Featuring Locally Grown Public Schools: Ready for Rigor at Community School for Creative Education

Dr. Ida Oberman, left, and Monique Brinson.

It is almost 8:30 am in the Community School for Creative Education (CSCE) courtyard when the drumming starts. First, it’s Kevin Veillette, a TK/Kindergarten teacher. All of the 250 students from the school present that day are here, from TK-8th grade, and they begin to circle up and recite a mantra, which begins: This our school. Let peace live here. Let the rooms be filled with contentment. Let love abide here: Love for one another …

After some teacher-led stretching, singing and announcements, like about the upcoming harvest party, principal Monique Brinson has the drum. As she moves about the circle hitting the drum, the students respond with claps. She has their attention. “Good morning Community scholars!” Brinson gives off a lot of energy as she walks through the circle and speaks in a loud, confident voice. She has to — BART trains on tracks half a block away come by every few minutes. No one seems to notice or get distracted. As she moves from topic to topic and around the circle, she beats the drum. “Follow my body, follow my voice.” Students respond with claps.

Brinson talks about a child who was injured before school this morning on the playground and encourages the students to play safely. She mentions some trash in the courtyard garden planters, and asks why no one picked it up. Then she praises a student who the day before had picked up trash without being asked because she knew it was the right thing to do. Brinson invites her to lunch. “Sometimes you get rewarded for doing the right thing when nobody’s watching,” she says. Before the students exit to class, there is singing, call-and-response in Spanish and English, and lots of encouragement. “We think, we feel, we will.” Students then walk off to their classrooms, where teachers greet them as they walk through the door with a handshake or a hug. “The morning circle is when the whole school comes together,” Brinson said during our interview. “We do grounding activities that open up the heart, and it’s a unique way to see what makes us so special.”

Mornings at CSCE, a locally grown Oakland public school working with partners around the globe, are a little different from most schools, as unique as the school itself. Now 10 years old, CSCE is the first and only public urban Waldorf school in the country and is located charter right on International Boulevard in the San Antonio neighborhood. Waldorf schools, which are celebrating their 100th year of existence next year, can be found all over the world, and most notably in areas of high need, including the West Bank, Medellin, Colombia, Beirut, Lebanon and the segregated Townships of South Africa.

An important tenet of Waldorf education is “experiential” education and an integration of the arts. “At the heart of Waldorf education is that of course academics matters, but it’s not the only thing and it’s not the first thing,” said Dr. Ida Oberman, CSCE’s Executive Director and founder. “There’s a focus on the head, heart and hands.” The heart is especially important. “Learning through the heart, so that education is an art and teaching through recitation, through songs, music, through painting and through movement, the kinetic,” Oberman said. “Movement is critical and has been a very deep focus of Waldorf education from the start.”

While the arts thrive at CSCE, they are by design in support of the school’s academics. The school embraced Zaretta Hammond’s Ready for Rigor framework, where a child is seen a member of a community, not on their own, and more as a partner in their education than someone on the receiving end of lessons. And their imagination is used to build knowledge, motivate and give them courage to figure out complex math problems. Singing helps build academic vocabulary. The circle helps students feel safe and come together as a community, the individual greetings by their teachers help them feel known. All this prepares students to learn.

The school is thriving: the recent SBAC results point to double-digit gains for all students, as well as African American and English Learner students. CSCE serves a higher percentage of special education students than OUSD (and most charters) while outperforming the district for this student group as well as for African Americans and English Learners. CSCE is among the most diverse schools in the state. In the past eight years the school has become even more diverse, increasing its percentage of English Language Learners, special education students and students who receive free or reduced price lunch.

Oberman is a Dutch native, who grew up in Germany, and herself a graduate of a Waldorf school, as is one of the teachers at the school. Oberman said she felt different and afraid as a foreigner and language learner in her growing up years and Waldorf education helped her feel welcome and like she had allies. She was inspired to work with others to build a strong public urban Waldorf model and to begin by starting her own Waldorf school in a community where students felt displaced and vulnerable: Oakland.

Getting a Waldorf school started in Oakland, however, was no easy task. Before launching the school, Oberman partnered with Oakland Community Organizations and surveyed the community on what they were looking for in a school. Emma Paulino, the respected OCO organizer helped introduce Oberman to local parents who helped her understand what they were looking for in a school and if a Waldorf school could really thrive there. Hammond, a former colleague of Oberman’s and a world-renowned expert in culturally responsive teaching, was an important thought partner as the vision for the school took shape. The CSCE leaders are now regularly invited to share this framework at conferences with other educators.

But the school’s charter petition was denied three times before it was finally approved by the Alameda County Board of Education. There were doubts that the unorthodox Waldorf method could fit in an urban context and appeal to children of color.

After the charter was finally approved, the school was located on the Howard Elementary school campus, miles away from San Antonio neighborhood it was designed to serve and difficult for students to reach and not accessible by public transportation. In order to secure the school’s current location, families organized and fought for the community-based school to be located in the community it was designed to serve. In the years since, the school community has also had to fight off other efforts by the district to move it elsewhere.

After the students arrive in their classrooms, Brinson walks the halls and checks in with each class, speaking with students and teachers about what they’re working on and how it’s going. She does this a few times per day.

Brinson, an educator with over 25 years of experience who has dedicated her career to working with the most marginalized students and for the past thirteen years was an OUSD principal, is now in her second year at the school. “I thought, ‘this is the place for me’ and I mean that with my soul,” Brinson said. “For 25 years I’ve been in the game as an educator, and in my 23rd year I came home. All the things I have built, as a teacher and an administrator, could come to fruition in this community.”