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County challenges unique school

Ohanian Comment: Imagine, in our standardisto regime, building a school on the notion that students should begin their education with play and imagination, and build into academic training in later grades.
Clearly this is heresy against the State.

The Sacramento County Office of Education has challenged the "unique" approach to teaching by a Sacramento City Unified school, raising questions about whether unconventional educational methods can fit into a public school system increasingly shaped by state and federal testing programs.

The Sacramento City Unified School District put Waldorf teaching methods in place at John Morse school in south Sacramento in 1998, and the district now has before it a plan to create a small high school dedicated to that same educational philosophy.

Waldorf's approach is built on theories that say students should begin their education with play and imagination, and build into academic training in later grades.

Waldorf schools incorporate music, art and movement into teaching. Students begin learning to read by listening to stories and acting them out - and don't actually start working with letters and sounds until the middle of first grade.

But in a scathing three-page letter to the Sacramento City Unified School District, county education officials say the "unique curriculum and educational philosophy" at John Morse have put it in direct conflict with state laws that dictate how, when and what public-school children learn.

John Morse school "provides limited access to textbooks in the early grades and does not use the instructional materials otherwise adopted by the local governing board," county Superintendent David Gordon wrote after a team from his office audited the school. Textbooks required by law were lacking in almost every grade and almost every subject, Gordon said.

And the school teaches California's academic standards at a different pace than the state requires - more than half the state's English standards for kindergarten are not addressed at John Morse until first or second grade, Gordon found. Several standards for fourth grade are not taught until seventh grade. The pattern is evident at each grade.

"We'll help them come into compliance, but the bottom line is something has to be done," Gordon said in an interview.

A solution may be hard to come by.

Waldorf supporters say changing the curriculum to fit state standards would undo the special nature of the school. The program, with 308 students, appeals to parents seeking an alternative to the increasingly standardized focus of public schools.

"What makes the school unique and desirable is that the students are learning and they are happy," said Heidi McLean, who has one child at John Morse and another who graduated last year. "For the kids at that school, school is not a prison."

The county audit of John Morse stems from a lawsuit alleging the state has not provided basic tools for learning at many schools. In settling Williams v. State of California last year, the state agreed to give $1 billion to the lowest-performing schools to buy textbooks and repair dilapidated buildings.

Settlement terms call for county superintendents to visit low-performing schools each year to make sure building conditions are safe and that each student has a state-approved textbook in each academic subject. John Morse was checked in the spring.

The school's principal argues that making John Morse more like most public schools - with a heavy focus on math and reading - would take away the reason parents choose it.

"Nobody has ever questioned the issue of whether textbooks are the most effective method of instruction," Principal Cheryl Eining said. "Having spent 30 years in public education, I've seen a lot of children who had textbooks and were still not learning."

The difference between the Waldorf program and state requirements leaves Superintendent Maggie Carrillo Mejia in a dilemma she described as trying to "fit a square peg in a round hole." The district has not figured out how to resolve the matter, but Mejia expects the school board to address the issue in July or August.

"This is really opening up a much broader question," she said. "What is this state going to do with ... schools that preserve alternative educational options, that are not charters?"

Charter schools receive state funds and must test students on the standards. But they have the freedom to operate without many of the guidelines that shape traditional schools - and that includes requirements to use certain types of textbooks and teach lessons in a set sequence.

John Morse is not a charter school. But most public Waldorf schools in California are - about 17 Waldorf charters operate around the state. Maria Lopez, Sacramento City spokeswoman, said the district has not considered transforming John Morse into a charter because parents have not requested it.

The district first embraced Waldorf 10 years ago by creating a program at Oak Ridge Elementary School. Some parents objected, saying it was too unorthodox and focused too much on myths and spirituality. It was moved to John Morse in 1998.

The question of whether Waldorf education contains a religious element has not gone away. Sacramento City Unified faces a September trial in federal court defending public funding of Waldorf schools against allegations that the program is religious.

Central to the educational approach formed in 1919 by Rudolf Steiner is the idea that students should not learn academic skills before they are neurologically ready, said Betty Staley, who taught in Waldorf schools for 25 years and now instructs teachers in the method at Rudolf Steiner College in Fair Oaks.

"We're interested in children being healthy and loving learning," she said. "How we determine which skills should be taught at which age is based on developmental psychology."

Staley said Waldorf students ease into academics in the early grades but face a rigorous program by the time they reach middle and high school.

That pattern is clear in test scores at John Morse. In math and English, Morse students score below their peers in Sacramento City Unified and statewide in second and third grade. But by fifth grade, they outperform them in reading and by sixth grade are ahead of other students in math.

The school's Academic Performance Index, which reflects student test scores and is used to rank California schools, has improved steadily since 2001. But because most schools in California also have increased their scores over the years, John Morse remains in the bottom 30 percent statewide.

And under the federal No Child Left Behind law, John Morse is not making adequate yearly progress because not enough students take standardized tests. The school is in the second year of program improvement, the process imposed by law when test scores do not meet benchmarks for two consecutive years.

— Laurel Rosenhall
Sacramento Bee





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