Getting back to basics at Madrona

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Under the attention of teacher Lori Levari and parent volunteers, a group of Madrona School second graders sat in a circle, knitting pencil bags from bright orange yarn.

As they manipulated the thick wool with wooden needles, the students were also developing persistence and stimulating new neuro-pathways between their left and right brain hemispheres, said Missi Goss, Madrona School’s Enrollment coordinator.

“Of course, we don’t say all that to the kids,” Goss said. “They just get the satisfaction of working with the natural materials and creating something beautiful.”

Threads of education science and folksy wisdom are intertwined in the curriculum at Madrona, a nonprofit private school that celebrates its 10th birthday Saturday. Madrona is one of handful of schools in Washington that follow the Waldorf philosophy of education, which emphasizes an integration of subjects, social interaction and sensual learning. As many schools are racing to keep abreast of technology, Madrona staff strive to cultivate a calmer environment.

The familiar hum of computers and glow of monitors are absent in its classrooms.

“A lot of learning doesn’t have enough time for digestion,” said Madrona teacher Kerry Grant, “Waldorf really makes the space for digestion and absorption.”

The school began with just one kindergarten class, housed in a room in the Eagle Harbor Congregational Church building. Over the last decade it has quietly flourished on Madison Avenue, now enrolling more than 100 students, grades kindergarten through eighth, and offering sessions for parents with tots.

Today Madrona has seven classrooms tucked into the church building and another for preschoolers next door in a two-story house that also serves as the school’s administration building. Behind the school, kids have the run of a grassy yard, several parent-built play structures, a garden patch and a few massive sand boxes.

On Thursday a class of kindergartners was making the most of a cool but sunny morning, excavating with shovels in a sandbox and riding the swings that hang beneath an apple tree. For preschoolers and kindergartners, play plays a key role in their development. Teachers provide a safe environment for the children to explore their physical and social surroundings, Goss said.

The relaxed atmosphere continues inside. Rooms for younger grade levels are homelike, with stout tables, play kitchens and lofts lined with pillows. Kindergartners bake bread, sing songs and hear stories from their teachers.

In fact, Madrona teachers use storytelling to deliver lessons to student of all ages. Often they draw stories from world literature, fairy tales, Bible stories and norse and Greek mythology. Students rewrite the lessons on large, bound sheets of paper and surround them with artwork to create their own colorful textbooks.

In the morning, classes begin with a two-hour block period devoted to a single subject, with subjects alternated every few weeks. The rest of the day is devoted to individual subjects, including math, English, science, humanities and geography.

Madrona students begin Spanish ssons in Kindergarten and are later introduced to Japanese. The arts are emphasized at all grade levels, through painting, drama and crafts. Each student is introduced to a stringed instrument in third grade and plays in a string ensemble. As the grades progress the classrooms become more structured, as does the curriculum.

Madrona has so far graduated two classes of eighth graders. Goss said the Madrona alums have done well in high school academically.

“What makes me even happier is that they seem to make good social decisions,” Goss said. “They have a really strong set of aptitudes and a sense of who they are.”

This year three of Madrona’s graduating eighth graders decided to continue in the Waldorf system at a high school level, at Seattle Waldorf School.

Because the Waldorf method stresses students learning at their own pace, some students won’t be at the same level as their public school counterparts in some subjects. In reading, for example some students pick up book sooner than others, and those that

Sometimes that means a nine-year-old student won’t be reading at the same level as others and teachers don’t pressure them to keep pace. Goss said those students usually become ravenous readers by sixth grade, and in the meantime excel at other subjects.

By the same paradigm, students are sometimes ahead of their public school counterparts in areas such as math, where addition, subtraction, multiplication and division are introduced together in the first grade. Still the patient approach is enough to disconcert some parents.

“It makes some parents nervous,” Goss said.

While staying true to its philosophy, Madrona has been working to raise its profile lately.

Earlier this year it brought on prolific local writer and gardener Ann Lovejoy to serve as administrative director, as well as Japanese teacher and musician Aiko Shimada. The school is also hoping to reach more families with tuition assistance packages (annual tuition for first through fifth grade runs $8,500 annually.)

With more grade-school students expected, Madrona will likely have to expand in the next five years, Goss said.

“We’re pretty much bursting at the seams.”

Madrona School is online at

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