Waldorf in transition

Blue Oak Charter School has two years to increase its students’ test scores

Teacher Elska King works with Blue Oak students during a recent visit to the school’s north Chico campus.

Teacher Elska King works with Blue Oak students during a recent visit to the school’s north Chico campus.

Photo by Leslie Layton

About the school:
For more info about Blue Oak, visit www.blueoakcharterschool.org.
For previous coverage of this topic, visit www.ChicoSol.org or the links below.

Step inside a classroom on a Monday afternoon at Blue Oak Charter School and you’ll find children engaged in a “specialty” activity, like woodworking, map-making or violin-playing. There’s a hum in these classrooms—sometimes it’s low-pitched and sometimes not—as students laugh, talk and work playfully together.

Monday afternoons are reserved for specialty classes at Blue Oak, a school that strives to make learning joyful within the well-defined confines of Waldorf pedagogy. To some it was ironic and to others predictable when, earlier this month, a series of data-driven line graphs almost shut down the 9-year-old school that serves 355 Chico-area children.

The graphs shown to the Chico Unified School District Board of Trustees at a recent meeting indicate that Blue Oak is performing well below other public schools in town in most areas on standardized tests. In math, for example, Blue Oak students had a lower rate of proficiency in the 2009-10 school year than students at the low-performing Chapman Elementary.

But that accountability yardstick has never been fully embraced by many Blue Oak supporters, and the school’s philosophy in some ways is diametrically opposed to the act and nature of standardized testing. With its arts-infused curriculum, Blue Oak came to represent a symbol of resistance to testing and budget cuts in traditional public schools as humanities professors, arts supporters and parents rallied to support the charter in the weeks prior to the school board’s April 6 meeting.

CUSD trustees on a split 3-2 vote authorized a new charter for Blue Oak, which is now struggling to reconcile its Waldorf approach with the need to meet state and federal accountability standards so that it can retain public funding. Board President Kathy Kaiser warned there would be no second chances.

Many Blue Oak supporters at that meeting were rankled by the emphasis on test scores.

“It’s upsetting to be judged only on test scores,” said Blue Oak mentor teacher Carol Fegté as she showed this reporter her fifth-grade classroom earlier this week. “We have a different value system here, and we see children as open receptacles. The challenge is not just to teach information, but to fill them with good things.”

During the visit to Fegté’s classroom, students showed off the clay U.S. map they had constructed and performed a lovely rendition of “Oh Shenandoah.”

For some observers awaiting a vote on Blue Oak at last week’s board meeting, it was trustee Andrea Lerner Thompson who seemed most unpredictable. At first, she sympathized with Blue Oak supporters who have a disdain for standardized testing.

“In an age of testing, what does it mean to have an unsound educational program?” said Lerner Thompson. If a school eliminates electives and teaches students for the sole purpose of seeing them score well, “is it sound?”

But Lerner Thompson also argued that charters must be held to the same standards as other public schools, and she wondered why the test-score issue at Blue Oak hadn’t been addressed more successfully sooner.

Lerner Thompson and trustees Kaiser and Liz Griffin voted in favor of a two-year charter for Blue Oak on the condition it improve test scores to a level comparable with other schools that have similar demographics, like Neal Dow and Little Chico Creek elementaries. Trustees Jann Reed and Eileen Robinson voted against charter authorization.

The school’s troubles with the outside world—in this case the Butte County Office of Education—had been simmering for several years, coming to a head Jan. 10 when that office refused to renew Blue Oak’s charter. BCOE said that although the school had improved student scores on standardized tests in the last school year, it had been ranked in the lowest 10th percentile of schools statewide in the previous year.

County officials were also troubled by a dispute with the school over special-education funding; they say Blue Oak spent funds on early intervention that can be used only for students already identified as having special needs.

Blue Oak then applied to Chico Unified for a new charter, and a review committee “leaned heavily” toward denial, said CUSD charter liaison John Bohannon. Bohannon, during a presentation of line graphs at the meeting, said he found the testing data “extremely troubling.”

In a telephone interview, Bohannon acknowledged that the school met its growth target during four of the past five years. But Blue Oak test scores have had their “ups and downs,” and Bohannon said more should be expected of a school with Blue Oak’s demographics.

In the year that’s under scrutiny—the 2009-10 school year—44 percent of Blue Oak’s student population was economically disadvantaged. But the school had no English-language learners and only 1 percent was special-education students, Bohannon said.

Blue Oak increased the score known as API—Academic Performance Index—by 61 points in the past five years, though the gain fell 14 points short of that made during the same period by Chapman Elementary, a school with many English-language learners.

Bohannon said that during visits to Blue Oak, charter-review committee members saw evidence of efforts to address state standards, but were concerned that the standards were being addressed at what he called a “low level.”

Blue Oak officials, though, say they have already made fundamental curriculum changes that are improving the results of internal assessments. “We’re totally confident we have the ability to show the district improvements,” said Heather Altfeld, charter council president. “We’re already on solid footing for what we have to do.”

Altfeld said Blue Oak is now using materials specifically designed to align its curriculum with California content standards.

Waldorf curriculum presents challenges to public schools that must meet official content standards. Schools adhering strictly to Waldorf philosophy don’t push reading as soon as other schools do. The Renaissance is emphasized in seventh grade, for example, even though it’s not on most standardized tests that year.

Waldorf-methods schools use chalkboards to enhance what their educators call a “tactile experience,” and teachers move from grade to grade with their students, requiring that they undergo considerable curriculum training on an annual basis.

Advocates say students educated in Waldorf-methods schools catch up to their peers by eighth grade. The data to support that assertion comes from private Waldorf schools; Waldorf schooling in the public sector is only about 20 years old.

Blue Oak Director Michael Ramos, when asked whether the curriculum modification under way at Blue Oak will make his school better, chose his words carefully. “We will be a more accountable school,” Ramos said, “and it will be clearer where we’re going.

“There needs to be some kind of measuring stick. But [state and federal] standards are the most black-and-white way of doing that. Certainly we’ll have to give something up.”