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Public Waldorf School in Calif. Under Attack

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Unnerved by chanting protesters, a student boycott, and claims of witchcraft at a Sacramento, Calif., school, the district board plans next week to reconsider the school's iconoclastic Waldorf teaching method.

Oak Ridge Elementary School is one of only a handful of public schools nationwide using the Waldorf approach, which aims to teach academic skills through art, music, rhythmic movement, and mythology.

Dozens of Sacramento parents and teachers have rallied against the method during the past few weeks, saying that it fails to adequately teach reading and writing and violates the constitutional separation of church and state. Officials estimate that as many as 200 of Oak Ridge's 670 students may try to enroll elsewhere this fall, and at least five of the school's 25 teachers are transferring because they disagree with Waldorf.

"I'm a committed Christian, and I feel like using Waldorf would compromise my beliefs," said kindergarten teacher Kay Vanderwold, who is leaving the school. "I don't feel Waldorf is appropriate for the public schools."

But other educators and parents in the 51,000-student district say Waldorf cultural lessons have been misinterpreted as religious indoctrination. Principal Irma Jue said the method engages children from different ethnic backgrounds, and she noted that oral-reading test scores have improved in all grades since the school adopted Waldorf methods in 1995.

"Waldorf helps children develop a love of learning," Ms. Jue said. "We use Bible stories as literature, but we don't teach religion."

Parent Protests

The debate over the Waldorf approach illustrates the struggle by urban school districts to motivate disadvantaged children through unconventional methods.

Inspired by reported successes at the nation's 100 private Waldorf schools, Milwaukee, San Diego, and four other public districts in California and Arizona are trying Waldorf methods at low-achieving schools, according to officials at Rudolf Steiner College in Fair Oaks, Calif., which trains teachers how to use the Waldorf curriculum.

As in Sacramento, parents and teachers at the San Diego school criticized Waldorf's spiritual components, but an independent review last year found no evidence of religious instruction.

The school board in Sacramento has scheduled a special July 1 meeting to discuss whether the Waldorf program should continue at Oak Ridge.

"A lot of our inner-city schools are failing, and we need to look for other ways to reach kids, but we've pledged to be responsive to the community's concerns," said Jay Schenirer, the school board president.

Superintendent Jay Sweeney said he will recommend that the board keep the program but do a better job of explaining it to parents, many of whom don't speak English and want a traditional American education for their children. About 40 percent are from Southeast Asia, 43 percent are from Spanish-speaking countries, and 13 percent are black.

Oak Ridge became a magnet school using Waldorf two years ago in hopes of improving academic achievement and attracting students from outside the neighborhood. Activities such as learning ancient myths, reciting poetry that reveres nature, and clapping while chanting the multiplication tables were added to the curriculum. ("A School With Balance," Oct. 18, 1995.)

Few people complained about Waldorf until April, when Dan Dugan, a self-described inventor from San Francisco, passed out fliers calling Waldorf an offshoot of a "cult-like religious sect" and encouraged the protests. Rudolf Steiner, an Austrian-born scientist and artist who established the first Waldorf school in 1919 for workers of the Waldorf-Astoria cigarette company in Germany, founded a spiritual movement called anthroposophy.

Mr. Dugan, whose son attended a private Waldorf school in San Francisco, belongs to a small, loosely organized group called People for Legal and Non-Sectarian Schools, or PLANS. Its members have also protested at public Waldorf schools in Novato, Nevada City, and Marysville, Calif.

The controversy at Oak Ridge escalated at a public meeting in May when a teacher accused other employees of practicing witchcraft. School officials say these claims are ludicrous.

Uneasy parents started sitting in on classes. Terri Jennings determined that her 1st grade daughter wasn't learning phonics, and she was offended by songs glorifying the sun and Earth.

She and about 90 other parents picketed at Oak Ridge during the first two weeks of June. About 200 students were kept at home in protest.

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