During the third week of January, schools across the country commemorate National School Choice Week, a celebration of the vibrancy of schools nationwide. This week, I’m reminded of what makes the school where I teach, Mountain Song Community School, so unique, and why school choice is a vital part of our community.
Growing up, my wife was able to attend a school out-of-district. Unfortunately, she was not very happy with the result. Yes, the school she attended had high test scores, and a large percentage of students went on to attend competitive colleges. But she never felt that her school was able to address her own personal needs and provide a child-centered curriculum. Searching for another option for our children, she was attracted to the Waldorf educational model created by Rudolph Steiner.
The first Waldorf school opened in Hamburg, Germany in 1915 and has now spread to almost every country in the world. In the United States, however, most Waldorf schools are private, and when we moved to Colorado thirteen years ago, only two of these schools existed in the state. Both were more than sixty miles away from our home.
Like other school choice states, Colorado allows families to choose among public district schools, public charter schools, private schools, and homeschooling. In the city where I live and teach, there are many public charter schools available, but most of them are a variation of the college prep academy model which is also offered in district schools. Our family was frustrated by the lack of diversity within the public school system and started our search for a less mainstream form of education such as Waldorf.
By perhaps an amazing stroke of luck, soon after moving to Colorado Springs, we discovered a group of parents who were asking the very same questions and had formed a planning committee to create a public Waldorf charter school in the city. As a special education teacher, I became involved early on in writing the special education section of the charter application.
Since most of the parents in the group lived in a specific district, the decision was made to apply for a charter and select a building that was located in that district. After a long process, a state agency instead agreed to authorize us, and soon Mountain Song Community School opened its doors to children from kindergarten through eighth grade as a Waldorf-inspired public charter school. While private Waldorf schools often begin with a single kindergarten class and then add additional grades year by year, Mountain Song was actually able to offer more families the opportunity to attend by starting as a K-8.
Our daughter enrolled in the first grade the year the school opened, but I would not become a teacher at Mountain Song until our son entered kindergarten seven years later. In the meantime I became a member of the board of directors where I joined other parents in helping the school through its early growing pains. And the success Mountain Song has achieved has not been without its challenges.
Mountain Song is required to meet the same requirements as other public schools in Colorado in terms of state assessments, standards, and enrollment.
As a result of its reputation for supporting the growth of all children, a large number of identified and unidentified special education students enroll. In fact, when other charter schools in the region made the news for their low percentage of special education students, Mountain Song stood out as an opposite example, inviting a large population of special education students through its doors.
Unfortunately, while the school strives to meet the needs of all of its students, we only receive a percentage of the funding available to district schools.
Nevertheless, we have worked hard as a community to improve the school and we even managed to purchase the historical building we had been leasing from the district.
Now as a teacher, I see how Mountain Song Community School represents the fullest potential of school choice. Created, supported, and at times run by parents, it offers a form of child-centered learning that is unique in this part of the state. The benefits of the child-centered and age-appropriate curriculum have spread by word of mouth and parents who had previously given up on public education and made the decision to home school have found another option for their children.
My hope is that someday we can bring even more educational diversity to Colorado families looking for another option.
Michael Katzenberg resides in Colorado Springs. He began his teaching career more than 20 years ago and has taught both general and special education students in Chicago, Hawaii, Florida, and Colorado. He is passionate about working with at-risk, special needs students and advocating for school choice.