by Liz Beaven

A visitor to the Community School for a Creative Education (CSCE) steps off the street into a building bustling with life. Hand-stitched, colorful signs on the wall give directions and list the school’s core values for all to see—in several languages. A variety of student art and craftwork is on display. A lobby table and display board hints at the school’s role as a center for community activity with notices of upcoming community cleanup events, food pantry dates, and advice on health or civic matters. A family/community room off the lobby is decorated with work that reflects the season and represents many of the cultures found within the school community. The voices of children echo up the stairs and parents and caregivers from several nations chat by the entryway.

Oakland is an up and coming city providing slightly less expensive living for young families and artists than its neighbor, San Francisco. It is a city undergoing gentrification—a process that has not reached even close to the Community School’s neighborhood, which could be accurately described as “gritty.”

I sat down with school founder and Executive Director Dr. Ida Oberman to learn more about the social justice mission of this inner city school. What follows are highlights from that conversation, with a picture of the founding and growth of the school, its community of students and families, its mission as an urban Public Waldorf school, and the opportunities, challenges, and innovations it has experienced since it opened its doors in 2011.

An interview with Dr. Oberman is an experience of intensity and passionate conviction. Dutch by birth, Ida was a Waldorf student for ten years at the Tubingen School in Germany. Her teachers there had received their teacher training from the first circle of Waldorf teachers, and at Tubingen her belief in the power of Waldorf education as an agent for “social transformation, social justice, and spiritual justice” was born. Ida later completed her BA at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, her Waldorf teacher education in Stuttgart, Germany, and her doctorate in the School of Education at Stanford University. Her research findings provided the basis for a book, The Waldorf Movement in Education from European Cradle to American Crucible, 1919-2007 (2007). In it, she traces the Waldorf movement from its beginnings, exploring the social and political backdrop of its founding and growth, and examining questions of “fidelity and flexibility” as Waldorf education expanded and grew in America. Unsurprisingly, these were themes of our conversation. Ida’s preparatory work for founding the CSCE included participating in a Stanford study of the first Public Waldorf school in this country, Milwaukee Urban Waldorf School, and working as the co-founder of a public school inspired by Waldorf education on the borders of Harlem, NYC (later closed).

Now in its sixth year, the Community School for a Creative Education has grown to include 210 students in transitional kindergarten through eighth grade. CSCE opened as an independent charter authorized by the Alameda County Office of Education; Dr. Oberman states that the school works closely with the local district and county and hopes to serve as a model for an urban Public Waldorf district school. She reports that the school currently has the most diverse student population of any school in a highly diverse county with 72% of students below the poverty level, 42% English Language Learners, and 21% Special Education students. Its has several impressive assessment measures: in spring of 2015, CSCE special education students outperformed by five times comparable groups within Oakland Unified School District, and English learners by three times. The school is in the process of adopting the Oakland Unified performance standards; with many transient students, Ida believes strongly that it must get all students performing at grade level at an early age in order to not further disadvantage them if they move to another school setting. This reflects a firm belief that our modern task is “to braid Waldorf education and prevailing education standards.” She notes that the school is “young, and learning.”

The school population is largely drawn from the local neighborhood and the site is an active center for adult education and community services and engagement. Dr. Oberman described a range of school-based or school-initiated activities including voter registration, job training, tenants’ rights workshops, healthcare information, rent control, get out the vote, “shoo the flu” immunization drive, and a once a month hosting of a food bank. The school had its founding in community organizing, and this continues as a major focus to this day.

Social Justice in Action

The drive to create the CSCE was strongly linked to Ida’s understanding of the impulse that led Rudolf Steiner to found the first school on a factory floor in the ruins of post-World War I Germany. She passionately paints a picture of those original aims: pragmatic, future-oriented, radical in design, and linked to the needs of a local context. Based on its founding, Ida views Waldorf education’s task as nothing less than systems change and disruption of the status quo in service of social justice. She notes that it was never intended to be a remote or removed educational movement; rather, Steiner was a man of action and political activist who taught us the need to be active in the world. As she described it, Steiner “rolled up his sleeves and got his fingernails dirty trying to help, supporting what others cared about, in the thick of things. The need for the first school came to Molt and Steiner; it was not a beautiful space with wealthy parents, but a factory floor, among the presses.” Just as that first school was revolutionary in many aspects and was designed to address critical problems of its time, Ida believes that contemporary Waldorf educators should engage in a similar level of disruptive systems change as they respond to the needs of today. She urges us “to take seriously the social and political questions of our time and respond to the urgencies…. What are the equivalent social justice acts today?”

As Waldorf education moves more fully into the public sector in this country, Ida urges us to understand what that means. With an increasing gap between wealth and poverty and greater segregation, Steiner’s “radical intention,” evident in the founding of the first school, invites us to discover equivalent revolutions for 2016: “that is the task of today—developing Waldorf education in Rudolf Steiner’s spirit to heal the problems of society.” Ida notes that we are part of an increasingly global, intercultural movement and must not isolate ourselves: if we are offering Public Waldorf education, we must ask: “Who is the public? In our public schools, it is increasingly non-white and poor. Over fifty percent of our nation’s schoolchildren live in poverty. This is opposite to what often happens in Waldorf education, with a pull toward upward mobility and ‘protecting the flame’”. This has a history within our movement; Ida states that as early as 1926, the first school had gentrified beyond its factory beginnings, and that this trend has recurred in Waldorf education across time, across oceans, and across languages. In the face of this, if we truly wish to serve the needs of today, we must be learners and listeners to the parents to discover what is on their minds. We cannot isolate ourselves but must truly engage with our communities. Waldorf education must continue to adapt and reinvent itself in response to questions and needs.

Public Waldorf at the CSCE: Weaving a Braid

Ida’s questions of “fidelity and flexibility” are highly relevant for our public Waldorf schools; what works, what must be adapted for a school population, what must be deleted or added? The CSCE strives to provide “a rigorous college-preparatory program integrated into a culturally rich, arts-infused, highly personalized curriculum inspired by Waldorf education…to promote equity and prepare culturally competent, well-rounded, life-long learners.” (Excerpted from the Mission Statement.) The school has many of the instantly recognizable hallmarks of Public Waldorf education: a garden was quickly established on the blacktop; there is strong emphasis on the arts and crafts; children participate in morning circles; and there are typical, developmentally appropriate main lessons at each grade with students recording their work in main lesson books. There is also ample evidence of adaptation to specific needs. Ida believes firmly that the school must not simply “teach to the Waldorf curriculum;” rather, with a population that traditionally experiences inequity of access to education, the school has a responsibility to have students at grade level at the end of the year to avoid further disempowering or harming them. This means more emphasis on formal academics and language development in kindergarten, and a more traditional approach to academic instruction in several areas. It also means emphasis on faculty training in restorative justice practices and trauma-informed pedagogy, including regular work with Bernd Ruf based on his work with Emergency Pedagogy. It means school communications in four languages and a range of festivals that represent the school’s diverse community. It means ensuring that the school is home to parents as well as students with a wide range of social and community services.

Opportunities and Challenges

Throughout our conversation, Dr. Oberman repeatedly returned to two key points:

  1. Schools must be rooted in and reflective of their surroundings. Ida pointed to her earlier experience attempting to establish a school on the borders of Harlem in New York City; this school did not establish roots or buy-in within the community, and failed to thrive. The lesson was thoroughly learned; the CSCE founding team engaged in three years of community organizing before the school opened, and continues to be an active center for community activity. Ida emphasizes the need to “go out into the community, to go to where our families live and work, to take in their situations, to listen deeply to what is on their minds before we speak…We must discover what challenges the community has that Waldorf education can be in service of, becoming attuned to the community.” She notes that this lesson is especially important if we as educators are not of the community, but come from outside. We must first be listeners and learners before we speak or teach. This establishes a foundation of trust and respect and allows the school to be a true community. She gave examples of community-building events that give meaning, share cultures, and allow space for the wisdom of the elders.
  2. Waldorf education was radical in its original intent and has a moral imperative to confront the social issues of our time. She believes that current intercultural and international initiatives reflect this, giving examples of Bernd Ruf’s emergency relief work and the Monte Azul initiative in the favelas of Sao Paulo: “serving the underserved, pushing what Waldorf education is, asking what our time is seeking of Waldorf education and serving parents who do not fit into our schools.” She feels that in this country we are behind with this impulse, and have been more focused on “preserving the flame.” The move into the public sphere demands that we reexamine our priorities.

Based on her life experience and extensive study, Ida is a passionate crusader for the social justice task of Waldorf education and feels impelled to give back. She referenced words of Martin Luther King Junior: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” From Ida Oberman’s perspective, as Public Waldorf educators we must reach our arms upward, wrap them around that arc, and bring it to earth in service of all children and social change.

Liz Beaven, Ed.D., has over 30 years experience in Waldorf education in a range of roles that include class teacher, school administrator, board member, adult educator, and researcher and writer.  She was an advisory board member of the Alliance for Public Waldorf Education and has served as the President of the Board since March 2016.Lis a core faculty member of the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco, where she is working to develop a graduate program in integral teacher education. She enjoys working directly with schools on a rage of topics.

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