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Interest growing in alternative education

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Waldorf and Montessori Schools set to expand in coming years

In the four years since the Grace Christian Montessori School and the Alta Lake School opened their doors in Whistler there has been increasing interest in alternative education among local parents.

In both, enrolment is higher than ever for the coming school year.

The Montessori school was full by April this year, with between 35 and 40 kids.

All other students for the 2002-2003 year have been put on a waiting list. In the past enrolment was never filled until the end of August.

Likewise, the Alta Lake School, which adheres to the Waldorf guidelines, is set to expand from 25 students to roughly 40 in the fall.

It now offers classes up to Grade 4.

"I think that people are a bit disillusioned right now with the public school system, with government cutbacks and the increasing number of students in the classroom," said Patti-Jean Lima, founder of the Grace Christian Montessori School in Whistler.

A Pemberton mother who is trying to set up a Waldorf school in her town points to other problems in the public school system which make independent schools more attractive to parents.

"It’s a big assembly line for funneling kids through," said Sarinda Hoilett.

She points to the large ratios of teachers to students, increased awareness of bullying in the schools and teachers spending more classroom time disciplining and keeping order rather than actually teaching.

These problems have enticed her and others in the gateway community to explore other possibilities, specifically Waldorf education.

It’s not so much the shortcomings of the public system that have parents looking elsewhere, said one of the founders of the Alta Lake School in Whistler. Rather, it’s the need for other educational choices to complement different ways of learning. One system alone cannot do that, she said.

"We all learn differently," said Michelle Kirkegaard, principal of the Alta Lake School.

"We’re all looking for different things. We’re looking for something that fits us more comfortably."

Both schools came from humble beginnings, springing up in the community as the same time in 1998.

Kirkegaard recalls coming to Whistler from Colorado at that time and looking to continue Waldorf education for her daughter, who had gone through a Waldorf school from ages two and a half to five.

Four families gathered together and began home schooling their five children.

Now the Alta Lake School has grown beyond the boundaries of the house on Alta Lake Road.

They have recently presented Whistler council with a plan to rent a portion of the Spruce Grove Community building for two years to accommodate their burgeoning and bustling school community.

Ultimately they would like to see the school established in the old Alta Lake School near Chaplinville, returning it to its former function and preserving the historical aspects of the school.

The physical constraint of their current location means fewer children can get the Waldorf experience in Whistler.

"We actually do have a few that want to come into the grades and we didn’t have space, so it’s our space that would be turning people away," said Kirkegaard.

Their situation is almost mirrored in the Montessori school.

Lima has been teaching Whistler kids through the Montessori method for as long as the Alta Lake School has been teaching the Waldorf method.

Originally two small classes at Our Lady of the Mountains Catholic Church could meet the demand in Whistler. But interest has grown to such an extent that Lima is now forced to put children on waiting lists due to class sizes.

While she is pleased with the current location and has been looking at adding classes there on different days, provided the Church agrees, she admits sharing the space can sometimes be a little troublesome in terms of setting up and dismantling the class each day.

Currently the classes offered run for children ages 3 to 6.

Parents pleased with the Montessori method have talked about expanding the school.

"It could grow and parents are in fact interested in looking at a private school, going beyond kindergarten and into the elementary grades," said Lima.

This all depends on parent involvement, financial backing and finding or building a suitable site.

Both schools are non-profit organizations relying on fees, fund-raising and government assistance to stay afloat.

The different educational styles and methods developed within the last 100 years, independently of each other.

The first Waldorf School opened in 1919 in Stuttgart, Germany under the direction an Austrian philosopher/scientist/artist named Rudolph Steiner.

The school was for the children of the employees of the Waldorf-Astoria cigarette factory.

The distinctive style of education which first began there has now spread to over 800 schools throughout the world.

One of the phrases used to describe the Waldorf style is learning through "the head, the heart and the hands."

Kirkegaard said that every child can benefit from this holistic approach to learning.

"I think if you have a whole body experience, if you learn something innately by doing with you hands, by moving with your body, by thinking with your head rather than just coming at your intellect all the time, I think it could only benefit everyone," she said.

Kirkegaard points to knitting as a learning activity, which combines this teaching philosophy.

When children knit they are doing something with their hands at the same time as stimulating their minds mathematically by counting stitches and rows.

The other defining aspect of a Waldorf school is the connection to the arts, imagination and fantasy.

"It’s very magical," said Kirkegaard.

"It’s keeping children in their child-like state as long as possible through arts and music and dance."

This differs from the Montessori method, which encourages imagination but bases it on reality first.

"Whatever we tell them is what they believe," said Lima, who does not adhere to fantasy-based education.

Maria Montessori was the first woman in Italy to qualify as a physician, where she developed an interest in the diseases of children.

She began testing out her theories in early childhood education in Rome with the establishment of a children’s house in 1907 that had been built as part of a slum redevelopment.

Her system is routed in the idea that children can have "freedom within limits" and they can explore that freedom through the senses and tactile materials.

At a young age Lima said children learn best by simply soaking in their environment.

"They are in an absorbent period for learning, rather than being taught," she said, describing how each child works at his or her own pace independently, separately of their guides and peers at Montessori.

"Anything they do we refer to as work rather than play."

This helps to foster an independent child, she said.

The other major difference from the Waldorf program is the connection to the Christian faith.

The lessons progress in accordance with the liturgical year and are based on the parables of love and protection and the Kingdom of God.

Lima also runs Montessori schools in Squamish and Pemberton although the numbers aren’t as big as in Whistler.

The Waldorf School is also burgeoning in those communities and in Pemberton there may be up to a dozen kids starting in a home-based school this coming fall.

"I think it’s pretty earth-based," said Sarinda Hoilett, one of the potential founders.

"Many people living in Pemberton are trying to get away from the urban scene."