Patrick Ebel was a middle-school math teacher when he learned about Waldorf education where art, music, drama, movement and storytelling are used in teaching academics to children.
“I quit my job so I could home-school my kids using Waldorf methods,” Ebel said. “I never looked back.”
This fall, Ebel will be sending his kids, now 8 and 11, to the new Juniper Ridge Community School, a Grand Junction charter school modeled on Waldorf philosophy and education.
The first Waldorf school was founded in Germany in 1919 by Rudolf Steiner, a philosopher who believed in presenting subjects to children through direct experience, and in a way designed to speak specifically to a child’s developmental stage.
Waldorf education addresses the three-fold human being: the head (intellect), the heart (feelings) and hand (physical).
Waldorf schools are traditionally private and tuition-based, though many charter schools have been founded in the United States based on the philosophy and methodology.
Ebel and other Grand Valley parents founded Juniper Ridge Community School, which will open Aug. 12, with grades kindergarten through sixth grade. Each year, the school plans to add another grade up to 12th grade.
Charter schools have their own board of directors who set policy and are responsible for the day-to-day operation of the school. Charter schools receive public funding which allows the school to be free, while offering another school alternative in the district.
“Most kids that go to charters would have gone elsewhere — they want something we don’t offer,” said Ron Roybal, director of academic options with Mesa County Valley School District 51. “A charter school enhances the district’s portfolio in what we’re able to offer in the way of choice.
District charters like Juniper Ridge are monitored by the local school district, while state charters, such as Caprock Academy are overseen by the state.
As a district charter, “we’re able to monitor the school to ensure it’s compliant with legal mandates,” in regards to state standards and testing, Roybal said.
For now, the school will be located on the grounds of the former Caprock Academy, 640 24 1/2 Road.
“We’re looking for a permanent location,” with land where the school can someday build a garden, Ebel said.
Waldorf focuses on one main subject at a time, teaching in two-hour blocks every morning for three weeks. Other subjects augment the main lesson and might include handwork classes, music and foreign language.
“We don’t use textbooks. Kids receive direct instruction and they record and illustrate what they are learning in their own books,” Ebel said. “Children are taught how to draw and write neatly.”
Storytelling is a major component in conveying lessons — a teaching method that encourages students to be imaginative by creating pictures in their head, Ebel said.
Academics are not emphasized in kindergarten or preschool like in traditional school, Ebel said.
Waldorf philosophy believes children ought to be more focused in their bodies during those early years — thus, reading phonics are not taught until second semester of first grade.
In most schools “kids are not allowed to be kids,” Ebel said. “We believe childhood should be protected as long as possible.
“Kids come to this world naturally curious — they want to learn.”
Waldorf education seeks to preserve that innate curiosity, advocates say.
Already, 134 students are enrolled in the first Juniper Ridge class to start this fall. Maximum enrollment is limited to 180 students.
“We’re sending our children to Juniper Ridge Community School because we really believe in art and nature-based education to teach to the whole child,” Grand Junction resident Leah Pabst said.
She said she and her husband believe traditional schools put too much emphasis on accumulating information, and not enough on creativity and imagination.
“We feel to be successful on the world stage, kids need more than that. They need problem-solving skills, creativity and innovation, and they need to know how to get along well with other people,” Pabst said. “We’re extremely excited about (Juniper Ridge).”
Krista Kuncir-McGill is sending her first-grade son to the school and said she also plans to enroll her 4-year-old daughter when she’s older.
The Grand Junction mom emphasized the importance of establishing long-term relationships as a factor in choosing the school.
“We want our children and family to be part of a community; we want that continuity of attending school with the same group of students through high school,” she said.
Ebel, who taught math and science for four years at Bookcliff Middle School, is the administrative director (principal) of Juniper Ridge and Donald Samson in director of curriculum and instruction. Samson is a certified Waldorf teacher who taught 19 years at Shining Mountain Waldorf School in Boulder.
“His job will be to guide and mentor our teachers,” Ebel said.
“We’re hiring (9) local teachers and we’re paying for their training to attend the Rudolf Steiner College in California. We put a large premium on supporting our teachers.”
To start, there will be two kindergarten classes of 18 students each. First through sixth grades will consist of one class each, capped at 24 students per class.
For more information, call 970-639-0884 or visit juniperridgeschool.org.