School days with green ways

Community members grow Chico’s first eco-conscious high school

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Samantha Orneallas is only 8 years old, but thanks to her father, who’s already preparing for her high school years, she could attend Chico’s first green school.

Her dad, Paradise resident David Orneallas, is working with other community members and parents to create an environmentally conscious public high school.

“There is a need for a high school that addresses more than the SATs, more than the football team scores; a high school that does more than merely educate kids to be consumers or employees in a global workplace, but that educates kids to be whole human beings in a global ecosystem,” said Orneallas.

Tentatively calling it Chico Green School, a steering committee working on the proposed charter school plans to center the institution on the increasingly popular Waldorf principles of education.

Orneallas is convinced that this style of education is what’s missing from high school options in the area. His daughter currently attends a Waldorf charter elementary school, and he would like for her to have the opportunity to attend a secondary institution that stresses the importance of imagination in the learning process in addition to analytical schooling.

“Waldorf really educates the whole human being, not just from the neck up,” he said.

Chico Green School is just a vision at this point, and, as its name suggests, one of its core values is eco-friendliness. When the school is up and running, part of the curriculum will be based on promoting environmental engagement.

“Growing up, I had the benefit of a lot of environmental and ecological education. Later in life, I discovered Waldorf education and found what a good fit that was,” said Orneallas.

Waldorf and sustainability principles that the plan is founded upon undoubtedly make it a special endeavor. Perhaps more unique, though, are the people involved in making this dream school a reality. Orneallas is just one voice within a very focused, close-knit group of community members, parents and teachers who meet every month (sometimes more often) to combine the forces of several committees.

During the group’s first meeting of the summer, after the school year’s end, organizers expected a small turnout. To their surprise, several tables at a local restaurant where the meetings take place had to be pushed together to accommodate about 15 people interested in the endeavor.

Everyone in attendance agreed that this alternative high school option is in the best interest of Chico and its kids.

Chico Green School’s goal is to provide students with analytical skills valued under traditional American school standards, but also to incorporate abstract thinking, ethics and creativity into the curriculum. The “whole human being” who comes through the process would be academically intelligent, but also instilled with morals and ethics.

Selena Logan, another member of the steering committee, puts it another way by saying that she wants the school to teach “kids to be more interested in the world and to be more than an outcome.” In other words, Logan wants the students to be involved in their environment, rather than passive observers of their own lives.

FOR HER FUTURE<br>David Orneallas would like for the Chico Green School to be up and running several years before his 8-year-old daughter, Samantha, is ready for high school.

Photo By Nicole McGovern

Specifics on course offerings are still in the planning stages, but the curriculum will offer electives and students will be required to participate in community service. Kent Sandoe (former director of Chico’s Blue Oak Elementary charter school) said the United Nations serves as a guide for the Chico Green School.

In that vein, the institution will promote economic, environmental and social consciousness. It will rely on parent involvement, teach in study blocks and offer study abroad options.

To help establish a road map for the school, several steering committee members recently traveled to Sacramento. There, they met with Betty Staley, a Waldorf teacher trainer with 35 years experience who is affiliated with the Rudolf Steiner College in Fair Oaks.

Staley specializes in identifying the role of teachers in Waldorf settings. Few people in the United States have been trained in Waldorf principles, which originated in Germany, so the meeting was an important step for the school.

Staley is known as a liberal interpreter of Waldorf education; she disagrees with purists who argue that Waldorf can exist only as a self-contained program for younger children or in a private school setting. She went over the group’s charter draft, gave feedback and encouraged greater teacher autonomy and parent involvement than is generally found in American public high schools.

“It is clear that we need to build a community, not just a school,” said Sandoe.

Waldorf private high schools aren’t uncommon in the United States, but Chico Green School appears to be paving the way for the public sector. “Our school will be, to the best of our knowledge, the first or second Waldorf charter high school in the nation,” Orneallas said.

He, along with Sandoe and Logan, started the project last fall. With the support of Martin Schwabe, who has a child at Blue Oak, the group set timelines for the proposed school, held elections for a board of directors and incorporated the institution in April.

The goal is to open Chico Green School for the 2010-11 academic year. Organizers plan to finalize and submit a charter petition to the Chico Unified School District within the next few months. If and when the charter is approved, the team will concentrate on securing grant funding in hopes that school development can start next July.

Orneallas and the rest of the group are optimistic about their chances, despite the struggles Blue Oak faced when it attempted to gain its charter from CUSD back in 2001. At the time, district trustees caved to an out-of-town, anti-Waldorf group that threatened the school district with lawsuits, charging its methods are rooted in religion.

Blue Oak organizers ultimately won approval from the Butte County Office of Education. The school is now thriving and likely will serve as a feeder school for the Chico Green School, since the institutions share many educational principles.

In addition to its unorthodox teaching methods, the school plans to offer an intimate learning environment in which enrollment won’t exceed 200 students. That’s important to Sandoe, who wants his three elementary-school-aged daughters to have more options when they are ready for high school.

“There needs to be an alternative in scale, or in size, to the large high schools that exist in Chico,” he said. “There is a need for a choice for a small high school where students can get individualized attention.”

The Waldorf aspect of the high school plays a critical role in its development, but Sandoe stressed a commitment to offsetting any negative environmental impact the school might have. Preliminarily, the group is looking to invest in recyclable and reusable materials, solar panels and energy-conserving lighting options in order to practice what they preach.

“We don’t know if the school can be completely carbon neutral yet,” he said, “but we are going to get as close as we can.”