SANDPOINT — Michael Soulé has led a life filled with environmental education and academic adventure. His journey now brings him to the Sandpoint Waldorf School, where he steps into the post of administrator for what he describes as “a little miracle” of a school.
First on his to-do list is to build upon what the teaching staff and former administrator Susan Prez already have done to generate a strong local reputation for Waldorf education in the community.
“This is an amazing little school — one of the most successful Waldorf schools in the country,” Soulé said.
He is in a good position to make that appraisal, having first encountered the non-profit educational group in 1980, when there were only 20 Waldorf schools in the U.S. That number has since grown due to parental interest in the unique teaching system, to the point where, worldwide, there are now almost 1,000 schools in 60 different countries.
The Waldorf philosophy of education started in 1919, when the Waldorf-Astoria cigarette factory in Stuttgart, Germany, began bringing in lecturers and teachers to offset the otherwise mundane environment of its workforce. The program was so successful that the workers requested a like-minded school for their own children.
“It was a completely new approach to education,” said Soulé. “The children went to school and then they went home, but everything else was different.”
His own background has been equally eclectic. Schooled in the field of civil engineering, Soulé was swept up in the environmental movement during its formative years in the 1970s and went on to develop a regional teacher support center at Portland State University, specializing in the areas of recycling and energy efficiency.
“As a result, I spent a lot of time in schools doing teacher training,” he said. “It was there that I really got my feet into education.”
Soulé subsequently started an environmental magazine titled ‘Clearing’ and helped form an organization called Children of the Green Earth, which fanned out to create contacts in Latin America, Asia and India and resulted in the planting of more than half a million trees over a four-year-period.
A self-described “broad learner,” Soulé became interested in new trends in education during this same time.
“I was looking for the most holistic, environmental education you could find and I came across Waldorf,” he explained.
In 1986, he was named administrator at the Seattle Waldorf School and was instrumental in building that program from its initial K-4 offerings up to a complete K-12 school with about 350 students over the five years he was there.
Having reached that goal, Soulé and his wife sold their home and took their family on a yearlong trek around the world, with stops in Europe, Africa, Turkey and Egypt along the way. Wherever possible, he looked up Waldorf schools and deepened his understanding of how the integrative, hands-on approach to learning worked in other countries and cultures.
After another detour into the non-profit world, where he formed the international environmental group Earth Corps, Soulé found himself drawn once again to classroom education.
His renewed connection led to the formation of a second Waldorf school in Seattle and a term as one of three people working in an executive capacity for the Association of Waldorf Schools in North America. When the call came about the administrative position in Sandpoint – a place he knew very little about – Soulé researched the opportunity and found that the school here was notable for a few reasons.
Not only did Sandpoint Waldorf School boast what the new administrator called “the lowest tuition rates of any Waldorf school in the country” — averaging $5,000-a-year and offering sliding scales for some families based on income — but also the highest student population, per capita, of almost any other affiliated school in the U.S.
“There are about 130 students here,” Soulé said. “In a community this size, that represents a huge endeavor.”
From the outside, Waldorf’s educational strengths can sometimes be perceived as weaknesses to those who have not seen them in action, Soulé noted. For instance, the curriculum’s approach to integrating the arts into multiple subject areas has led some to describe it as an “art school.” Similarly, a sequential and integrative approach to reading and language arts creates other misunderstandings.
In both cases, learning is based in oral tradition and storytelling in the earliest grades, which, according to the administrator, leads quite naturally to a love of language and a natural progression toward writing and reading skills later on. Waldorf education, he said, takes all subjects out of the abstract and puts them into actual practice.
“It’s not a series of methodologies to solve,” Soulé said, using math as an example. “A linear approach would be to say ‘2 plus 2 equals 4.’ We all know that. But we train them to be creative and ask ‘What is 4? How many ways are there to get there?’”
In like fashion, history is taught primarily through the study of biography as a way to both personalize the topic and provide useful examples of how other individuals navigated their own lives.
“Hopefully, our children are confronted with the fact that ‘I am writing my life,’” the administrator said. “It’s not something that’s happening to me – I am writing it.”
Part of what distinguishes Waldorf education from other opportunities, Soulé pointed out, is the school’s emphasis on student initiative, compassionate action and creative thinking. Also unique, in a classroom sense, is the way the schools “loop” students and educators, so that children work with the same teacher from Grade 1 through Grade 8, in combination with other instructors who teach things such as language, music, movement and woodworking.
The crucible for the effectiveness of this approach has been how well students acclimate and perform after leaving the Waldorf setting.
“They did a study on Waldorf graduates in the U.S. and 96 percent of them go on to college – that’s a high rate,” Soulé said. “There are a lot of factors involved in that. One of them is that we attract parents who are interested in their child’s education and are willing to learn along with them.
“Education is not one-size-fits-all,” he continued. “Waldorf represents a different approach and a choice for parents.”
Soulé is the first to admit that collaborative education – like democracy; like life itself — is a “messy process.”
“Every child has come in to change the world — our role is to help them develop that and express their genius,” he said. “We want young people who will get out and muck around in the messiness. We want them to come to a situation or a problem and respond to it with creativity and imagination.
“That, to me, is a living education.”
For more information, visit www.sandpoint.org/waldorf