(from: Waldorf Education Worldwide, pp. 188-191, Note the Copyright!)
The first Waldorf School in the United States of America was the Rudolf Steiner School of New York. It was founded in 1928, but its roots reach back to 1925. In that year, soon after the death of Rudolf Steiner on 20 March, a group of individuals who had known Steiner and studied with him in Europe - teachers, doctors, artists and parents - met in New York City. They discussed the possibility of bringing Waldorf Education to America. Soon the Rudolf Steiner Educational Union was founded, and its activities included the publication of a small periodical “The Rudolf Steiner School” and raising funds to start a school.
The school began in a small brownstone. One of the original five teachers was Arvia McKaye (1902-1989), daughter of the poet and dramatist Percy McKaye. Arvia taught at the school for many years, later marrying Karl Ege, founder of the school’s science programme. The legacy of Arvia and this early group is still present in the school - each year Grade 8 performs a Christmas play crafted by Arvia.
In 1929 the school moved to new quarters on Central Park West where it remained for 12 years. These were years of slow consolidation and inner growth as enrolment grew to 70 pupils. In 1941 the school moved again, this time to rented accommodation on East 91st Street. Three years later the building sold unexpectedly, and the school suddenly found itself without a home. By this time, though, there was a nucleus of strong, independent children in every class, as well as many parents who stood wholeheartedly behind the school. William Harrer had been a teacher at the Waldorf School in Stuttgart. His vision and foresight helped the school community take the step of buying its own building. The school’s present home, a townhouse at 15 East 79th Street, was purchased for the then prohibitive sum of $50,000.
At around this time, Henry Barnes (b.1912), a young man who had studied at Dornach, came to the school. He became faculty chairman and for the next 30 years filled that role, drawing together a remarkable and disparate group of teachers. In 1954 another brownstone a block away was bought where the upper school opened under the name of Walt Whitman School.
From East to West
In the early 1940s, meanwhile, other pioneers were at work in the eastern United States. Dr Hermann von Baravalle, also one of the original faculty at the Waldorf School in Stuttgart, helped Alarik and Mabel Myrin (1) to launch the Kimberton Farms Waldorf School in Pennsylvania in 1941. In 1942 he also helped Beulah Emmett launch the High Mowing School in Wilton, New Hampshire. In 1943 he became the head of the Mathematics Department at Adelphi University in Garden City, New York, and soon introduced Alarik Myrin1 to its President. That meeting led to the founding of a demonstration school for Waldorf Education, and the creating of the first education course in the US designed to teach Waldorf methods, as parts of Adelphi College. Baravalle was the lead teacher in the course, and the school, now known as the Waldorf School of Garden City, grew annually until it reached Grade 12. Baravalle also took Waldorf Education to the West Coast of the US, being involved in 1955 and 1959 with the beginnings of the Highland Hall Waldorf School in Los Angeles and the Sacramento Waldorf School, California.
Waldorf Education grew only slowly in the early days - between 1928 and 1970 the number increased from 1 to a mere 11. However, the decades since have been phenomenal in their growth. In the 1970s 21 new schools were founded. In the 1980s 53 new schools were founded. In the 1990s approximately 50 were founded. In 2001 there were 127 schools affiliated with the Association of Waldorf Schools and a significant number in the process of development.
Tackling common tasks together
The Association of Waldorf Schools of North America was formed in 1979 to provide a vehicle for collaborative work among and between schools. In 1995 it took the step of acquiring trademark rights for the name “Waldorf” in the USA. The member schools felt that the time had come to reserve the use of that name for schools that clearly demonstrated an intention to work out of anthroposophy and the Waldorf curriculum, and that are independent schools.
One of the most serious challenges for Waldorf Schools in the US is that of a Waldorf teacher shortage despite the existence of 8 teacher training programmes. Every year teachers are urgently sought to take on new Grade 1 classes or fill other vacancies.
Independent schools in America
In the United States, the Waldorf Schools are independent schools. This means that they receive no financial support from the government and that each school community is responsible for its own financial resources. It also means that each school is free to develop its curriculum and programme without interference from government officials or regulations. One of the major challenges facing Waldorf Schools in the US is the question of financial viability for the long term. It is clear that a school that adds a grade every year is growing its financial base by adding new pupils. What remains largely unachieved is for the schools to build a diverse base of financial support that includes income streams other than tuition fees from parents. Most schools continue to be far too heavily dependent upon tuition for their operating budgets, and are working to increase the proportion of gift and other revenues that could contribute to a financially healthy school.
“Charter Schools” - a controversial debate
Since 1991 it has been possible in California to found publicly-financed “charter schools” which integrate elements of Waldorf Education. On 3 September 1991 the Milwaukee Waldorf School opened as the first charter school. This has led to much controversy. Critics regard Waldorf Education as being based on anthroposophy which they see as a religion: since it is not permitted to teach religion in state schools Waldorf Schools should be prohibited. There are others who are in favour of Waldorf Education and see it as having the mission to be a model for the separation between the state and cultural life. For these people, too, Waldorf Education has no place in a state school.
Curative education and social therapy
There have been curative education and social therapy establishments based on anthroposophy in the USA since 1959, with Camphill Beaver Run in Pennsylvania having been the forerunner. Its influence on the general climate of curative education cannot be too highly appreciated although the conditions under which it works with over 71 children with a wide spectrum of difficulties are growing ever more complicated.
In recent years several new initiatives have started, including new centres such as the establishment of the first full Camphill community in California, and an umbrella organization for all the centres in North America that wish to base themselves on anthroposophy. There are now about 15 establishments that are eligible to become founder members of this new association, some large (mainly Camphill) and many small and more family oriented.
Major issues such as ageing of coworkers and villagers, continuing education (for everyone), government involvement and longterm financial sustainability are significant challenges. Correspondingly major attention is being paid to these matters.
While there are surely many similarities among the centres worldwide, the entrepreneurial approach which is such a necessity for privately-funded organizations seems to govern the way many American centres approach their development and needs, yet in a country where independence and self-determination are of considerable value, it is a wonderful new step that a new, fully-inclusive association is being born to foster deeper collaboration and cooperation. One can hope that a renewed sense of common identity and purpose can emerge in support of our endeavours.
1 A founder of the Kimberton, Pennsylvania, Waldorf School, Alarik W. Myrin (1884-1970), an anthroposophist born in Sweden who had made his money in the oil business, supported biodynamic agriculture and Waldorf Education. Together with her siblings his wife, Mabel Pew Myrin (1889-1972), founded the Pew Charitable Trust in honour of their parents. It benefitted the public health service and the local communities where they lived.
Class teacher and bursar at the Sacramento Waldorf School. 1988-2001 Managing Director of the Association of Waldorf Schools in North America.
Founder of the Soltane Camphill Home, Pennsylvania. President of the North American Association of Camphill Homes.