This is the second in a series of pieces we are doing that follow the progress of Mountain Sage Community School, as they bring their school to life. We hope that you enjoy reading about the development of this Waldorf-inspired Charter School.
“I think it’s fine for the little guys, but I’m not so sure about the kids entering into the grades,” my husband had said. We were discussing how to move forward with our son’s schooling. Then just four years old, our son had attended a small private Waldorf school in Lakewood, CO just two mornings a week. This lovely little school had announced its closing, and we needed to decide what to do for the next school year and beyond. Fast forward through three years full of amazing experiences, including private Waldorf and Waldorf-inspired charter schools, and homeschooling, we now find ourselves in a different city, about to enter a different Waldorf school, and more excited than ever about what Mountain Sage Community School has to offer.
Looking back, I know the moment my husband’s hesitation about the efficacy of Waldorf education dissipated. We had just toured a private Waldorf school, which houses pre-K through Grade 12, and were struck by the beauty and grace of what we saw in the hallways and classrooms. The more we learned, the more it made such perfect sense: educate a child based on where they are developmentally using holistic means, and you will see the emergence of a poised, knowledgeable, aware young adult. It was obvious this was a world class style of education.
Then two things happened: we enrolled our son at this private school for the 2010 school year, and I decided we needed something like this closer to our home in Golden.
I convened a group of educators and parents to discuss opening a Waldorf school west of Denver. After much discussion, we decided that a charter school would be preferable to a private school. While there is great freedom in a private school curriculum, the financial backing needed for such an endeavor was beyond our reach. We also deeply, and perhaps more importantly, felt that Waldorf, along with many other approaches to education that are typically private such as Montessori, Quaker, and Adventure Education, holds something that every child should experience, regardless of income. If we could create a Waldorf-inspired, sustainable living focused school that was tied directly to the public school system, we would have put something life changing into the world.
One night after this revelation I was on the phone with a dear friend. I told her about our migration from forming a private Waldorf school to a Waldorf-inspired charter school that deeply and explicitly embraces sustainable living and environmental education. “That’s happening here in Fort Collins!” she had said. It turned out the woman spearheading the effort, Liv Helmericks, was the spouse of a co-worker of mine from the days my husband and I had lived in Fort Collins. I contacted Liv as soon as I could.
When we connected, she told me about the process she had started in 2008, and that the school was up for charter approval with the Poudre School District for a 2011 open date. We compared stories of our founding conversations, and discovered how close they were. I was very interested in following Mountain Sage’s journey. Their philosophy was so similar to the school we were planning to open, Liv’s story so close to my own, that I felt our effort to create a charter school in Golden could benefit from her experience.
Soon thereafter Mountain Sage received its charter. How exciting! A few months later I learned that paramount funding for a charter school’s first year was denied. This meant the school opening would be delayed by a year, moving it to 2012.
In the spring of 2012 my husband accepted a job in Fort Collins, where we had lived nine years prior. How things come full circle! We would be back in a place I had always thought of as home, and we would be able to be a part of Mountain Sage Community School. That summer Mountain Sage was in negotiations for a school location, when sadly those negotiations fell through right before the date necessary for the charter school to secure its home. This meant another year delay, and yet the school’s founders remained hopeful and full of life. Mountain Sage would happen!
We moved to Fort Collins that September and joined up with the Mountain Sage homeschooling co-op for enrichment classes in Waldorf essentials like eurythmy, knitting, and art. During those Wednesday classes, while my son (now 7) has been soaking up beautiful rhythms and awakening the knowledge within himself, and my daughter (now 4) has been making friends with other younger siblings, I have been finding my tribe in this new-again town. It was through these weekly meet ups I learned from Liv that Mountain Sage was once again up for necessary federal start-up funding, the very same grant that had been denied in 2011. All the board’s effort, a unit of energy that has gotten stronger with each year of change, was focused on the grant.
That effort was recompensed in November 2012 when the school received news of being awarded that grant, $645,000 in total, to be implemented over a three year period. Mountain Sage received the highest score of all applicants, 108 out of 114. Right on the tails of this achievement, a potential location, one with lots of natural light, room for expansion, a large field next door that will be leased for a natural outdoor play area and gardens, and direct access to the Spring Creek Trail and surrounding natural areas, was found and lease negotiations began. This has included careful partnership with the Poudre School District, the City of Fort Collins, and the property owner. As I write this, the school is scheduled to appear on the February 26th school district board agenda for lease approval.
In November of last year I expressed interest in being on the board, and in January I was elected into the 7th spot. As a prospective board member I had been required to attend three meetings. As someone who has spent many years on various boards, I was curious to attend these meetings and get a feel for how the board was operating. To my delight, the board was incredibly focused and ready to move, with the future in clear sight. Such positive movement is not always the case amongst groups, especially those that have had the roller coaster ride Mountain Sage has had. This fervent fidelity is a testament to the strong foundation of the school.
Foundation building is a challenging thing. As I have experienced with the school effort I started in Golden, a group can have a wonderful idea and all the heart in the world, but when outside forces come into play it can be hard to gain momentum. The dream can live with a few, and it can only transition into reality when those few are willing and able to engage head and hands as well.
Mountain Sage Community School is now poised and ready, with key financial backing, newly aroused spirit, a healthy lease negotiation, and a steady stream of over 200 enrolling families. No longer the fringe idea it was, Mountain Sage is now part of a greater statewide movement toward Waldorf-inspired charter schools, lead by the pioneering Mountain Phoenix Community School in Wheat Ridge. My family and I were blessed to be a part of this school for one year before we migrated north, the same year the school moved the heart of its operations from the mountains northwest of Denver to its current location. I can attest to the strength and skill of Dr. Donna Newberg-Long, Mountain Phoenix’s principal, and she serves as inspiration and a role model for those of us at Mountain Sage.
It is the task of all Waldorf-inspired charter schools, regardless of location, to maintain the integrity of Waldorf education while simultaneously meeting state academic standards. Mountain Phoenix and Mountain Sage accomplish this through using educational methods that are traditionally Waldorf, including play-based Kindergarten, arts-integration in the musical, performance, and visual arts, handwork, multicultural education, community involvement, and daily connection with the outdoors, while participating in the necessary testing as determined by the state and district. Our schools, however, do not teach to these tests. Instead, testing is viewed as a way to ensure that every child is meeting the minimum standards of academic excellence. Waldorf is a pedagogy based on developmentally appropriate, rigorous academics delivered through an arts-infused curriculum, and has a proven ability to reach and inspire all types of learners. This is what prepares students for success in life.
Mountain Sage Community School also has helped create a regional partnership of Waldorf-inspired charter schools, including our friends at Mountain Phoenix and other emerging initiatives. This union sparked the 1st annual Colorado Waldorf-inspired Charter School Conference this February. Serving as a valuable training opportunity for teachers and board members of Waldorf-inspired schools, this conference allowed schools with a common goal to come together under a shared experience. As to be expected at a conference of this nature, each participating school’s singularity was highlighted and celebrated.
Indeed, each locally founded Waldorf-inspired school is focused on the specific needs and values of their own community. For Mountain Sage Community School, that means driving Waldorf-inspired education further into the realms of ecological balance and social justice. One of the reasons my family and I love Fort Collins is the widespread acceptance of sustainable living, yet no other school weaves it into the core of the school as Mountain Sage. As the 2013 school year approaches, we are knee-deep in the soil of sustainability, planting seeds that will unfurl into both a culture alive with preponderant customs, and programming that will offer grade level crossover and cooperation, and expansive learning opportunities for students. This makes Mountain Sage unique in relation to other schools in the Fort Collins area.
The greater Mountain Sage sodality has amazed me. From my vantage point in Golden, it felt as though the people of Fort Collins were behind this school, almost willing it into success. Now that my view is that of a local and a board member, I know this to be true. Along side of the goodwill this generates, Mountain Sage is for the first time turning to the community for fundraising. In February we launched our first capital campaign through the Fort Collins-based website Community Funded. Our school building requires an aesthetic that is critical to Waldorf, and the federal grant received last fall cannot be used for this purpose. We are confident that our community will listen to our request and see us through to our financial goals, and our students will be greeted next fall with the warm colors and engaging design necessary.
My husband and I come from different ends of the educational experience, he being a product of public education and I the product of private, alternative education. We are both successful in our professional and personal lives, both engaged citizens of society. It seems fitting that we would meet in the middle when considering the right educational option for our children: a public, alternative school. We are honored to be a part of this amazing community, and truly hopeful for the years to come. Mountain Sage Community School has engaged our heads, hearts, and hands, and will be a beacon in our lives and our community for many years to come.
Hillary Mizia, a sustainability consultant and community connector, is the newest member of the board of directors at Mountain Sage Community School. Hillary has appeared in multimedia about a whole host of sustainable living topics, ranging from cloth diapers to sustainability management systems. She and her family have recently returned home to Fort Collins after spending 9 years in Golden, Colorado.
Photos in this piece were taken by Hillary at local farms on the Front Range in Colorado.