Waiting for Waldorf

Parents push for a public version of an innovative private school

Montreal Mirror/October 10, 2002
By Noemi Lopinto

The people at Élan Waldorf Montréal have a dream: to establish Montreal's first public French language school with a Waldorf curriculum. But first they need the approval of a union, a school commission and finally, the Ministry of Education.

Waldorf schools are the pedagogical innovation of Austrian scientist and philosopher Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925). In Waldorf pedagogy, students are encouraged to learn at their own rate, in a close relationship to the teacher, who continues with a class from one year to the next, ideally right through elementary school. There are no exams or report cards. Students learn to do math by knitting stitches together, and to count by placing nuts into bags. They study mythology, gardening, cooking, foreign languages, history, botany and physics. Specialized tutoring follows in the high school grades.

Since 1919, the Association of Waldorf Schools of North America (AWSNA) Web site says, 800 Waldorf schools have opened in over 40 countries, and more than 150 schools are affiliated with the AWSNA. Waldorf establishments are typically private, but there are already three public Waldorf schools here in Quebec: in Chambly, Victoriaville and Waterville.

Phillipe van Leeuwen, a member of the coordination committee behind the push for a public Waldorf school in Montreal, says he has 600 signatures from parents eager to enroll their students in a local Waldorf school. Both of his sons attended l'École Rudolf Steiner, a Waldorf school in Côte St-Luc. Tuition there is approximately $5,000 a year.

"This is Quebec's biggest city and we know the interest is here," van Leeuwen says. "Why don't we have one? The Ministry of Education has accepted it in other places and is funding it. We have been garnering so much support it's unbelievable. I don't think the school commissions will have much of a choice, in the end."

Elusive official recognition

Élan Waldorf Montréal hope to have a school established by September 2003. According to the Commission scolaire de Montréal (CSDM), however, the wait might be much longer than that, up to five years.

CSDM communications officer Claudette Le Chasseur says approval of special projects can take a long time. "The project has to be looked at by all 21 commissioners and there are a lot of questions to be asked," explains Le Chasseur. "Completely new projects like this are rare, and after our decision is rendered, the Ministry of Education has to make its own. They had better be prepared for a delay." She adds that there is no space available for a Waldorf school for next September anyway.

In the meantime, there are a few problems to surmount: the CSDM and the Commission scolaire Marguerite-Bourgeois (CSMB) require Waldorf teachers to be certified by a recognized official body, and there is no certifying body to train Waldorf teachers in Quebec. There is L'Institut Rudolf Steiner au Québec, but it's not recognized by the commissions. The union associated with the CSDM, L'Alliance des professeurs, and the CSMB's Syndicat de l'enseignement de l'ouest de Montréal, will not pay tuition costs to re-train trained professionals.

"The challenge is that a school like this needs teachers trained in Waldorf pedagogy," van Leeuwen says. "This means that when we look to hire, we will hire preferentially. Generally, unions like collective agreements, not special conditions."

However, van Leeuwen is hopeful because he says the Chambly school hammered out an agreement with the unions to everybody's satisfaction. "The question is how to assure them that the school [in Montreal] really is a Waldorf school," says van Leeuwen. "In Quebec there is a shortage of French-speaking Waldorf-trained teachers. If we have teachers willing to take the training, where can they do it? L'Institut Rudolf Steiner au Québec provides a three-year training course, but the $15,000 tuition is beyond the budgets of a union or a school commission."

Nevertheless, parents like Hillary Hanson, 40, a volunteer with Élan Waldorf Montréal, are getting behind the push for the new school. She says the benefits of a Waldorf education should be available to middle- and low-income families. "The idea is you're not just packing a kid full of knowledge, you're preparing them for life as social beings," Hanson comments.

"I really believe Waldorf should be available to everybody. People are looking for choices in education that aren't going to cost them $5,000 a year. Choices should not just be for the elite."

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