Garden City's Waldorf School takes 'no-tech' approach in lower grades

The Waldorf School in Garden City is cutting against the societal trend and shunning technology for elementary school students. They have no technology, encourage a

The Waldorf School in Garden City is cutting against the societal trend and shunning technology for elementary school students. They have no technology, encourage a "no screen" policy at home and go outside in any weather. Shot on Feb. 4, 2014. (Credit: Newsday / Alejandra Villa)

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Ariella Kissin's family has never owned a television. The eighth-grader doesn't have a smartphone, tablet or laptop either -- and says she doesn't feel she's missing out.

She is mystified by how peers in her neighborhood in West Hempstead stare, trance-like, at screens day in and day out. "They are always on their iPhones or iPods, even when they are outside," she said. "It's sad."

Kissin, 14, is a student at The Waldorf School of Garden City, a private institution with an out-of-the-box approach to technology that is radically different from most public and private schools, where computers and Smartboards proliferate.

The school, with 353 students in preschool through 12th grade, bans technology in its preschool and elementary school and gradually introduces it in middle school. In the high school grades, technology usage is fully integrated into learning.

Waldorf claims to be the fastest-growing independent educational movement in the world, with 123 schools in the United States serving 19,000 students and 1,000 schools in another 60 countries. All generally follow the "no-tech" approach in the elementary grades, said Beverly Amico of the Association of Waldorf Schools of North America.

Montessori schools, generally speaking, also have shunned the push to include technology, but there are few others.

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"It's hard to swim against the stream, and that's what we are doing," said Carol Proctor, associate director of admissions at the Garden City Waldorf school. "Modern culture is going one way, and we are saying, 'We need to think about this.' "

Until sixth grade, there are no computers, Smartboards, iPads, laptops or televisions. Teachers and students stick with traditional, old-fashioned blackboards and chalk. The school encourages families to follow the "no-tech" philosophy at home and to introduce such gadgets in limited doses as children get older.

The approach enhances students' creativity, analytical skills, problem-solving abilities, attention spans and social skills, Waldorf educators said.

"People like the back-to-basics approach," said Christine Bleecker, the school's director of admissions. Her daughter is 4 and has never watched television, seen a movie, played a video game or used a computer, iPad or laptop.

The school says it is getting results. Enrollment in the high school is at record levels, administrators said, and the school is attracting attention from as far away as China and Korea.

It was founded in 1947, nearly two decades after the first Waldorf school in the United States opened in 1928 in Manhattan. The founder of the movement, Austrian philosopher Rudolph Steiner, started his first school in 1919 for the children of workers in a Waldorf cigarette factory in Stuttgart, Germany, after World War I left Europe devastated.

Steiner believed a new kind of comprehensive school was needed to address the "whole child" -- physical, intellectual, social and spiritual -- and teach them in developmentally appropriate stages. His first school broke conventions, allowing boys and girls to be in the same classroom and admitting children regardless of their family's economic status.

Annual tuition at the Garden City school ranges from $10,900 for nursery school to $23,300 for grades 8 through 12. Need-based tuition assistance is available, with awards determined by a committee appointed by the school's board of trustees.

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Waldorf schools emphasize hands-on experiential learning, creativity, collaborative relationships and physical movement combined with appreciation of nature -- students go outside every day no matter the weather.

One school, in Los Altos, Calif., is attracting attention because of its surprising clientele in view of the low-tech approach: the children of Silicon Valley executives and employees of such companies as Google, Apple, Yahoo and eBay.

Students bake, knit, weave and garden in addition to studying the traditional subjects. One recent day in the Garden City school, ninth-graders worked at spinning wheels, turning raw wool into yarn as their teacher read from a 19th century novel.

The Waldorf schools contend society's emphasis on electronics and screen time is destroying children's abilities to focus and maintain attention spans, think deeply, use their imagination, interact with other human beings and spend quality time with their families and others.

"We need them to be in this world before they are in the virtual world," said Janet Kane, who chairs the Garden City school's early childhood program. "They must be out in the snow, feeling the cold, digging in the garden, picking up those worms, walking in the crunchy leaves."

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In general, people "don't even think of those things because we are in such a rush for the iPad," she said.


Developing dexterity

The school says its graduates develop traits such as intellectual dexterity that serve them well -- including in the fields of technology or science.

Sam Resnick, 18, a senior from Rockville Centre, gained early admission to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a premiere technology research university.

He said he didn't watch TV until he was 7 or 8, and credited the lack of time spent in front of screens with allowing him to develop his creativity and skills ranging from carpentry to playing piano. He's currently building his own car -- a 1968 Pontiac GTO he is putting together from the parts of two junked cars.

"Not using technology in the lower grades does not mean technology is totally out of the curriculum and the philosophy," said Resnick, who now owns an iPhone. "It's not holding us back. If anything, we are more adept at using it. We are introduced to it at a time when we are more mature. I use technology. I don't let it use me."

His father, David Resnick, acting commissioner of the New York City Department of Design and Construction, said the Waldorf approach has helped his son avoid obsessive electronics use.

"It's like a comedy," David Resnick said. Teenagers will "be sitting next to each other and texting each other instead of talking to each other. It's very strange."

Waldorf administrators said they aren't worried the low-tech approach will leave their students unprepared. "Technology is really meant to be simple," Kane said. "It's not like it takes a brain surgeon to figure it out."


Some educators disagree

Some educators disagree with Waldorf's take on technology. Ann Flynn, director of education technology for the National School Boards Association, is among those who believe there is a "moral imperative" to provide computers and other technology to students, including in low-income areas.

"The technology is tearing down walls for kids in communities that just had no idea how to interact with other parts of the country," she said. "In the hands of a top teacher it is an amazing tool."

In public schools on Long Island and across the state, the issue is not the presence of Smartboards, computers, laptops and iPads at all grade levels, but how to find the money to buy more, said Roberta Gerold, president of the Suffolk County School Superintendents Association and superintendent of the Middle Country school district.

Gerold believes such technology generally is beneficial. Public schools are almost compelled to use it, because it is an intrinsic part of students' lives. "That's their world these days," she said.

But many Waldorf parents and educators believe people are buying into hype about technology.

"Any time a young child spends in front of a screen of any description, whether it be TV, computer, iPad, we believe that detracts from the healthy, whole development of the child," Proctor said. "It encourages very passive physical habits."

Michael O'Donoghue, headmaster of Holy Child Academy in Old Westbury and a former Waldorf teacher who has a master's degree in Waldorf education from Adelphi University, said, "I think there is a lot of damage going on" in children's development due to excessive screen time.

"Twenty years from now, we are going to look back and say we were crazy," O'Donoghue said. "We have to protect kids from the onslaught."


Enrollment passes 100

Waldorf officials said enrollment in their high school passed 100 for the first time in the 2012-13 school year. The number of nursery school classes for 3-year-olds rose from one to two in the past five years, and there now is a waiting list. The school hopes to add a third class soon.

In December, 40 educators from China toured the school, one of only two schools in the United States they visited.

Students from China, Korea, South Africa, Brazil, France and other countries have enrolled, living with host families during the school year, Bleecker said.

Felicia Busto-Fraim, 44, a former assistant district attorney in Westchester County, has sent all three of her daughters there from preschool on, including one who graduated last year. She said the family had watched some TV with their eldest daughter, Isabella, but then went "cold turkey" and cut it out completely when they enrolled her in Waldorf at age 4.

"We are a big Apple family. I love Apple. I have a laptop. I have an iPhone. We love it, but not when they are young," Busto-Fraim said. "I really believe it has the potential to stunt their development. The child will be much more focused if they are not constantly sitting in front of a screen."

Kissin, the eighth-grader, said her family has a computer, but she rarely uses it and only for schoolwork. Sometimes she feels a little out of the loop, she said, such as when people are talking about watching the Super Bowl on television.

"But I deal with it," she said. "I don't think it's wrong to have and use technology. But I think it is really replacing us connecting face to face with another person."

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