a Saturday in December, I am standing in the small playground of the Juana de Arco Waldorf School in the district of Villa Crespo in the middle of the Argentinean capital Buenos Aires. I wanted to find out what Waldorf means in Argentina today – 10,000 kilometres distant from the place where it began and hundred years after Rudolf Steiner started the first school.

In 2018, the English teacher of class 7 of the Sankt Augustin Free Waldorf School and her counterpart from the Juana de Arco School in Buenos Aires started a pen friendship between their two classes. This created my first connection with the school in Buenos Aires. The fact that I am familiar with the country and its people made further communication much simpler still, and the circumstance that I had to travel there anyway at the end of the year for family reasons fitted in perfectly.

Curious, my mind full of questions, I arrive at the Argentinean Waldorf school – as it happens, on the day of the Advent bazaar. Children flit about, the sun shines and the temperature is a summery twenty-five degrees. The atmosphere is relaxed, the people friendly. Cake, drinks, jewellery, cuddly toys, swimming trunks and summer blouses are on sale in the small courtyard and some of the classrooms. I get into conversation with Josué, a young teacher, who tells me about the difficulty of cultivating European traditions at the height of summer. 

Not just in Argentina, but at many Waldorf schools in the southern hemisphere there is a debate about a certain “Germaness” of Waldorf education. Josué and his colleagues try to adapt the Christian festivals, in particular, a little to the reality and climate of the southern hemisphere. That explains why the Advent bazaar has more of a feel of a relaxed art market about it and a contemplative pre-Christmas mood doesn’t really want to set in. 

In any case, the most important festival at the Juana de Arco School is the spring fair for which tasks are distributed in the classes, a bit like at home for the bazaar. At the same time, the school also tries to honour the traditions of its own country and on 1 August celebrates Pachamama Day, the day of Mother Earth – a goddess who is still today revered by many indigenous peoples in Latin America.

A strong woman as name giver and inspiration

The Juana de Arco School is one of ten schools in Argentina which have subscribed to Waldorf education. Then there are another twenty which work partly with the Waldorf concept. Most of the schools are either in the interior of the country or in the metropolitan areas of the capital, the so-called Gran Buenos Aires. Approaching thirteen million people live there, almost three million of them in the capital itself. The first Waldorf school was established in 1940 in the locality of Florida in the metropolitan area.

But more than half a century passed before it become possible to attend a Waldorf school also in the centre of the capital. In between there lay decades of political unrest, financial crises, repeated coups, a brutal military dictatorship, the Falklands war and, finally, the return to democracy in 1983.

The foundation of this most urban of all Waldorf schools is due to the commitment of a group of parents and teachers. They wanted a school for their children which corresponded with their ethical and religious as well as philosophical values and set up the Alanus Ab Insulis Foundation to that end. In 1995 they were donated a residential building and began by starting the Juana de Arco kindergarten with twelve children. The famous name giver, Juana de Arco (Joan of Arc), is seen as a role model – “she embodies a young person with strong ideals” the school explains on its website.

The choice of name appears to have helped. The school continued to grow and only a few years later, in 1999, the neighbouring building was rented and the school expanded to include a primary level which in Argentina comprises the first seven classes. A driver of this success was the parents of “children with special abilities”, as pupils with special educational needs are known in Latin America.

“We want to accept all differences”

These families had noted during the kindergarten period the positive effect of Waldorf education on the development of their children. Word spread. Well over half of the enquiries for primary school places today come from such families, as the education secretary of the school, Soledad Garzón, told me in conversation: “That includes children with motor, language or neurological challenges, as well as children who have to change school because of social difficulties.”

I learn that inclusion has been laid down in education law in Argentina for twelve years already. In concrete terms this means for the Juana de Arco School that there are two children with special needs per class. The class teacher is supplemented by one or two special needs teachers. The social welfare office either has to take on the school fees for the child or pay for the special needs teacher.

The inclusion law does, however, also pose challenges for the school. Whereas until recently it was still possible for children to start school at age seven, all children today have to start in the year of their sixth birthday. After all, no child should be disadvantaged because of a disability. A good concept which, however, makes it more difficult to take account of the individual development of children. Soledad nevertheless sees Argentina following a good path in matters of inclusion. She wants to include all children, no matter whether or not they have a specific diagnosis: “For those who do not need a special needs teacher at their side, we adapt the content and methods accordingly, something which places a great demand on us as a school” – hard work, or in Garzón’s words: trabajo de hormiga – “working like ants”.

Who chooses a Waldorf school in Argentina?

The pupils can be subdivided into three large groups: “On the one hand there are those who decide to send their children to our school because they were Waldorf pupils themselves or are on a personal search which led them to us. On the other hand there are those who were referred to us from the medical side due to psychological or neurological recommendations. Waldorf schools with their successful integration work are known in the whole health field,” Soledad tells me. “The third and smallest group consists of parents who come upon us without knowing very much about Waldorf education in the search for an alternative for their children who are unhappy in the traditional school system.”

In order to be recognised in the education system and be able to issue certificates, all schools are deemed to be public in Argentina and only differ in whether they are managed as public or private schools. Waldorf schools do not receive any public funding which Soledad does not see as a disadvantage, for “if the state pays, it also has a say in what we do. But in our understanding parents and the faculty should be the driving force in our school community”.

Alongside donations, benefit concerts, bazaars and fairs, the Juana de Arco School obtains its income mainly from the monthly school fees. Originally, families were recommended an amount. Then the school tried to work with what each one could actually afford. Meanwhile there is a fixed minimum amount but the finance group tries to find solutions within the school community to ease the burden on families with less financial resources. Currently the fees for the kindergarten and school are the same and come to four fifths of the minimum wage per month. If the current inflation rate of well over forty percent is added, this represents an amount which only a few can afford.

Horticulture in the metropolitan jungle

“Hacemos magia” – “we perform magic”, says Soledad when I ask her how they teach horticulture without a school garden. Once a month the lower classes go by bus to a large park. Given the distances in this huge metropolis, this is a day’s excursion. There is, nevertheless horticulture each week thanks to stackable and rolling beds: wooden boxes filled with earth and planted with whatever nature provides or the horticulture teachers happen to have to hand.

Magic also has to be performed in organising the timetable to create space for the 270 pupils. So the rooms and the time are subdivided: from eight in the morning until one in the afternoon the kindergarten and primary school children attend the school. In addition, there are extracurricular activities for all classes in the afternoon, such as English, drama or instrument tuition. Short plays from lessons are – due to the lack of a school hall – often performed in the open in the playground.

Middle and upper school, that is pupils from class 8 upwards, are taught from one in the afternoon to quarter past six in the evening. But for many the afternoon lessons are not compatible with family life. This means that after class 7 a good half of pupils move to another school. In order to avoid this, the Juana de Arco School would really like to purchase or rent an additional building but does not have the necessary resources. Now it is hoping for help from a patron or a foreign foundation.

The school would also urgently need support to be able to offer eurythmy lessons once again. There is simply too great a demand on the few trained eurythmists in Argentina. Soledad wonders: “Might there be someone in Europe tempted to come to us for a year to strengthen our faculty and provide further training?”

Bueno, bello y verdadero …

The year 2019 will be the first year when a class of the Juana de Arco School will have passed through the complete twelve-year cycle. Despite the difficult conditions, fifteen pupils will sit their university entrance exams at the end of the year. A great achievement of which Soledad and her team are rightly proud. She describes the secret of their success like this: “We work with what we have available to achieve something that is good, beautiful and true – algo bueno, bello y verdadero.”

The thermos flask with hot water for the mate tea is almost empty and Soledad has to continue with her work. As we take leave, I still show her the yearbook from our school. She is surprised that the school is open and can be reached from the street without gates or fences. That would be completely unthinkable in Argentina.

It is one o’clock in the afternoon and the bell rings for the end of school. The parents have meanwhile gathered on the pavement in front of the entrance door. The classes emerge one after the other, accompanied by their class teachers. Their interaction is warm. The children address the adults informally, give them a hug and get a kiss on the cheek from the class teacher before being given into the care of their mother, father or grandmother. For the one group the school day at the Juana de Arco Waldorf school has come to an end, for the other it is just beginning.

About the author: Valeria Risi is a freelance journalist, TV presenter and parent of the Sankt Augustin Free Waldorf School.