Interviewsand Articles


The Whole Child and Urban Education - A Waldorf Perspective: A Conversation with Ida Oberman

by Richard Whittaker, Mar 31, 2015



An unexpected invitation to Betty Peck and her daughter Anna Rainville’s home for an intimate conference on education, specifically on Waldorf education, is what led me to Ida Oberman. There were a few of us at the gathering who were not especially knowledgeable about Waldorf education, but Betty and Anna have always liked expanding the circle. For decades, Betty Peck’s weekly salon has been a meeting place for a wide range of creative individuals from a variety of perspectives in the thick of Silicon Valley culture.
     This particular gathering was more focused than Betty’s regular salon meetings and no less interesting for that. It was a chance both for new connections among like-minded people and the emergence of new ideas—and possibly new beginnings.
     As it turned out, one of the people I’d hoped to talk with at greater length, happened to need a ride home to the East Bay. Perfect. That would make four of us for another hour of conversation. And on the ride home a number of unexpected new connections emerged, which continue to evolve as of this writing. Not the least of the developments that came out of the ride home is the interview that follows.

Richard Whittaker:  Now, you’re the founder of the Community School for Creative Education here in East Oakland, right? This is a big thing. “Founding a school”—I don’t even quite know what that means. When was it founded and how many students are here?

Ida Oberman:  It was founded in 2010, and we now have 200 students.

RW:  This is a beautiful building; it’s a big space, too.

Ida:  We made it beautiful. It wasn’t as beautiful until we came. And there’s room for us to grow. Right now we’re kindergarten to sixth. But we have classrooms for grades seven and eight. After that we hope to have other schools; we’re prototyping to have many more urban public charters that are Waldorf inspired. But they’re always going to be small schools. So this building is perfect because it’s just the right size.

RW:  You’ve made it quite wonderful. So this is a public school; how does that work?

Ida:  Yes, it’s a public school and totally free for our children. That means I have to work very hard on fundraising. The state (in other words, our tax dollars) pays a fixed amount per child per day for each day the student is in school. That money covers the standard education. All of the enrichment programs, from water color painting to verse and song, Mandarin, recorder playing and gardening, as well as such materials as main lesson books and bean bags, ongoing professional development, collaboration-building and continuously testing this model—the Waldorf aspect of our school—all this is funded through extra dollars from foundations, corporations and individual donors. This why it’s so powerful when individuals come to our gala 

RW:  Is the Community School part of the Oakland School District?

Ida:  Our authorizer is Alameda County. We applied to Oakland, but Oakland turned us down twice. By charter law you can appeal to the county, so we then appealed to Alameda County. I say “we” because many parents, educators from the Waldorf and urban sectors, and community leaders participated. The school was and is really a community-based initiative. I got trained by and worked closely with our key partner, Oakland Community Organizations or OCO. So it wasn’t just one person. It grew out of this place, this neighborhood—and of course, we’re geographically in Oakland Unified School District and they are our landlord.

RW:  What’s your breakdown here in terms of ethnicity?

Ida:  We’re one of the most diverse schools in diverse Oakland. This is a beautiful fact. We have 35% African American, 35% Latino, 15% Asian (various Asian countries), and 15% white. And we’re 70% children-eligible for free and reduced price lunch, which is a proxy for families that are poor. The other 30% have more resources and drive down here from their communities because they see the power of our richly diverse Waldorf-inspired school.

RW:  Could families contribute, make gifts?

Ida:  Oh yes. We invite them to contribute to the fundraising and make gifts. But the school is free because it’s a public school, which is so revolutionary.

RW:  Wow. All this is very impressive—both what I’m seeing and what I’m hearing.

Ida:  Thank you, Richard. I want to be clear that we’re not the only Waldorf-inspired charter. There are a growing number of those, but they’re usually in more affluent communities, like Napa, Sebastopol and Novato. In those places parents are known to organize and teachers have organized to create wonderful public charters that are our allies and mentors. We’re very grateful. But we’re the only Waldorf-inspired charter in such a poor community.

RW:  Okay. You showed me a room here that you said was devoted to families, and you said you have parent programs. Do you mean you would be offering courses to parents, and would those be gratis also?

Ida:  Yes. Yes. It’s very important. Our parent involvement is very strong, because parents know it’s their school too; they won the charter and they’re proud to have created this opportunity for our community, for their community. You saw the play structure outside. With a grant and 400 volunteers, we were able to build that in six hours. Many of the volunteers are parents and community members—like our merchants from across the street, our pastors from down the block. We are very much a community school. So the parents also say what they need.

RW  What kind of enrollment do you get with parents?

Ida:  Well, we’re building it up; enrollment varies. We will be offering a class on how to start your own small business, because many of our moms actually make things and sell them. If they get help with actually making these efforts into a business, they can bring in more for their families, and that need is so high. Another thing, in the recent elections we did a voter registration drive in all of the languages of our families here. Many of our families, and others around here, might think, “my vote doesn’t matter,” or “it’s not safe for me to vote.” We were able to explain why they should vote and that their votes count, because that’s what brings resources to our community. We became an almost 100% voting school.

RW:  That’s fabulous. What are the different ways this is all enriching for you, personally?

Ida:  What a nice question. What way is it not? I think the same for you, Richard—knowing that we are on our paths, that this is the path that we are here to follow. Knowing that this is a journey and that it is my journey are the biggest gifts. Then there are the children, the parents, the community, my colleagues, our amazing principal, Kathryn Wilson, and our brilliant brave teachers who stand in the front line and bring tremendous power to the work. Two of our teachers relocated all the way from Louisville, Kentucky to join in building this prototype. And there are our education services and support staff and our office staff. Every day is an act of courage and commitment toward fulfilling our vision for our children and families. Outside of the walls of the school are some remarkable allies—generous giving supporters, from our board to our advisory board, funders and beyond. Working with each of them gives me enormous respect and gratitude. My immediate family and friends all are great gifts of nurturance. Finally, my partner of 20 years is at the center of my heart. She does important work too and we try to support each other. I know I could not do any of this in this way without her. And finally there are the gifts along the road, like you, Richard, and this interview. Thank you.

RW:  I'm happy to talk with you, Ida. Now the conference, the whole day we spent at Betty Peck’s place with her daughter Anna Rainville—tell me again, what was the hope behind that meeting?

Ida:  Wasn’t that a wonderful meeting! For me it was about the power of relationship; it was a relationship-building conference. It seems that different organizers had different pictures of what might actually happen, but I think we understood that if you just bring everybody together then good things will happen—especially if it’s in a beautiful place like Betty and Anna’s house. I can say what I was hoping: I was looking for more allies. So I’m enormously grateful for you, Richard, and for Canticle Farm. We didn’t know about Canticle Farm and it’s right in our area. We’ve now established a thriving relationship with that community and I anticipate that they’ll be working with our parents to help create an organic garden at the school. I am so aware of how much we need allies, and we need critical friends. We can’t learn by ourselves alone. We can’t innovate well without having those sounding boards. I think some of that slumbered in the hearts of everyone who came to that beautiful gathering.

RW:  One formulation I heard that day was the hope and intention that somehow the Waldorf model of education will enter the mainstream of U.S. educational systems.

Ida:  That’s exactly right! So I thought: we’re one portal. Inspired by that gathering, Mary Roscoe and I are having more conversations around this portal nature of the Community School—as a launch pad for an urban Waldorf movement that one hopes will function as a key player in the country’s collective social reform menu of options.

RW:  I’m only learning about Waldorf education, but everything I’m hearing is wonderful. I feel that a related movement needs to happen, and perhaps is happening, in health care. The relationship aspect, the service aspect of doctoring, has been taken over by a business model that keys around making money.

Ida:  I couldn’t agree more; the two topics are intimately connected. A parent of ours recently said that we’re not just a community school, which is so important, but that we’re a school in a community—something very rare in Oakland. This acknowledges the community’s longing for good health care, for food security, for safe streets. A Waldorf school is not supposed to be a school unto itself—a bunker; it needs to be the hub of the community. Along those lines, we hope to grow an organic garden. We hope that eventually we will have a relationship with a food bank and will become a food deliverer. Then eventually we will be a clinic. We will be an elder community, a health center. In the original vision of Waldorf education, none of these entities is separated out; it’s all about building strong villages for our children and our families.

RW:  I love hearing that. I mean, we hear a lot of lip service about how everyone needs to have an education. But lately I’ve run across articles questioning how useful the standard college education actually is. Maybe this is too big a question, but things are changing so fast, and in amazing ways, that it may be that our school system isn’t so functional anymore. I’m talking about certain kinds of statements that have become automatic. You’ve got to get your B.A. or you can’t get a job. But now maybe something else is needed. This brings us to the question: how did you come to found the Community School of Creative Education, to create this particular vision of what is needed?

Ida:  After I got my doctorate at Stanford in the history of education, I went to the Hewlett Foundation as an associate program officer in education. As part of a foundation, you have an aerial view. You don’t necessarily see deeply, but you see broadly. I was seeing what we were funding. I realized then that we were funding what’s so key to Waldorf education: schools that have strong teachers and strong student success. By that time, in the late ‘90s, we started to have measurable data. In these schools children were learning well according to standardized scores, but they were also thriving by self-report and strong attendance. There were even signs that children who were remediated were becoming strong and confident learners and leaders. We were funding, with Hewlett dollars, strategies that Waldorf had tested for 100 years. But nobody knew about Waldorf education at the time. Nobody did. There we were, educators trying to devise something new, when we actually had a long history to draw from.
     After that I became the director of something called the California Best Practice where, with a team, I went across the state using standardized test score data to find the places in which high-poverty schools were outperforming, or matching, the performance of their higher wealth peers—something very objective. This took me to places like the border town of El Centro, California. Educators there would ask, “Why are you visiting us?” I said, “I see on my computer that your students are 100% children in poverty, but you are doing as well as your higher wealth comparables.” What I found at the school was that students were involved with the arts. They weren’t doing the narrow curriculum of drill and kill. They were doing movement. They were making time for a group band and for violin playing and for having an exchange student. I thought, again, these are Waldorf-knowledge pieces that schools are finding by the sweat of their brow, and they’re serving kids. So can’t we bring Waldorf to the table and see how we can tap into that history?

RW:  A school with students all in poverty outperforming schools in high-end places, that’s really something.

Ida:  In my book, The Waldorf Movement in Education from European Cradle to American Crucible, there are case studies of Central High and Southwest High, both in Central Union High School District in El Centro. And what’s really beautiful is that later one of the coaches from El Centro became an ally in helping me think through the design of the Community School charter. I met these remarkable school leaders who would later help me. One of them is now a superintendent and is coming next week to visit with us. They’re so excited to learn that Waldorf education offers a rich and textured tradition from which they can draw further. It has become a wonderful partnership. It’s important to me that these stories are known on a statewide and national plane so that we will realize we all know so much. We often suffer from amnesia and keep reinventing the wheel, but we can really do so much for our kids if we just join forces, think of what we know, and then start focusing on the children before us.

RW:  I have a feeling that the Waldorf philosophy is in the direction of something that is needed, something that isn’t happening in most mainstream schools.

Ida:  I think that’s right. Waldorf doesn’t have ownership on these innovations, but I think it has a very important contribution to make. Obviously we need people who can go beyond just filling in the facts and bubbles in the test. We need people who have very strong interpersonal skills, people who can build and solve problems together with others from very different backgrounds, who can be creative thinkers and constructive problem-solvers. That’s actually the goal of the new testing, the common core testing. The Federal government is saying that we need a new kind of thinker, not just one who can answer a question, but who can do the deeper thinking to find the problem. What do we need to do to solve the problem together, to be able to build a better tomorrow? So there’s a big push. The problem is that many students have slipped between the cup and the lip. Although we know what we want, people lack the capacity for realizing the changes. That’s where Waldorf has a contribution to make in saying that it’s an art, not just a science. The teachers become artists so that the children can become artists, because we are creating new options. We often say that you want to know as a scientist and to understand as an artist—which is what Aristotle said. But more people are now saying it. That’s the new normal, but how to do it? Waldorf education has really been grappling with this for a long time.

RW:  Could you say more about what makes Waldorf education so worthwhile, so valuable? What are some parts of that?

Ida:  Well, first of all it’s not the only approach of its kind. Montessori, for example, has similar features and grew out of the same time period. One central aspect of Waldorf, though, is that it focuses on the whole child, not just the brain. It also focuses on the whole community—and the whole society. Even historically it’s focused on the whole; it’s not just about now. It’s not just about getting a child to college. It’s really seeing education as the critical on-ramp for healing our society and making it a better place. It’s really important to remember that Waldorf includes a social reform plank. This “wholeness” framework is quite different—much broader—than trying to cobble together a good education program.
     Secondly, Waldorf thinks about the child developmentally and the whole movement historically. We don’t just think that a child is a shrunken adult; we take seriously that children at the age of three and of nine, and of eight or sixteen, developmentally, have different needs and different assets and opportunities and challenges and that education needs to be built around this developmentally appropriate frame. But stepping back for a minute, it also considers that historically or socially a school at different times has different ways of advancing social healing, of advancing a social reform agenda because we know we can make a better world than we have right now.

RW:  Can you summarize how you would envision this social reform? What are the major points that need to be brought into society that aren’t there now?

Ida:  Well, to summarize, and this is not scripted, we live the dilemma right here to the nth degree—the craven divide between the haves and have-nots that is only getting bigger. It separates us all from each other, and in that we all lose. I think there is a really critical cry behind that. The fact that we have resources and yet don’t engage them all to close this gap and allow everybody to fulfill their potential reflects something I would call—it’s not just the resource gap or the opportunity gap—but the empathy gap, as New York Times columnist and author Nicholas Kristof puts it.
     That’s about having relationships and, what is so key, having trusting relationships. Waldorf education is one reform that starts with thinking about relationship and ends with thinking everything is built around the relationship—the relationship of the children to themselves, body, head, heart and hand; to others; to their future, a collective future; to a community. Each class walks through thirteen years in a school learning how to walk themselves through their lives.
     The arts play a big role in this, because artistic work is really, at heart, thinking about relationship between the yellow and the red, between the shadow and the light, between the flat and the rough. The education is within art—the child is an artist, the teacher is an artist. This celebrates that we live in relationship and that being alive is being in relationship.

RW:  It’s wonderful to hear that one of the central pieces of Waldorf education is the education of the whole child, because that isn’t so well understood. I don’t know how Waldorf looks at, let’s say the relationship with my body. But I would say the typical school system’s approach is to include P.E. —physical education. What does that mean? Exercise, running or whatever, and it’s good to include exercise, but to me that’s not the same thing as being in relationship with the body. So to begin to actually inhabit myself, that’s not the kind of thing one would ever hear about in an ordinary school. In Waldorfian terms, does this make any sense?

Ida:  It makes huge sense and I should say two things to that. One is, you’re right. Waldorf education has been way ahead of the curve in recognizing this connection. One way to think about it is not just being physical, but actually being your body. It makes children cross the midlines in every way they can so that they understand who is on their right side, their left side, their backside, their forward side, their underside. So in our classes, and in every lower grades Waldorf classroom, you start with “circle time,” with movement exercises that encourage the children to experience their whole body in all of their dimensionality and, frankly, also their cognitive appreciation of it.
     It turns out that now we know, neurologically, what Steiner had already identified—that, even for you and me, if we cross the midline, if we cross our arms, put our arms up for a minute, put our hands down [shows with gestures, I follow], then bend down to shake hands through our legs. We are waking up to our body—are you feeling something of a change?

RW:  A little bit, yes.

Ida:  But it’s because neurologically, something is actually happening. And there’s more, for out of that also grows eurythmy—a form of movement to music and word developed by Steiner—that so richly accompanies Waldorf education. It’s very exciting, just to make that point.
     It’s not true anymore that you don’t find some of this kind of thing in district schools, but people don’t know what to do with the new knowledge. Now we have all this scientific brain research showing that this is how kids learn. But how do we then build a coherent, caring curriculum around that knowledge? People are just cherry picking left, right and center, whereas Waldorf education has, across countries and cultures, developed a spiraling curriculum from which more and more teachers can hopefully share and trade—and all of these contributions are all rich with story and art and direct learning about what works.

RW:  That’s wonderful to hear. So, in talking about relationship, that must go to the heart part of it, the feeling part. I mean we don’t have an education for our feelings much. But you said Waldorf educates the whole person, so I think you have something to say about that.

Ida: It’s very important, yes. Steiner said that in a good main lesson, a child should laugh at least once and cry at least once, or feel like they want to cry; these are also empathic dimensions that you’re stretching in the child through really wisely chosen lessons and stories.

RW:  Would you tell me something about Rudolf Steiner’s thoughts that for you are most moving or important or needed?

Ida:  Yes. In my book, which grew out of my dissertation, in looking at Waldorf education from its origin to now I really tried to trace fidelity and flexibility, and then how the model might move into American urban centers. So aside from the features I’ve already described of Waldorf education—which are, of course, key to me—another very meaningful aspect to me personally is the thought of reincarnation. If we think about the mentality of a child, and then the mentality of our society and community, reincarnation is a vital consideration. It happens to speak very deeply to me to think that, with the richness of human interaction, the lineage might well extend beyond the grave and also precede birth. It gives me the perspective of staying power. One of my teachers in Stuttgart said, “With the most difficult child in the back of your class, you should always think he might be the reincarnation of Einstein.” I mean it’s a big equalizer in that we never know who these children were and who they will become. So that larger universal perspective has meant a lot to me.

RW:  Listening to you, the idea just popped up that there could be—in my own life, in any life—births and deaths of all kinds.

Ida:  Yes, many lives and many reincarnations. Interestingly, more and more now people get the idea that you remake yourself many times. But Rudolf Steiner said it 100 years ago.

RW:  Did Rudolf Steiner have a relationship with Eastern thought?

Ida:  Very much so. His worldview grew out of theosophy, co-founded by spiritualist and teacher Madame Blavatsky. It’s very much a blending of Eastern thought and Christian thought. Steiner actually grew anthroposophy out of theosophy.

RW:  Did he know her, do you think?

Ida:  He worked closely with her. He was the head of the German Theosophic Society. Then he moved to start the Anthroposophic Society. Anthropos means “man” and theos means “God.” Madame Blavatsky was strongly oriented to the godly in Eastern religions. Steiner wanted to place the divine becoming man in Christ more at the center.

RW:  Do you think he ever met Krishnamurti? You know Krishnamurti basically came out of theosophy through Annie Besant and so on.

Ida:  Steiner knew the then president of the Theosophic Society Annie Besant very well. Annie Besant and Madame Blavatsky’s identification of Annie’s adopted son Krishnamurti as Messiah was one thing that led to a respectful separation between Steiner and Blavatsky and Besant, and to Steiner’s launch of the Anthroposophic Society. But it’s all the same water supply and the same time period. Madame Blavatsky had spent time in India. Steiner didn’t spend time in India, but he traveled in Europe widely. As head of the Theosophic Society in Germany in 1907, he hosted one of the Society’s largest conferences with Annie Besant presiding as president shortly before he stepped out to start the Anthroposphic Society.

RW:  What era was Goethe around? He predated Steiner, right?

Ida:  Not only did he predate Steiner, Goethe stands at the cradle of Steiner’s intellectual pilgrimage. Steiner’s big work as a young man was to edit the collected works of Goethe. That was very, very important for him, personally, and formative in his thinking about Waldorf education. Really, Goethe is the chief ancestor of Waldorf education.

RW:  That’s so interesting. I didn’t know that Steiner had such a connection there.

Ida:  And really, the key Goethe provided for Steiner was to understand that the universe and man mirror each other. So if you understand the laws of nature, you will better understand the laws of yourself. And if you better understand the laws of yourself, you will better understand the laws of nature. This means it’s important to really take science and nature seriously as living, organic, communal interactive forces in our lives. Out of that, by the way, comes the way we do the wall colors in the school. It’s all out of Goethean science, which says how important what we see is, because that is what we are going to experience. So we have to think about the architecture and the space and the color for our children’s classrooms.

RW:  So let’s end with your personal story. I’d like to hear about how you got involved in Waldorf education.

Ida:  When I was eight, my family moved from Holland via America to Germany, because of my father’s job. It was a very hard move, because Holland had been occupied during the war. Part of my family is Jewish and the other part of my family had hidden two young Jewish men (who spoke very movingly at my grandparents’ funerals). So it was an Anne Frank story with a happy ending. We really grew up living the resistance memories of my parents’ parents. So when I came to my first day at the Tubingen Waldorf School, I was very worried. To my third-grade sensibility, good was everything that was light and bright; bad was everything that was German.
     My parents had enrolled us in a Waldorf school because they thought there would be more tolerance there for non-native speakers. I only spoke Dutch, some English and no German. I stayed in the school from third grade through 13th grade, through all of elementary and high school. I am very aware that if I’d been in a traditional school, my fate would have been similar to that of many of the children in our community here in East Oakland. You feel not only foreign, but you feel alienated and under siege from the culture. In such conditions, it’s not easy to learn and grow. But learning in a Waldorf school starts with poetry and song, and with one class teacher and one small group of kids who stay together through eight grades—that made all the difference.

RW:  So your introduction to Waldorf education was by being a student for 10 years. Would you say that your Waldorf education demonstrated the teachings of Rudolf Steiner in a deep way?

Ida:  I would think so. The Tubingen Waldorf School was not the original school, which was in Stuttgart, and it was founded right after the war, not before the war. But it was founded by teachers who had all learned from that first circle of teachers around Steiner. And it was very much a leading school. It saw itself, really, as not just a school, but as part of the Waldorf mission to build up society and reform it.

RW:  Were the teachers German?

Ida:  Yes, it was a highly homogenous community and I absolutely stuck out like a sore thumb. Germany was recovering from the war. My classmates’ parents had been kids when my parents were kids. And our parents had fought on either line of the divide. Their parents had been Hitler Youth and their grandparents had been soldiers; some had been in the SA and the SS (Hitler’s paramilitary troop and body guard), and my parents had learned to fear nothing more. Then, because Germany had been defeated, everybody was, in a sense, in trauma. But I learned very early that wondering who had been a Nazi, who was the good German or the bad German—it was not such an easy divide. There was a long spectrum and we all have to think how brave we would be if we were in those situations.

RW:  I can’t even imagine the situation you describe. It must have been extraordinary.

Ida:  Yes. The German culture was very much having to confront its past and grapple with very painful things. So through middle school and high school, we were continually reminded that democracy has to be learned, that it’s earned and not just given to you; that you have to work on it every day, and that it takes courage. My teachers, out of the sorrow and trauma of the war, were very committed to building us up as strong, conscious, courageous citizens.

RW:  I’m guessing you must have memories of some very special teachers.

Ida:  Yes. In fact, my class teacher. I stayed close to her until her death in 2005. I flew to Stuttgart to be with her in her final days and then attend her funeral. It was beautiful. It was not just my recognition that she was special, but this feeling spread across three generations of classes—she had taken three classes through 8-year loops, grades 1– 8. Those children, now adults, came to honor her. They were just remarkable people—those people who grew up having to rebuild Germany and rebuild a better tomorrow for Europe.

RW:  In your own journey there, beginning with no German language, at what point would you say you began to feel like you were learning the ropes, so to speak?

Ida:  Oh, what a beautiful question. I feel like it started happening sometime in my fourth grade year. I remember that slowly the wall became a window became a door. And I could make sense of words. But it wasn’t because of book-learning, it was because of the verses, the songs; I was allowed to be part of the class play. I had a little line where I was able to say something that I still remember. So I had that real building of oral language skills that comes naturally in Waldorf schools. Because of that, I would say that my growing ease and embrace of the language was accelerated. I’m not saying I was fluent, but fluent for a fourth grader.

RW:  I understand, sure. So when you came into the school, I’m assuming you had no friends, either. How did your social journey from complete isolation and fear go as it moved forward?

Ida:  I was painfully shy, very lonely and isolated, but then, through the class play, the singing together every morning and playing recorder together, I started to trust that I could be in harmony with my schoolmates. I was always a little bit on the outside, but I started to build some relationships of trust. I also grew through our handwork and woodwork, because sitting around doing manual work you start having conversations, or at least begin to feel more comfortable and safe with one other. So I would say by fourth grade I had one friend and then by sixth grade or so I had more. It was a slow process.

RW:  Where did your support come from, your parents?

Ida:  I had a lot of support from my parents, also from my class teacher and the other teachers. And I had support from the warp and woof of the school when I stepped in— the beauty and the care of the space. I felt befriended by that. I felt like the space held me even before I had individual friends. Actually, that’s an ambition for us to recreate here at the Community School.

RW:  That’s wonderful. So you were there from third grade through 12. And it worked out that you were there an extra year past what we would consider 12th grade here?

Ida:  Right. So part of my class just went on to 13th grade. I was still in the Waldorf school and we took our exam there; it’s a countrywide exam called the Abitur, which gives you access to the university. Then I graduated, even though at the outset I had all of the makings of being a failure, marginalized and shut down. But by the time I graduated I was a successful student. I’m proud to say that I even got the award for the best German essay in the school, which was fun because I was a foreigner. Then I was very proud and excited to go to America to Swarthmore College outside of Philadelphia. After graduating from Swarthmore I went to Stanford for graduate school in European history. I was thinking I was going to become a historian and was actually studying a very exciting German social reform in 1848. After finishing all of my Ph.D. course work I began to realize that I didn’t want to spend all my life in the archives; I wanted to do more of the work myself. And then I got very sick with M.S.

RW:  Multiple sclerosis?

Ida:  Yes, I have M.S. At the time it wasn’t diagnosed, because it was before MRIs—in the early 80s. But I was very sick, so I had to take a leave from the work. And I had to take stock. It was also a time that my marriage was coming to an end. I was married to an American from New Jersey and there was a huge cultural distance between us. I think there were many factors, but it was the physical illness that literally forced me to stop.

RW:  A marriage falling apart and a major disease. That’s being hit pretty hard.

Ida:  And then one afternoon I received a note from my advisor, my history professor. He remembered that I had studied at a Waldorf school and sent me a newspaper clipping announcing the opening of Waldorf School of the Peninsula in nearby Redwood City. It’s often such a seemingly small thing that beckons to the future! I attended the opening ceremony. The songs, recorder playing and beautiful chalkboard drawings transported me instantly to the Waldorf reality I had left in Tubingen. It was like coming home, with a California overlay. And I began to feel a pull forward toward a global stage, doing something constructive and meaningful—and leaving my sick bed to do so.

RW:  So these events led to a revision in your whole orientation?

Ida:  Things quickly built on each other. I wanted to become a Waldorf teacher, to actually help build schools—and then I decided to do my training in Germany, in Stuttgart, where the whole movement had begun. It was a beautiful training. By then many of my teachers from the Tubingen Waldorf School were also training at the Stuttgart Waldorf Teacher Seminar. So it was very rich because, again, I was being trained by those who had been trained by Steiner. It was a generational gift that I was able to sit at their feet.
     Toward the end of that training I had another moment of decision. While I was trying to figure out whether I would become a class teacher in Dortmund, which is in Germany, or go to America and take a high school history position at Green Meadow Waldorf School (in Rockland County, New York), I read an article in The Economist. The cover read something like, “Where Columbus landed in 1066—the demise of the American school system,” because of course, it was William the Conqueror who landed in 1066, not Columbus. The whole point was that public education in America was on the downfall. But there was one school they said, that was sort of a beacon of hope. It was called Central Park East in New York City’s Harlem founded by somebody named Debbie Meier.
     As I read what she was doing, I thought, “That’s Waldorf education! But nobody’s talking about it!” Waldorf education is using its big words and is not getting to the children who need it most. I wanted to bring Waldorf to school reform to better serve the needs of the children I knew were the most vulnerable. So all of that came together.
     So I decided I wanted to come to America to help build urban public Waldorf schools here. I thought there would be many others who would want to join me for that. So I came and soon realized that wasn’t so much the thinking. It was the time in America when the focus was on getting more private Waldorf schools in place, because there weren’t many. It took me awhile to understand about private and public schools, financial differences. I had to get my bearings. Then I began to find like-minded people who had once been involved in Waldorf and were now committed to urban education. We eventually began to work on founding an urban Waldorf school in New York City. We were all white and well-intentioned, and I soon realized that actually manifesting a school in the right way was far more complicated than I’d expected—especially the dilemma of white Waldorf teachers leading the initiative.
     In 1993 I went back to Stanford to get my doctorate in the history of education, fulfilling my desire to acquire more credibility for this work. After that were my years of working at the Hewlett Foundation and the California Best Practices Study—a time of testing my hypotheses regarding Waldorf’s value in school reform in this country. By then the charter school movement had exploded. So there was much more to learn and see in terms of moving into the public urban sector of Waldorf. The Community School opened in 2011, the realization of this dream I had been nurturing for much of my adult life.

You can learn more at The Community School for Creative Education.



About the Author

Richard Whittaker is the founding editor of works & conversations and West Coast editor of Parabola magazine. 


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