CharterFolk Contributor Chris Topham – Waldorf Education + Charter Schools = A Wonderful Marriage

Good morning, CharterFolk!

Today we are pleased to share a contributor column from Chris Topham, Executive Director Sebastopol Independent Charter School, a Public Waldorf School.

Chris Topham, Executive Director Sebastopol Independent Charter School

I provide Chris’ bio below.

Chris joined Sebastopol Charter in 2013. Prior to arriving, Chris served as the Lower School Coordinator at Summerfield Waldorf School, an administrative role that he stepped into after 15 years of teaching which included teaching a class grades 6-8 and another class grades 1-8. He began his teaching career as a Waldorf class teacher at Novato Charter School when the school was founded in 1996 and where he taught a class 4th to 8th grade.

Chris has a Bachelor of Arts in Public Relations from Pepperdine University, Master of Arts in Education Leadership from Sonoma State University, a California Public School Teaching Credential from Dominican University, Waldorf Education Teaching Credential from Rudolf Steiner College and an Education Administration Services Credential from Sonoma State University.

Waldorf Education + Charter Schools = A Wonderful Marriage

I remember learning about charter schools being able to offer an alternative form of education when I was in my teaching credential program at Dominican University in San Rafael, California in 1995. There was a buzz of excitement about the “mega waiver” for charter schools. In one of my classes, students were making presentations about alternative education methods, such as Montessori, Waldorf, Open Classroom, and many more. I was hopeful to be part of a school offering an alternative method of education and be part of the enthusiasm and freedom in those settings.

I was excited to join a brand-new charter school that started in the fall of 1996 in Novato, CA. The school started with grades K-5 and eventually became a K-8 school. (Novato Charter became a California Distinguished School last year). When the school started, I remember that teachers were not yet required to have a teaching credential and charter schools were not required to have their students take the annual state standardized test. During those early days, charter schools truly had a mega waiver from Ed Code so that charter schools could flourish without a stranglehold of regulation and offer an alternative education that local families could choose for their children.

Novato Charter School adopted Waldorf education as its base curriculum. Waldorf education was founded over 100 years ago in Europe. There were many private schools in the US offering Waldorf education prior to charter schools, which meant that the only way families could get a Waldorf education for their children prior to charter schools was to pay private school tuition. When Novato Charter opened their doors, I remember my 4th grade class had students from various schools in different districts in multiple counties. The families were very excited for their children to receive a Waldorf education at no cost, and we had a wide diversity of students who would not have received this education without the availability of a charter school.

What is Waldorf education and where did it come from?

The origin story of Waldorf education is interesting, as it had its start (and name) associated with the Waldorf-Astoria cigarette factory in Stuttgart, Germany. Upon the invitation of the owner of the factory, Rudolf Steiner gave a lecture to the workers of the factory about his ideas of a new kind of education for children that had a different developmental approach to the grade levels in a K-12 curriculum that integrated music and arts in the academic instruction. One unique aspect of Waldorf education is the looping model of the main academic teacher teaching multiple grade levels for several years with the same class of students, which creates strong, close relationships between the teacher and the students/families. Waldorf teachers put an equal emphasis on the intellectual, emotional, and will-force development so that students will be intellectually curious while having a strong emotional intelligence and a strong work ethic. The workers were deeply inspired, and the owner of the factory funded the creation of the first “Waldorf school” for children in Stuttgart in 1919. This school, which is still operating, flourished and inspired the founding of many other Waldorf schools to offer the same curriculum. There are now more than 1,200 Waldorf schools in at least 80 countries.

Waldorf Charter Schools in the US

In the US, there are now at least 60 charter schools offering Waldorf education in 14 different states. The Alliance for Public Waldorf Education is a member association for charter schools offering Waldorf education. The association supports the schools with professional development, trainings, consulting, and guidance. There is a member association for the private Waldorf schools in the US called the Association for Waldorf Schools in North America (AWSNA). AWSNA trademarked the Waldorf name and has permitted the Alliance member schools to use the words “Public Waldorf” upon having established Waldorf curriculum standards established by the Alliance. This has created benchmark standards for what it means to offer a “public Waldorf” education for a charter school. New charter schools offering Waldorf education are founded almost every year. This fall, Shade Canyon School, a new charter school offering Waldorf education, is opening in Kelseyville, California. Constellation Charter School of Gainesville is opening in Florida this fall.

My Journey in Schools

Twenty-seven (27) years later, I’m still deeply involved with Waldorf education. I stayed at Novato Charter School for 4 years as a teacher. Then I spent 13 years at a private Waldorf school in Sonoma County where I taught for 11 years and spent my last two years there as an administrator. For the last 10 years, I have been the executive director for Sebastopol Independent Charter School, which was founded in 1995. Sebastopol Charter was the first full member school with the Alliance having gone through the established process to qualify for the use of the words “Public Waldorf.” Our school’s letterhead states Sebastopol Charter, A Public Waldorf School.

I have enjoyed being involved with charter schools as a member of the Member Council with the California Charter School Association, invited by Jed Wallace in 2014, and still enjoying charter school advocacy in California on the Member Council. I’m a board member of the Alliance for Public Waldorf Education. I have also found it helpful to learn more about the operation of districts and district schools by being a district board member of the local district (Oak Grove School District) where I live. As the “mega waiver” has eroded over the years and charter schools are operating under most of the same regulations as district schools plus extra scrutiny established for charter schools in California, I have found it important to have strong relationships with our authorizing district, the county office of education, and local school leaders of both charter schools and district schools. I continue to be deeply inspired by the work done at all kinds of schools where there are passionate school leaders and teachers. I’m excited about the growth of Waldorf education in charter schools, and I’m so glad that more students are receiving this education that I’ve witnessed inspire them to learn joyfully and become engaging and caring adults with so many skills.