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A Chat with Westside Waldorf:

The Westside Waldorf School began in1989 as the “Waldorf School of Santa Monica.” It moved into its new home on Sunset Boulevard just up from PCH last year from its old locale on 4th Street. For almost 20 years this educational institute has been a real generative force in the community. They have classes for parent/toddlers and nursery all the way through eighth grade.

The new campus is simple and beautiful with warm woods and rich blues. The playground seems to have grown out of the earth, ingeniously designed by gnomes just to make children want to play in it (as does the one at their early childhood development campus on 15th Street).

The Mirror spoke with Gita Labrentz, PhD, Academic Director, and Jeffrey Graham, Executive Director of Development. Everyone calls Dr. Labrentz, “Gita.” Her keen gaze communicates passion and a kind steadfastness. This is someone you’d want beside you in a storm. Graham, too, has a warmth and calm that belies the history of his having marshaled the school through a major transition into this new home.

Mirror: How does the Westside Waldorf School fit in with the particular character of Santa Monica?

Labrentz: I’d like to think that the philosophic impulses underlying the Waldorf teaching culture have a sort of homeopathy healing effect mitigating the stress of 21st century parenting. Santa Monica is an urban city, therefore has a fast pace. 21st century cost of living requires income from both parents in a young family. Statistics in child development point to an acceleration in stress symptoms in today’s children, especially in urban/metropolitan areas. Waldorf Education – now nearly 100 years old – is experienced by families and their children as a “preventative medicine in the 21st century” (as demonstrated in over 45 years of research and study by Swiss physician and medical scientist Michaela Gloeckler, M.D., and hundreds of additional medical researchers and scientists).

Mirror: Do you see signs of stress in children in the classroom? How would Waldorf teachers speak to it differently than others might? How does that influence have an effect on the parents’ stress?

Labrentz: Children and parents spend undue evening time getting homework assignments completed. This situation stresses the entire family: dinners together are shortened in order to do homework. Children are losing playtime and childhood beginning in kindergarten. Testing has become ubiquitous and is the only measure of education – the reward/punishment approach actually “cripples learning,” it has taken the joy out of the learning. Teachers are stressed and now even feel forced to manipulate test scores in order to position their classes at the top of the pyramid. The Waldorf curriculum and the approach to teaching replace the reward/punitive mode with learning enthusiasm (no testing in grades from kindergarten through 5th grade). There is a science behind this approach.

Mirror: The Waldorf Education is known for a broad exposure to the arts. How does that feed into someone becoming a CEO of a multinational company, such as Kenneth Chenault, the CEO of American Express (a Waldorf graduate).

Graham: Ken Chenault said: “I think the end result of Waldorf education is to raise our consciousness. There is a heightened consciousness of what our senses bring us from the world around us, about our feelings, about the way we relate to other people. It taught me how to think for myself, to be responsible for my decisions. Second, it made me a good listener, sensitive to the needs of others. And third, it helped establish meaningful beliefs.” It’s about learning to learn.

Mirror: You recently had a screening of Leila Conners Petersen’s film The 11th Hour [narrated and produced by Leonardo DiCaprio], and you’re hosting an event this Saturday along with the Chopra Institute to launch the Alliance for New Humanity. How do these events fit in with the Waldorf vision?

Graham: Both The 11th Hour film [a shift in consciousness towards environmental sustainability] and the Alliance for New Humanity [the deepening of human relationships towards world peace] reflect the fundamental principle behind a Waldorf curriculum: “receive the children with reverence, educate them with love, and send them forth in freedom.” Waldorf education centers and awakens the inner activity of each child. When balanced by a strong sense of community, the whole person emerges to embrace all cultures and to take responsible action to improve the world.

On Saturday, January 26 at 7 p.m., the Westside Waldorf School joins with the Chopra Institute for the west coast launch of the Alliance for New Humanity (anhglobal.org), a nonprofit organization whose mission is to harness and sustain global peace, ecological balance, and social justice. The event is free.

Westside Waldorf School, 17310 Sunset Blvd., Pacific Palisades, 310.454.7064, wswaldorf.org.

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