An Interview with Lydia Whitham

By Charles Burkam

Charles Burkam: What is your background?

Lydia Witham: I grew up in Gainesville, Florida, where my father was a professor. After college I became a CPA and moved to Miami. I met my husband there and married, but shortly afterwards we moved to the Washington, D.C. area for my husband’s work.

CB: What lead your move from accounting into education?

LW: After my daughter was born, I took a job in a business office at a private school to better balance my work life and home life. Being in that educational environment, I came more and more to feel that I wanted a different direction for myself. I decided to make education my focus, rather than stay just in the business realm. So, I went to Harvard to earn my Master’s in Education.

CB: How did you come to meet Waldorf education?

LW: During the time at Harvard, we visited a local Waldorf school as a part of exploring different educational environments. Also, one of the other students in the masters program was a Waldorf graduate. I became very interested and, when I was back home after completing my studies, I found Washington Waldorf School. After visiting the school, my daughter decided she wanted to go and she started in 9th grade. It grew from there…

CB: How did he intention to found the Washington School for Arts and Academics come about?

LW: In September 2015, the XQ Super Schools Contest was announced with $50 million in awards. It was a competition to modernize high school education started by Laurene Powell Jobs, the widow of Steve Jobs. In response to this opportunity, I helped form a group and we based our XQ proposal on Waldorf principles. It was decided that we wanted to focus on the area with the greatest need—which was in the SE section of Washington D.C. Our proposal made it to the final round, but was not selected for funding.  Having worked this hard on the ideas, the group wanted to proceed, and we have been working to get support for a charter application for a high school in Wards 7 & 8 of SE Washington, D.C.

CB: What is the mission Washington School of Arts and Academics?

LW: The area we have chosen for the school is almost entirely African-American and our estimate is that over 90% will be eligible for Free and Reduced Lunch programs. We also know that many of the students who will come to the school will not be truly ready to work at a high school level. We have to find effective approaches to get their basic academic skills up to where they need to be so that they can become college ready and escape the cycle of poverty.

CB: Had you been involved in social justice work previously?

LW: Not really. I did some tutoring for adults learning to read, and some other volunteering, but nothing like the focus of this high school project.

CB: What motivated you to stay with this then?

LW: I first saw the need to work with these underserved communities through a friend who ran Excel Academy, an all-girl K-8 charter school in Ward 8. After all of the preparation work for the X-Q contest, this is now what I must do.  It just feels right.

CB: In what ways are you considering adjusting the Waldorf curriculum given the population you will be serving?

LW: Because of the need to bring students up to grade level in basic skills, we may have to do more in traditional survey classes in ninth and tenth grades, rather than utilize the main lesson block approach. We will have one period a day set aside for either remediation or enrichment, depending on the needs of each student. There will be extra professional development for teachers about meeting the needs of diverse learners in the classroom.

We are also working with our board members to develop history and social studies content that is more relevant to the African American community and its heritage. Since we are starting from scratch, we have the freedom to be very creative and fully relevant to these times.

CB: Who has been helping you on the project?

LW: I originally got in touch with Pack Petrash and his colleague Cynthia Bennett at Jack’s NOVA institute. Later, I spoke with Allegra Alessandri. Now we have a local board that includes community members as well as educators.

CB: What difficulties do you still face?

LW: There are lots of charter schools in D.C., but there is a spilt within the African-American community about them because of a perceived threat to existing district public schools. Also, the community is rightly skeptical of outsiders coming in to tell them what to do. Fortunately, there are many active Area Neighborhood Councils within these wards. They provide venues for promoting the project as well as getting input on what the community values and wants. There is also an Education Council for each ward that we have connected with. We must build community support if we are to be successful with our charter application. So we attend many community events, letting people know about the project, finding individuals we can work with, and building up a network of supporters.

CB: When do you hope to open your doors?

LW: If our school is approved this spring, we will open in the fall of 2018.  This is our hope.  If not, we will reapply and open in the fall of 2019, which also has a nice ring to it.

Charles Burkam, JD, has been involved with Waldorf education for nearly 40 years, and has been leading the administrative team at Desert Marigold since 2010. In 1986 he moved to England to study Anthroposophy and was bursar at Michael Hall Steiner School for seven years. Charles has consulted for the Biodynamic Farming and Gardening Association, the Santa Fe Waldorf School and was Managing Director of the Institute for Responsible Technology. He is currently the Treasurer for the Alliance for Public Waldorf Education and actively collaborates with the partner schools of the Arizona Council of Waldorf Education.

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