Of politics and demons

Politics – and demons – are said to be behind an exodus of students and staff from a Kelowna private school.

Upwards of 40 students, out of a student body of about 125, left Kelowna Waldorf School last semester. That followed the firing of the school's principal, resignation of the majority of its board of trustees, and several teachers quitting.

The Lower Mission school offers programs for children as young as 18 months, up to a Grade 8 education. 

Dan Ryder, an associate professor at UBC Okanagan, had been a parent at the school for seven years, but removed his daughter at the end of last semester.

“Limiting use of technology in the classroom, going at the child's own pace, it's very arts and humanities focused schooling, and it's very socially nice, in that the classroom environment is very friendly,” Ryder said. “These are the sort of things that appealed to us when we first saw the school.”

Waldorf schools are based on the philosophy of Rudolf Steiner, a 19th century Austrian, who emphasized the importance of imagination and “play-based pedagogy.”

Steiner also founded anthroposophy, which the Kelowna Waldorf School bases its teaching on.

Ryder says his family left the school for several reasons, but a big part was a group of what he calls “fundamentalist” anthroposophists who subscribe to some of Steiner's more radical ideas. Near the beginning of last semester, the group petitioned to have the board of trustees removed and replaced with those who he says subscribe to fundamentalist ideals.

Steiner believed it was the responsibility of the Waldorf teachings to help guide human evolution down the right path and resist the forces of the demon Ahriman.

Ryder says that in October 2015, when a non-fundamentalist board was elected, a founding member of the school got up in the meeting and lectured the room on the “malign influences of the demon.”

“I was one of the people going, 'What the hell is this guy talking about?'” Ryder said.

Parents say the philosophy began to blend into the school's teachings.

“My daughter came home talking about 'trunk animals,' 'head' animals and 'limb animals,” Ryder said. “I looked it up, and this is directly out of Steiner.”

Heidi vant Geloof, another former school parent, said her Grade 2 son came home one day and told her how each child had chosen a saint they could talk to during difficult times to “guide” them.

“Mommy's 'spidey' senses went off," she said. "That to me crossed a line, and it crossed the line for a number of other families in that class as well.”

Vant Geloof says her younger daughters faced bullying at the school, but that Steiner's philosophy was to let the bullying be and that children needed to sort things out on their own.

Several former parents confirmed Ryder and vant Geloof's accounts, but asked to remain anonymous.

Rick Salsa, the current president of the board of trustees, did not return multiple calls from Castanet.

Online reviews show polarizing opinions. On Google Reviews, 12 of 25 reviews have one out of five stars, while 13 have five stars.

“We were looking for an open-minded, heart-based, alternative school, but instead experienced an environment run on archaic, dogmatic, and intolerant principles upheld by an old, power-hungry alumni and founder group that controls the majority of day-to-day operation of the school,” wrote Mimi Thorp in a one-star review one month ago.

“If you're looking for a place where at least one teacher believes that children with autism spectrum disorder are torn between heaven and hell, and that lying them in the grass and praying over them is very helpful, then look no further,” wrote Sarah Vander Veen in another one-star review.

Others say the school's underlying philosophy is misunderstood.

“Although anthroposophy is not taught to the students, the employees and volunteers in the three spheres of this school's flat hierarchy must have an understanding and support this philosophy,” wrote Gabriele Knodel in a five-star review. “Those parents who resist and do not allow this successful way of Waldorf education to unfold, will not like it here."

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