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Waldorf School charts a different path in search of creativity, learning

Waldorf School of the Peninsula marks 30 years with documentary film

Blazing an educational path with tools like wooden toys, modeling wax and gathered leaves rather than classroom Smartboards, the Waldorf School of the Peninsula kicks off its 30th anniversary celebrations this fall.

The school, one of more than 1,000 worldwide based on the humanistic educational philosophy of Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner, has grown to a pre-K-12 enrollment of 312 students, but it's been a long ride.

Launched in Redwood City in 1984, Waldorf School of the Peninsula had six different homes in its early years — including, briefly, in Palo Alto.

It's now comfortably settled in Los Altos with a long-term lease on its K-8 campus and low-cost option to buy.

A high school, which graduated its first student — one girl — in 2010, is six miles away in Mountain View. The high school has grown to 64 students and amassed a respectable list of college acceptances.

For parents like Mary Jane DiPiero, who was seeking creative alternatives to the traditional classroom, Waldorf "seemed just what I'd been looking for."

DePiero, whose daughter was in first grade the year the school opened, has maintained ties to the school through its history as a founding parent and later a teacher and administrator.

"For the first years there was no track record, no personal experience about whether it really worked or not," she recalled in an interview.

"Now we have a lovely track record. What we say about a child who graduates is that they have a sense of who they are as human beings, that they have a real interest in learning and that they are courageous about trying new things because they're used to doing all sorts of things.

"They know they can do art, science, sports — they're adventurous."

Waldorf families will celebrate the school's 30-year track record Sept. 20 with a public showing of "Preparing for Life," a documentary about the school.

"A lot of people have this idea that Waldorf is not very strong in math and sciences," a physics teacher said in the film, going on to dispute the notion.

That concern also was addressed in a 2011 front-page New York Times article highlighting the apparent contradiction of Silicon Valley executives sending their kids to a school that discourages the use of computers among children.

"There were people at first who felt like they couldn't quite be pure enough at Waldorf, and that's true, because technology early on (in elementary years) is really discouraged still," DiPiero said.

But, she said, Steiner did not prescribe a rigid curriculum, rather encouraging people to "look at the time you're living in, the place you're living in and the student you see in front of you and make your curriculum accordingly."

In the case of Silicon Valley, she said, "If you think about the children who are in front of you and the time and place, our place included technology big time, so you couldn't really build a little enclave where it didn't happen.

"But there's a real priority in nourishing creativity and the idea that you can do it on your own, in your own way and in your own head rather than having to have a computer or television set fill you up. You can motivate yourself, be imaginative with your own resources."

Though technology is kept out of elementary school classrooms, Waldorf parents struggle, like others, over television, iPhones and the like.

"There's an ethic in the school that it's discouraged, but our school has never been rigid in that sense," DiPiero said.

In the recent launch of its high school, Waldorf consulted with Stanford University senior lecturer Denise Clark Pope to find a "meaningful evaluation system that didn't focus on grades," Di Piero said.

The high school adopted a grading system because of college admissions, "but we really de-emphasized (grades) and went to a lot of trouble that they didn't see their grades at the beginning, and then only upon request when they got ready to apply to colleges," she said.

"It was elaborate how we tried to give grades but not emphasize the grades. I think it's turned out to work. We've had three graduating classes and even when we've emphasized the need to follow your own path, they see they can get into great schools.

"Even if you don't go to Smith — I'm not going to say Harvard because we haven't had anybody go to Harvard yet — your values are in the right place."

Waldorf School of the Peninsula will hold a public showing of the documentary "Preparing for Life" at its anniversary celebration on Friday, Sept. 20, at 7 p.m. in Smithwick Auditorium at Foothill College, 12345 El Monte Road, Los Altos Hills.

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