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Waldorf seven venture into high school; First freshman class tests the waters for expanded program

The region's newest high school doesn't have many of the things common in other schools. It doesn't have rows of desks, Regents exams or even many students.

But Aurora Waldorf High School has a committed group of supporters who believe it has something much more important: a bright future.

Located on 13 acres in the rolling hills of rural West Falls, the private school is conducting a pilot high school program with a freshman class of seven.

Founded in 1991, Aurora Waldorf quietly carved a niche for itself as an educational base for more 220 elementary school-age children from throughout the area.

Two decades later, the school has taken the ultimate plunge with a step-by-step approach to a high school, beginning with the pilot freshman class envisioned to develop into a full-blown institution as the students advance each academic year.

"We understand the economy is tough but feel this is the right time because our enrollment is strong. We feel it can only enhance our enrollment in the lower grades," said Jean-Pierre Koenig, president of Aurora Waldorf's board of trustees. "We felt this is working out and is a great way, in a sense, to complete the Waldorf education in Western New York."

Waldorf administrators and Koenig say the grass-roots effort has been in the making for at least eight years.

"It has been a long process, and some of our teachers have done Waldorf training for the high school on their own time," Koenig said. "This is going to grow."

The fledgling high school is housed in one classroom -- a 33-by-54-foot room in the back of a red brick building that had housed the now-closed West Falls Elementary School.

The school says it can comfortably accommodate ninth and 10th grades with its 39,000-square-foot building. Beyond that, it would need to launch a capital campaign, now under consideration by the board of trustees.

The school's freshman class is immersed in a nontraditional setting -- learning from each other and three teachers. With German as the foreign language, it emphasizes the arts, music and performing arts in addition to core subjects such as English, history, science and math.

"It's cool, and it's fun," said Grant DiNies of Elma, who had planned to attend Iroquois High School but then decided to stay at Aurora Waldorf when it started a high school last fall.

The Waldorf freshmen often work in small groups with one teacher at a time. Their classroom also doubles for other uses, sometimes as an art studio or for making costumes or designing masks for a play. Instead of rows of desks, the room has tables and a blue, circular couch.

A kitchen area provides space for baking. While making German Christmas cookies, students had to speak German and follow a German-worded recipe.

The school has no Regents exams, honor rolls or detention. Administrators report no problems with the ban on cell phones or text messaging.

It also has not much of a crowd.

"The only bad thing about going to a school of seven people is you don't get to meet many new people," said Michele Kazmark of East Otto. "We hang out with the same people."

Peter Schultz, whose mother works at Waldorf, said his friends are envious that Waldorf students get to go on many field trips.

"Because we have such a small group, we can go on these field trips on short notice and go by car," said Katie Mandych, whose mother also is active at the school.

The Waldorf freshmen helped do timber framing and build a small cabin in Zoar Valley. They have milked cows, drawn still life, sewn cloaks for a drama production and experienced life at an organic farm. They also are active in community service throughout the year, having worked for the Meals on Wheels program, as well. Last winter in their school backyard, they could be found sledding, playing football in the snow or cross-country skiing or practicing a team sport.

Individual attention from the teachers -- trained educators who include the students' mothers -- seems to be a plus.

"I like how our parents are our teachers, too," said Zach Linder, who attended Waldorf for some of his elementary schooling, then moved to Ireland for sixth and seventh grades before recently returning to Aurora Waldorf.

Performing plays, learning to play instruments and having an active sports program, albeit small, are part of the deal, too.

"We want the kids to know themselves through this curriculum and not just cram for tests -- to better understand the Earth and find their place in it," said Karen Mandych, a parent and high school liaison. "We want them to become flexible thinkers for difficult issues that come before them in their lives."

Aurora Waldorf draws students from the Northtowns to the Southern Tier. It is betting that its high school will catch on with its current student base and lure new students.

Its educational approach allows for greater flexibility in what the students are taught and experience -- and greater flexibility in pacing their learning.

Katie Andrews, who teaches math and science to the freshmen and doubles as their sports coach, says the Waldorf philosophy challenges the children to have a different perspective. "You have to be a bit of a risk taker, and yet also be able to embrace things in a different way," she said.

For the current year, high school tuition is $9,025. Despite the struggling economy, school supporters believe the high school is a risk worth taking.

e-mail: krobinson@buffnews.com

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