In the Fall of 2008, six mothers gathered together in the town of Fort Collins, CO to discuss what it would take to create a public Waldorf charter school. Today, that dream has become a reality as the Mountain Sage Community School has just had its charter approved by the school board. As charter education takes root as a prominent part of the US educational system, we take a journey with this amazing group as they complete the process of bringing this school into their community.
You have created a Waldorf-inspired charter school in Fort Collins, Colorado that has just received it’s charter and is now beginning the process of forming the physical school itself. Tell us how this process began.
Mountain Sage Community School originated out of the desire of a few local mamas to create the school they believed would best serve their children and community. As with most collective, creative adventures it began with a dialogue, brainstorming, visioning. Now, two years later, the core group has changed shape many times, but the vision has remained the same. The community support has expanded and we now have been given the green light by the Poudre School District to pursue this dream we have for our children and community. It has been, and remains, an amazing journey of discovery!
What are the biggest hurdles that you have had to face in this process so far, and how, as a community, have you overcome them?
The nature of an endeavor built upon families with young children, is that flexibility is a must! Ebb and flow, ebb and flow. Certain shifts within the core group always resulted in a new configuration of folks perfectly suited for whatever task was at hand. The task of creating our charter application was incredibly demanding, and the sort of work that enabled that to come to fruition, continues now. We are propelled forward by the ever-increasing support of Mountain Sage Community School and the amazing parents and community members who believe in the vision. A healthy dose of unwavering certainty of success has been key, as well! In the end, even among all the “uncertainties,” our wonderful children serve as the light on the path.
Where did you look for inspiration when you chose to take on this project, and how have other charter schools like yours succeeded in American education?
We looked at the 44 other Waldorf-inspired charter schools in the United States that have succeeded and thrived. These are community-built schools that fill a need. I believe the emergence of Waldorf-inspired public schools is an outcry against what is happening in public education in the US today. Parents in these communities, like us, believe that school should nurture the whole child, not simply prepare them to take up their place as a cog in the machine. By looking at these other schools, primarily in California (more than 30 of the Waldorf-inspired public charter school are there) and talking to the leaders of these schools, we were able to develop a strong foundation that is unique to our community.
What benefit do you believe this school will have on your community, and what impact are you hoping to create?
We feel that bringing this private education model into the public sphere is a form of social activism, creating a more level playing field in terms of access to this amazing educational model. We feel that the wisdom of Waldorf education is absolutely necessary in today’s world, and through a public school, a broader audience will benefit from it. Waldorf education is not only a way of educating children, but can also serve as a way of educating families and the entire community about the importance of connecting with each other, nature and our individual creative forces. We believe that Mountain Sage Community School, rooted in a unique arts-integrated, and ecologically responsible environment, will have a positive impact in the lives of individual children and their families, and beyond.
Now that your charter has been approved, walk us through the process for the rest of this year, as you work your way towards the opening of the school in the Fall of 2011.
We were approved by the Poudre School District Board of Education, with three conditions: 1) Must have a signed contract with them by January 2011, 2) Must have 100 full-time equivalent students enrolled by May 2011, 3) Must have a signed lease agreement by August 2011. Those are the logistics according to PSD. Our mission currently is securing our facility (in progress!) and securing start-up funding. As a public school, we will begin receiving funding based of the number of students enrolled on July 1, 2011. It is up to us to rally the funds for “start-up” costs, including administrator salary prior to July, facility upgrades and deposit, and school equipment. We are in the process of submitting proposals to several foundations to accomplish this. We know that securing a facility ASAP is important to securing our enrollment, as well. We will hire a Head Administrator early next spring, who will then help the Charter Council with teacher hiring. Also, our first school garden will be tended next Spring. Summer 2011 will be about bringing the facility up to par, preparing it for opening that will happen at the end of August. Another one of the most pressing needs, is educating the community about Waldorf-inspired education. We have series of events starting in December. Please visit our website for details.
What do you envision on your opening day, and how does that dream keep you motivated?
I envision a beautiful school, that has been brought to fruition by an active and engaged community of parents who have built something amazing together for their children. Warm, welcoming teachers and staff greet the students. A beautiful garden in full bloom is near the playground, children will enjoy the fun of the Fall harvest soon to come. That is opening day, I suppose. But in my mind, I envision my children, and the children of our community, enjoying school each day from grades K-8! I see them excited to go, excited to learn, to create, to explore their world– the lives that are their own. I look forward to my children having an amazing education, that is nurturing and inspiring to their souls. All the hard work that is has taken, and will continue to take, is worth it knowing that my children will view their school as a part of their life, not apart from their life.
What are the difficulties of combining Waldorf and public education together?
Some compromises must be made, that is inevitable. Festivals will be “seasonal” and some additions will be made to the curriculum from time to time. However, as I have said, we have set forth a vision and charter that upholds Waldorf model to the greatest degree possible. Testing is not a part of daily school life. Students, will however, take the CSAP beginning in 3rd grade. This test is the key to Mountain Sage Community School remaining accredited, and therefore, publicly funded. One vastly experienced Waldorf teacher who helped us with our curriculum for the charter put it this way…We (Mountain Sage Community School) won’t make a big deal about it– we will not focus on the test. We will tell the children that this test is something that we must do for our school. We love our teachers, our friends, our school and so, this is a part of keeping it going. So much of the public school experience is in “the way” things are done. We know that Mountain Sage Community School’s “way” will be unique in its approach to standardized testing.
How has the school district worked with you to see this dream come true?
Generally we have had to fight for this school. There has been a shadow of doubt cast many times. In the end, however, through open and honest communication with the people of district, we have maintained a positive relationship. It is, and always will be, about people. We chose to work with the local district, rather than the state for authorization, because working with those in our own community is sustainable. We are all invested in Fort Collins. We also feel that working with the local district will allow us to share our successes to a greater degree, as well.
How have you seen your community of parents and volunteers make this school a reality for your community?
I have seen parents dedicated during the charter writing phase. I have seen our community come together for the Board of Education hearings, testifying and speaking up for this school. I have see many new volunteers step up in recent days. It is moving and inspiring, and it is truly awesome to know that we are all coming together to build something beautiful for our community. It is bigger than all of us, and yet we all know how important our individual actions are to making it happen.
What do you hope that the future will bring for Mountain Sage Community School? And how are you working towards that goal?
I hope that doors will keep opening for Mountain Sage Community School–may all of our positive thoughts take root in reality! I am working toward this goal with many late, late nights, and a constant refocusing on the fact that we have already accomplished so much! May positive and loving certainty in my heart be my guide.
What has been the most beautiful part of taking on such a huge undertaking as creating a school, and what will you never forget about this experience?
The most beautiful part of the experience is being part of the creative impulse of my community, and constantly learning. By holding the space for this school in my heart, I have been brought together with many incredible people; many are adults, and many are children. And to think… this is really just the beginning! I will never forget the overwhelming intensity of this experience… I am forever grateful to my husband Ryan and my two precious children who inspire me with their love and support each day.
We hope to bring you another piece in an upcoming edition of the progress that the Mountain Sage Community School is making, with the greatest of hopes of helping them celebrate the opening of their doors in the Fall of 2011.
Liv Helmericks is an artist/designer, mother and wife. She has been involved with Mountain Sage from the beginning, and has officially directed the effort since early 2010. She is driven by her conviction that schools have a duty to nurture creative expression and original thought, and that the Waldorf educational model should be accessible to all who seek it. Liv is an experienced advocate of sustainable living and strives to increase her young family’s commitment to the planet on a daily basis. She currently homeschools her two young children.