From acorn to seedling

Once-controversial Blue Oak Charter School is reaching for the light

GETTING THEIR SIT TOGETHER <br>Students at Blue Oak Charter School assemble their own chairs early in the school year. Turned down by the Chico Unified School District because of its Waldorf method, the school is sponsored by the Butte County Office of Education.

Students at Blue Oak Charter School assemble their own chairs early in the school year. Turned down by the Chico Unified School District because of its Waldorf method, the school is sponsored by the Butte County Office of Education.

Photo by Debra Moon

What’s a charter school? In an effort to offer parents alternatives, state law now allows school districts to sponsor innovative charter schools that operate independently using public funds. There are three on-site charter schools in Chico, the fledgling Blue Oak and the long-established American Indian school, Four Winds, both sponsored by BCOE, and the 6-year-old Chico Country Day School, which offers kindergarten through eighth-grade classes and is sponsored by CUSD. Hearthstone, a BCOE-sponsored charter school for home-schoolers, operates in Chico and Oroville.

Sunlight filters through the leaves outside the windows of Blue Oak Charter School, as 20 kindergartners sit in a circle on the floor inside, mesmerized by the dramatic story their teacher is telling. They are spellbound as tiny puppet-dolls enact the story they’ve heard read from a book before.

In a few days, they will act the roles in the story themselves, in a planned curriculum of language development for students their age. That kind of hands-on learning is integral to the Waldorf method of teaching used at the school.

A visitor regarding this innocent scene would have no idea that, just over a year ago, the school was at the center of a broiling controversy, one filled with charges—made by an out-of-town anti-Waldorf group—that the Waldorf method was a cult-created system that used public funds to secretly indoctrinate children in esoteric New Age spiritual hocus-pocus. So inflammatory was the rhetoric, and so scary the threat of lawsuits, that trustees of the Chico Unified School District were frightened off and turned thumbs down on Blue Oak’s application for sponsorship.

That was in January of last year. The school’s founders then turned to the Butte County Office of Education, whose trustees didn’t see what the fuss was all about and, in July 2001, readily agreed to be Blue Oak’s sponsor.

Housed at the Chico Unitarian Church, on Filbert not far from the Longfellow Shopping Center, the school is now finishing its first year in operation, beginning with this kindergarten class. Next year it will add a first-grade class, and it plans to continue adding classes in that way through the eighth grade.

The facility itself, while small and hardly ideal, has worked out well so far, school officials say. It has a spacious yard with hay bales, trees and plenty of room to run for the children and provides a wonderful location for observing and interacting with nature. Filbert is fairly free of traffic, so the school has been the launching spot of many walks to enjoy the outdoors.

An air of industry accompanies the 20 children in the kindergarten class, where learning by doing is key. The kids converse in serious tones as they cook, organize feasts and rehearse dramas to which guests may be invited. They quickly recite stories and songs they have learned by heart. Outdoors, they play games; hug-tag, they say, is one they have invented on their own.

There’s a big emphasis on art, and much time is provided for making and studying art. The children learn to take their time producing knitting, fabric art and many types of visual art, and their projects may take several days to complete. Some of the works in progress may be seen in the children’s cubbies or hanging in the room.

Six-year-old Sawyer Bruzza-Oman is very studious. He has produced many handicrafts in the school, including corncob wreaths, wooden boxes, dolls, necklaces, and baked goods. He describes the school as “cool,” which is the highest compliment possible from a guy his age.

The Waldorf method originally was developed by Rudolf Steiner, a German philosopher who, shortly after the turn of the 20th century, developed a “spiritual science” he called anthroposophy.

Blue Oak’s founders consistently have maintained, however, that they have no intention of teaching anthroposophy or any specific religious or spiritual approach. Their only interest, they say, is in providing a more creative, holistic learning environment for children.

Waldorf schools operate, successfully by most accounts, in many communities in this country and around the world. They emphasize what they call “whole child” teaching and especially focus on the arts as key to unlocking a child’s full potential.

Susan Whittlesey teaches the school’s one kindergarten class. The Waldorf method, she explains, utilizes music, art and “learning by doing.” She says it fosters creativity, thinking and wonder and is appealing to almost everyone who encounters it “because it is beautiful.”

Though the school now has only one grade, it already has an instruction program mapped out that goes all the way through grade eight, Whittlesey says. In a process called “looping,” the same teacher stays with the children for several grade levels, providing insight into their needs and learning history. This also gives the teacher a chance to develop a relationship with the children’s parents and other family members.

Whittlesey holds a multiple-subject teaching credential and is also a graduate of the Rudolf Steiner College for Waldorf Teachers. It’s there she developed her remarkable approach to teaching language, which involves an interesting progression of storytelling, beeswax modeling, puppetry and drama with each story. She believes this helps the students develop language, concentration, and sequencing as they revisit the story line. It also provides depth and promotes the subtle skills needed to become an excellent reader and life-long learner.

The children also participate regularly in handcrafts, water coloring, cooking, building and working with tools, she says.

Whittlesey says she spends hours outside the classroom making the beautiful puppets used in the story telling and language development part of the instruction. She also learns songs and plans art lessons—and practical lessons, too. She plays the flute, and a sweet strain of flute music indicates a transition to a new activity for the children at Blue Oak.

This is Whittlesey’s first year teaching a regular class, but she seems right at home. She spent many years teaching courses at Hearthstone Charter School, which operates in Chico and Oroville for the benefit of home-schooling families and is sponsored by the BCOE. And for nine years she has directed the performance of puppet shows at the Chico Public Library.

Parents play an essential role in the education of their children, and the Waldorf methods insists that they be involved. At Blue Oak, parents sign a “parent contract” that obligates them to attend meetings and workdays and to limit their children’s exposure to television and other media. The contract also stipulates that the parents will read and tell stories to their children.

Mary Wanzer-Simonds, one of Blue Oak’s founders and currently its interim director, as well as the mother of twins in the kindergarten class, explains that the curriculum of the school is integrated and describes it as “very rich, motivating and participatory.” It’s not flaky, however: The charter school must meet standards of accountability in student learning identical to those required in other public schools. All Blue Oak students take state-required SAT tests and are subject to other formal and informal tracking methods.

The school keeps portfolio-type records of progress for each student in addition to those required by the state. It’s looking not only at what the student accomplishes, but how it is done. The method strives to keep the imagination active and encourages thinking and problem solving skills.

Wanzer-Simonds says she became interested in the Waldorf method when Whittlesey and her husband John hired her to draw up some architectural plans for them. At the time Susan was studying to become a Waldorf teacher, and Wanzer-Simonds was impressed by what she learned about the teaching methods. Thus was planted the seed—the acorn, rather—of Blue Oak.

Originally they wanted to start a school for grades K-4, but they’ve since scaled back, deciding to proceed one grade at a time. Eventually the upper grades will enroll as many as 25 children in each class, but K-3 will never admit more than 20 per class, Wanzer-Simonds says. The school is fully enrolled now, and she receives as many as eight or nine calls in a week inquiring about enrollment.

Despite the initial controversy that greeted Blue Oak when it approached the CUSD a couple of years ago, it has enjoyed wide support among Chico educators, some of whom sit on the school’s Charter Council.

One of them is Judie Hall, an administrator in Student Services for the BCOE. Another is Dr. Barbara Johnson, a retired education professor at Chico State University. Hall and Johnson serve as liaisons for BCOE with the new school.

“I have never met a group of harder working, more dedicated people,” Hall enthuses. “The school has come a long way in a short time.” She believes the school is doing well handling the growing pains of a school in its first year. Blue Oak is filling a niche in the community, she says, noting that there are no other Waldorf schools here.

Everyone at Blue Oak is happy that the BCOE oversees the school. The county office has been extremely supportive of the school’s educational goals, says Wanzer-Simonds. “We’re right where we belong,” says adds, smiling.

Also sitting on the Charter Council are John Whittlesey, owner of Canyon Creek Nursery; Dr. Christie Rowe, an educational consultant who chairs the council; Charlotte Rainwater, owner of the Montessori Children’s House; and Kent Sandoe, professor of information systems at Chico State University, who is the parent representative.

Sandoe’s enthusiasm is tremendous and typical: "The school is great. It fills a unique need and is ideally matched to the temperament and learning of my child. It is such a perfect fit. That is how I feel as a parent, as a board member—I am excited to be part of an organization that I can tell is going to be very successful because of the vision and commitment of the people involved."