KEALAKEKUA, Hawaii » Nine-year-old Joshua Barreras-Float reaches up to show off his latest creation, a colorful crocheted cap that fits snugly on his head.
"I was the first one to know how to crochet," he announced proudly. "You only had to do a special stitch and, going down, do a regular stitch. It’s fun, and it gives exercise on your fingers."
For students at Kona Pacific Public Charter School, such handiwork is a key part of the curriculum. It is the first public school in the state to offer a Waldorf education, known for "embracing the whole child, heart, hands and mind."
The trappings of modern, high-tech society are largely absent from this elementary school, on a secluded hillside above Kealakekua in South Kona. Instead, it has a fairy-tale feel to it, with brightly painted wooden cottages scattered over the grassy knoll.
Once a private Waldorf school, it shut down in 2006 because not enough students could afford to attend. It was resuscitated in 2008 with tax dollars as a public charter school, open to all, with no tuition charge. Enrollment shot up from 79 students in its first year to 157 this year, in kindergarten through sixth grade.
"The biggest difference in becoming a public school is the number of children we can serve," said Ipo Cain, a coffee farmer who is president of Kona Pacific’s local school board. "We’ve doubled the number of families. It was too hard to sustain a private school in a small agricultural community."
The charter school’s financials are solid enough that it just received approval for a loan from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development Program to expand its campus.
Based on the ideas of an Austrian philosopher, Waldorf education is designed to match children’s developmental stages, stoke imagination and curiosity, and help them explore all their talents, even ones they didn’t know they had, like crocheting.
"One of the primary things I hope our children come away with is the joy of learning so the rest of their life, they will be really inspired and curious to seek out knowledge," said Usha Kotner, who left a career as a lawyer to direct the charter school. "The capacity to learn is always there. It is just whether they want to or not."
There are no textbooks in the classrooms. Instead, the children make their own, with guidance from their teachers. The younger ones work with beeswax crayons, rather than the usual petroleum-based ones, in keeping with the school’s commitment to using natural products as much as possible. The third-graders are the school’s bakers, learning math with recipes that call for them to convert ingredients like "18 teaspoons" to tablespoons and bake at 350 degrees for "1,500 seconds."
Kona Pacific is considered a high-poverty school, with 41 percent of students receiving subsidized lunch. Meals feature plenty of locally grown produce. The garden and composting operation are so effective that 150 students and 25 staff members generate just one can of garbage a day.
"There’s a lot of similarities with Hawaiian traditional culture and Waldorf: teaching through stories, through doing, through respect," said teacher Katie Fransen. "That’s why it’s a really natural blend."
Still, the shift to pubic school standards has not been totally smooth. Waldorf schools don’t start formal academics until first grade, and their students might lag on state tests in the early years. Kona Pacific’s scores have been below average. And Waldorf traditionally doesn’t introduce typing until middle school, which posed a problem this spring when the school had to administer the Hawaii State Assessment, now entirely online. It had to borrow computers, and some students had never used a mouse before.
"We knew that testing was part of the bargain in becoming a public school, but not online testing," Kotner said. "The kids get so stressed out. It’s antithetical to what we’re trying to do, which is set up a really nurturing environment."