Concerned parents speak up about racism, discrimination at Waldorf School of Philadelphia

(Philadelphia Tribune photo)

By Samaria Bailey

PHILADELPHIA — Black parents and other parents of color say they and their families experience rampant racism and discrimination at The Waldorf School of Philadelphia.

“This is not an issue of falling short, getting it wrong, or occasionally perpetuating racism,” a group called Concerned Parents of Color wrote in a letter to the private school’s administrators earlier this summer. “It is a consistent pattern that represents a form of sabotage of our previous efforts of accountability. Since our individual complaints have not been heard, we come to you as a group in hopes that you will find our pain more believable. We demand action by those with authority, influence, and conscience.”

The letter lists dozens of incidents students or their families have personally experienced over the last several years, including a white child spitting on a Black child, school staff reserving front row seats at school concerts for white families, accountability processes that protect white staff and families, and white staff members rejecting or disbelieving complaints from families of color.

It also cites a variety of microaggressions in everyday interactions, such as white faculty and staff “refusing to acknowledge people of color when talking; assuming or questioning whether a student or family of color is a member of the school; [and] white [parents] staring down parents and children of color.”

The Concerned Parents of Color have asked the school to take 10 corrective actions immediately, including developing an accountability plan for addressing discrimination, adding race and diversity issues to teacher and faculty evaluations, and changing the structure of the board of trustees so it provides oversight and accountability to the faculty chairman.

School administrators said they were “grateful” for the parents’ letter and “deeply saddened to learn of the harms suffered by members of our community.”

“We are committed to addressing those harms and improving our anti-racism work,” said Anthony deGuzman, the school’s executive director. “We are grateful to the parents for stepping forward to shine a light on the changes needed and for offering recommendations that provide a constructive path towards strengthening our school and ensuring justice and equity for all members of our community.”

Waldorf School Board of Trustees Vice President Brendon Jobs said the board voted unanimously to take the actions recommended by the Concerned Parents of Color, and deGuzman said most of them will be met by the time school starts in September.

deGuzman said the school also plans to seek an independent consultant to help identify the school’s needs and help hire someone to oversee diversity and inclusion efforts.

“As this work continues, we look forward to partnering with our families to make them real as we continue to interrogate our institutional policies, practices and structures with an equity lens,” Jobs said.

deGuzman and Jobs said school staff, over the past few years, have participated in training sessions, workshops and readings to correct Waldorf’s culture (readings included “White Fragility” by Robin DiAngelo and “How to Be an Antiracist” by Ibram X. Kendi). Two years ago, they organized an “Undoing Racism” training for the entire faculty, staff and board.

Rolando Brown, a Waldorf parent for five years, called for a more earnest effort.

“The effort to have the teachers at Waldorf school evolve the pedagogy so that the environment is safe for Black children and Black parents is not a new discussion. It has been happening for years. The need to evolve the Waldorf pedagogy so that it is safe for Black children and Black parents has existed for a long time,” said Brown.

“The centering of reading books and attending workshops as a meaningful effort isn’t enough. I think an interest in dismantling white supremacy in education will lead you to read a book and take a workshop. A genuine commitment will lead you to embracing Black parents and Black teachers.”

Brown questioned the sincerity of Waldorf’s response to the parents’ concerns, wondering why the teachers have not been a part of the conversation.

About the Waldorf School

The Waldorf School of Philadelphia is one of more than 1,090 Waldorf schools around the world, according to the Association of Waldorf Schools of North America.

Waldorf schools are rooted in the educational philosophy of Rudolf Steiner, an early 20th century philosopher and social reformer who believed that people could better understand the spiritual realm through experience with the natural one, and vice-versa.

The educational philosophy of Waldorf schools involves a hands-on approach that combines art, nature activities and standard academics — math, science, history — to provide a “holistic” education. For example, the Waldorf School of Philadelphia brochure says, a kindergarten class might chop vegetables to learn fine motor skills and mathematical patterns.

The Waldorf School of Philadelphia was founded in 1994 as a Waldorf-inspired play group, according to its website. It grew over the following 20 years and moved into a former Episcopal church on Wayne Avenue in Germantown.

The independent private school describes itself on its website as a school that honors and values “each child and their unique gifts” while striving for “cultural diversity within an urban setting.”

The school has about 250 students enrolled in parent-child programs (starting as early as age 2) through eighth-grade, according to its website. During the 2019-20 school year, deGuzman said, approximately 70% of the students identified as white; 9% identified as Black; 7% identified as Asian, Latino or American Indian; and 13% identified as multi-racial.

The school has nine administrative staff members and 28 other faculty members. During the 2019-20 school year, deGuzman reported, 80% of the staff identified as white, 12% identified as Black, and 8% identified as Asian, Latino or American Indian.

The school charges $16,430 to $18,200 for annual tuition, depending on a child’s grade level.

Parents speak out

Janelle Avant, a Waldorf parent for the past four years, got dozens of parents together earlier this year to discuss how they or their children had been victims of microaggressions or more overtly racist behaviors and discrimination.

Many had stories to tell, Avant said.

Avant, who is Black, said her own experiences have been “very blatant” and she’s “tired of dealing with it and it being swept under the rug.”

The first year Avant’s son was enrolled at Waldorf, in 2017, a white boy spit in Avant’s son’s face twice, she said. She requested a meeting with the teacher, the faculty chairwoman and the other child’s parents. That meeting appeared to be the first time the white parent had heard about the incident, Avant said.

“What happened next was it was pretty much going to be a write-up in his file,” Avant said. “The student was not suspended, but he did apologize to my son. But what was said next by the faculty chair took me by surprise. She said, ‘I don’t believe [he] could’ve done this because I know him.’”

Avant said the faculty chairwoman’s comment was especially disturbing because the meeting was supposed to be “unbiased,” according to the school’s standards.

A year later, the Concerned Parents group wrote in their letter, school administrators and staff treated a Black first-grade girl who was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder differently from her classmates.

School administrators assured the young girl’s parents that they could accommodate the child’s special needs, but still asked the parents to remove her from the school, said Caryn Rivers, an educational consultant who worked with the child’s family to find another school.

The young girl did not violate any of Waldorf’s “community norms” (rules), but was a very “active, excited and lovable” child, Rivers said.

“A time or two, I would sit and observe. Usually, they would end their day on the playground. They would walk in a structured way as a class to the playground and hold hands with a partner. She was the only child who had to hold the teacher’s hand,” Rivers said.

“She had a different set of expectations. It was very apparent that the treatment was different to everyone — the other children, her friends. She was separated out. Unfortunately, that behavior is not unusual for predominantly white independent schools — singling out children of color or children who are othered in general.”

School administrators and staff also treated parents of color different from white parents.

At a December 2019 holiday concert, parent Shelli Branscomb said she and a guest arrived early and found two unmarked, empty seats close to the stage.

“I noticed people started staring at me. It was a lot of tension. I asked, ‘Is it OK if I sit here?’ No one responded. There was a lot of staring. I noticed other parents speaking about me, pointing at me, angry, but refused to address me,” Branscomb said.

“I’m like, ‘What is going on? This is a kids’ concert.’ Just as the concert starts, a teacher comes and says, ‘You have to move,’ but I said, ‘These seats aren’t marked.’”

The teacher told Branscomb the seats were reserved for families with sibling students who’d signed up for them, so Branscomb moved. But no one ever came to sit in the seats, Branscomb said.

“You have this situation where you have teachers who made this policy of reserving seats that only white families benefitted from and marketed it as a family with sibling policy. My thing is why are harmful and unchecked practices like this allowed at the school and where is the accountability? How does it look that [you] only invited white families to have access to reserved seating?” said Branscomb, who is Black.

Branscomb followed up on this incident with an email to the school, comparing the teacher’s tone to a pit bull. She said she was then met with a rebuke that was stronger than the school’s response to the root issue.

The school administration set up a meeting to resolve the conflict, and the teacher assumed the role of the victim, Branscomb said.

The teacher even “screamed” at Branscomb during the meeting, Branscomb said, and the executive director and the diversity chairperson did not intervene.

“You would’ve thought that I had threatened her life,” she said. “The teacher that told me to move had meetings forcing other people to apologize to her. This whole process became convoluted because the executive director and other people did not want to hold the staff person accountable to me. I moved for a white family that never even showed up, but they were more worried about the fact that I [referenced] a pit bull.”

That incident made Branscomb think of a 2017 Black History Month concert in which the event program listed songs by white artists with the artists’ names and songs by Black artists as “Negro Spirituals” with no credit to the specific musician.

“There was one ‘Negro Spiritual’ that said remastered by a white man. I said, ‘Come on, these songs have Black authors.’ One was by Paul Robeson. Everybody knows Paul Robeson is a major figure in this area,” Branscomb said.

“That incident really upset me because the coordinator didn’t see the value of naming Black artists for their contributions. One of the things for me is Black art is often taken by white people and often not claimed. I wrote a complaint and called it out. What does this say about how we value Blackness and what does this even say about proper research?”

All of the teachers involved in the incidents have participated in conversations about them, specifically around “seeing them for what they are and taking steps not to do them again,” deGuzman said.

Some parents consider leaving

“There seems to be an unspoken notion of who is the right type of kid and who is not,” Rivers said.

She attributed the problem, in part, to selective admissions.

“Waldorf School is not different from other schools people are calling out for egregious, cultural insensitivity,” Rivers said. “A lot of institutions are being outed right now for not doing what they say they do. People are finally speaking out about mistreatment in these schools. And it’s Waldorf School’s time of reckoning as well.”

The ongoing discrimination issues have made many parents question whether they want to continue to pay thousands of dollars annually to keep their kids enrolled at the Waldorf School.

“The school has a history of Black children leaving the school. Until [Waldorf] is a place where Black children come and stay, there is more to correct. I and other parents have considered at great length sending our children to other schools. [But] I have decided to commit to transforming the school I am a part of,” Brown said.

“I see citizens across our country doing the same. This is ours and we have the right to transform it from within. Everyone should be unapologetically committed to ensuring that Waldorf School of Philadelphia is a safe space for Black children and Black parents.”

Samaria Bailey is a reporter for the Philadelphia Tribune, where this story first appeared.