I have two daughters at Waldorf. My eldest spent some time at a Friends school before moving over in 2nd grade.
The Philly Waldorf School is fairly liberal when it comes to the Waldorf curriculum/philosophy. That is, teachers interpret as they see fit, some families have TV sets in their houses, and the gnomes are only allowed in the school on Thursdays.
That is to say, it’s a pretty laid back place in many ways, and welcoming to different views. The families are normal, CC and Mt Airy types – not zealots or cult members.
There are no cellphones, no computers, no Mickey Mouse t-shirts (or other corporate/logo clothes). And if your kid brings Oreos as a snack you’ll get a polite note asking you to please refrain from sending sugary snacks. The cookies are fed to the gnomes.
Of course you wouldn’t ever send Oreos, because your kid would be all over you well in advance, since they’d know the rules.
Everyone knits. Everyone plays a string instrument from 4th grade on. Everyone dances (which is about rhythm and togetherness and exercise). There may not be grades, but there is a lot of assessment – long narrative report cards with categorized performance (I don’t remember the terminology off-hand, but it’s basically grades) in a multitude of areas. There are really strong ‘specials’ – language, exercise etc. The school currently leases space on the campus of the New Convenant Church – formerly the PA School for the Deaf. It’s a gorgeous spot, and the kids spend many hours roaming the grassy campus and playing under the trees.
One of the aspects to Waldorf that wouldn’t be immediately obvious is that the faculty is very strong; they basically run the school. Which in my mind is largely a good thing. There’s no ‘headmaster’ ruling over decisions, as you might find at a Friends school. And because the kids stay with the teacher from 1st to 8th grade, there is a large incentive for everyone to figure out how to get along and to build relationships for the long haul.
Don’t tell them I said this, but Waldorf has such a unique ‘brand,’ and such a unique value proposition, that they could double the tuition and spend half of the increase on marketing to attract rich families who are well-educated on the perils of NCLB and the pressures that come with 2 hours of homework in 3rd grade from the other independent schools.
Of course they wouldn’t do that because it would be un-Waldorf, would change the school culture etc, and would dramatically decrease access to middle class families. But there is tremendous value to the education and to the community. Plus, there’s a track record of the Waldorf kids going off to Central High and other places and thriving. After 8 years of knitting and gnomes, who wouldn’t be glad to experience something different – ha!
In all seriousness, Waldorf is little known in Philly, but has attracted families from all over the area (some drive from Cherry Hill etc) and is a well-balanced, warm, inviting, and inspirational place. My family is lucky to be able to spend years of our lives learning from the teachers and the larger community. I’m sure it isn’t perfect. When we were considering the school I asked a world famous education reformer about Waldorf. He kind of chuckled, and said he had a love-hate relationship with the curriculum (this guy’s whole world is curriculum reform, and so he’s passionate on the subject). But then he told me that both his boys had gone through the Princeton Waldorf up to 8th grade, and the site of seeing a modern, 14 year old boy dancing without any self-consciousness was enough to win him over vs. the cynicism and industrial approach to learning of other schools.