Former orchard grows into school
EAST MONTPELIER – For the last 11 months parents, teachers and administrators have been renovating a former barn shed and greenhouse to turn it into a new Waldorf school.
Monday, several dozen adults and children gathered in a ceremonial circle Monday before they went in one by one to see the results of all that work and began the school year at the newly opened Grace Farm campus of the Orchard Valley School on Route 14 in Montpelier.
The building the group entered Monday bears very little resemblance to the interior of barn that once housed apples and plants. The orchards surrounding the school are the primary reminder that the 55-acre campus was once a working farm.
According to Lauren Andrews, Orchard Valley's Enrollment and Outreach Co-chair, part of the students' education at the school will involve hands-on work with some of the trees, since Waldorf education emphasizes the child's connectedness to the natural world.
The Orchard Valley School grew out of the merging of two different schools, the Three Rivers School in Berlin, which is now closed, and the Child's Garden, which remains open in Montpelier. Some of the students have had previous Waldorf education at the now-closed Green Mountain Waldorf School, which was in Wolcott.
Andrews said the new school has students from towns around East Montpelier, as well as from Washington, Moretown, Hardwick, Greensboro Bend and Danville. Current enrollment is nearly 85 students.
Waldorf education has its roots in the spiritual-scientific research of the Austrian scientist and thinker Rudolf Steiner, who developed a co-educational school system that was open to all children, with a unified 12-year program. A large part of Steiner's philosophy dictated that the teachers have primary control of the school, with a minimum interference from the state or from economic sources.
Orchard Valley's Grace Farm campus currently houses grades 1 to 5. According to Andrea Melville, the school's office administrator, as well as parent of a student at the school, the school hopes to add a grade each of the next three years until it serves grades 1 to 8. Part of the Waldorf philosophy includes having one teacher follow a group of children throughout their time in elementary and middle school. Adding three subsequent grades will allow this to happen at Orchard Valley, she said.
Kindergarten and preschool programs are offered at the school's Child's Garden campus in Montpelier.
Timothy Edgar of Plainfield, the school's first-grade teacher, formerly taught at the Green Mountain Waldorf School and also at Meadowbrook, a Rhode Island Waldorf school. He said he was drawn to teaching because of the Waldorf educational philosophy.
"I didn't go into education originally," he said, adding, "I was a gardener/farmer … moved on with my studies and that included teaching."
"I hope to stay with this group for the whole eight years," he said.
Mary Ellen Stringos of East Montpelier has two sons in Orchard Valley (Malcolm Shepler in fifth grade and Sinclair Shepler in second), and a third at U-32. She said her oldest son, Sam Shepler, felt well prepared by his previous Waldorf education at the Child's Garden and then the Green Mountain Waldorf School when he began at the large, traditional school.
"He had also played sports at East Montpelier, and he knew some of the other kids, but his Waldorf education was a very balanced program" that made the transition easy to U-32.
Like Stringos, Plainfield's Karen Storey has one child in traditional public school, an eighth grader at Twinfield Union School, and a younger child, Alex, a fifth grader at Orchard Valley.
"We were looking for a smaller class size, more personal interaction," she said of her younger child's educational experience, adding she hoped the Orchard Valley experience would "broaden his horizons."
Fifth-grader Anna Williams of South Woodbury went to public school for two years; before that she attended Green Mountain Waldorf School. She said she feels comfortable going back to Waldorf because she knows many of the students.
"I think you get to be more creative," in the Waldorf classroom, she said. She added that the creative, artistic work at the school helps influence the more traditional academic learning as well.
Julie Henderson of Calais is both a parent and supporter of the new school, having been integrally involved in the fund-raising efforts necessary to purchase the property, bought at auction slightly more than a year ago, and renovating it to meet school building codes.
According to Henderson, approximately $400,000 was raised in private loans to purchase the campus, and an additional $150,000 was raised in donations. Most of the money was used to purchase and renovate the farm, including the installation of a new septic system and thorough remodeling of the old barn. Fund-raising continues, as the school also offers financial aid to families that cannot afford the $6,000 annual tuition.
According to Lauren Andrews, nearly 50 percent of the students receive some sort of financial aid.
"We are striving to make this school accessible to everyone," Julie Henderson said. Andrews agreed, "That's part of the Waldorf philosophy."
Limited enrollment and some financial assistance is still available. Interested parents and students can get more information at the school's Web site, www.orchardvalleyschool.org.
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