Remembrances by Donna Switzer
It was September 1986 when I first arrived in Nelson with my three young daughters. The Kootenay Valley School, located on Observatory Street, was our destination. Looking back it seems like a humble destination now; an old church with a two-window basement to house Kindergarten and a Grade 1/2 combination class, a large upstairs to house a Grade 3/4 combination class, and a postage-stamp size playground on a busy street corner.
At the time it seemed anything but humble, for it represented five years of hard work by an incredible group of people who had a vision to bring Waldorf Education to the Kootenays. It was also, for me, the place where I would join together with two other Waldorf trained colleagues (Jeff Feldman and Nancy Franco) to see if we could bring a Waldorf School to fruition.
It was at that tiny church on Observatory Street that our first “Ministry of Education” visit occurred. Kootenay Valley School was in its fourth year of operation, which meant that we could apply for Ministry funding. The great day arrived and our visitor (an ex-teacher and superintendent of schools himself) joined us for a day in the life of our school. He participated in the Grade 1 circle, listened to a Kindergarten story, watched a Grade 4 main lesson, and marveled at the girls and boys working on their knitting projects! At the end of the day he sat down with we three teachers and said, “This is a truly wonderful place! You are having at least as much fun as the children and I would love to give you Ministry funding, but … you really should have some books in this school.” It was true, there was hardly one in sight—after all, we were making the main lesson books weren’t we? “And,” he said, sadly shaking his head as he looked around our dark and crowded basement, “You really must find a new location. You can’t receive funding in a place like this.” Not long after this we received official notice that funding would be granted on the condition that a new building be found before May 30th. And so the search began.
And so we searched for a home for our school and nothing could we find. We had a date of May 30th and that day was fast approaching. If there was no building there would be no Ministry of Education funding, and with no funding we knew it would be almost impossible to go onward; the community of Nelson was so small and money was not flowing in the mid-80’s. But… up on the hill on 10th street there was an empty university campus. David Thompson University had closed its doors but the buildings and playing fields stood there—perfect for our home we thought. Well, those who were controlling the building and searching for an occupant were unconvinced. They had other clients who were interested and no space for us. Well, the campus was (and is) owned by the city of Nelson, so we decided that an audience with City Council might get us some space. So, with shaking knees, I stood before the council and told them about our little school, which was part of the fastest growing independent education movement in the world. I told them that if we had a building to house our school that provincial funding would flow in and one day people would move to Nelson to put their children into the “Nelson Waldorf School.”
Yes, we had changed our name to the Nelson Waldorf School after another very important visit that year – from a wonderful man named Marin Eiderman who visited us on behalf of the Waldorf School Association. He thoroughly approved of our humble little school and told us we could use the Waldorf name – Nelson Waldorf School we became.
Finally a phone call came with the long awaited message that indeed we could have a spot at the 10th street campus. That was a busy summer for our parents as they renovated the “music annex” and painted it a rainbow of colours for our Kindergarten, grade 1, grade 2/3 and grade 4/5 classes. We hired our wonderful Kindergarten teacher, Jackie Moore, I took the new grade one as well as continuing with my now 2/3 class ( main lesson on top of main lesson – oh those were the days!) and Jeff Feldman continued with his 4/5.
It was a lovely spot with playing fields and magical woods and the use of Mary Hall Gymnasium. Children and teachers did indeed begin arriving and after three years we were bursting at the seams. Then the meeting that I will never forget when faculty and board received the message that we had been contacted by a philanthropic association in eastern Canada and told that they were interested in purchasing land and a building for our Waldorf School. Who were they? What was their connection to us? There were lots of rumours but mostly just mystery and they were known only as ‘987’.
We were to have a home of our own and once again the search began. We had a devoted team of people who scoured the town looking for a location and many a community meeting was held. Within the city itself we could find nothing suitable and we finally decided on our present location which had been the original ski hill and then a sheltered workshop. We worried about moving out of the city limits and yet we loved the idea of having a piece of property large enough that we could define ourselves rather than being defined by the property. Once we negotiated for the city bus to make two daily runs up to the school, the decision was made.
Our present main building was all that stood on the grounds and this time. The renovation was far beyond a volunteer work force. Work continued far into the fall and classes were held all over town from church basements to Selkirk classrooms as playground space was leveled and classroom space completed. When we moved in at the end of October, 1990 – finally all of us together in one location we really felt that we had ‘arrived’. We knew that now that we had a home we could really settle in and establish ourselves. That year we proudly graduated our first class of grade 8 students – we were growing up.
The beautiful buildings that we have today are monuments to the people who joined our community, brought their children, their hearts and their talent to us. At every stage in our school’s life there have been challenges to face. Challenges are always with us – they simply change and evolve with the years. It is important to look behind with gratitude for the work that has gone before us and to keep our eye steadfastly on the future to ensure a thriving school for the children who are still to come.
History of building the NWS campus
This is just a sketch and I could have some mistakes in here so if someone’s memory is serving them please do not hesitate to make changes.- I am very grateful to Michael Donner who helped me remember dates and monies received. Also, Michael Donner served on the board throughout the ‘new building phase’ which started in 2000. He and Robert VanGent were the driving forces behind obtaining money and grants for the buildings.
Autumn 1990 – Current Lower grade classroom building – renovation was completed. K – in basement where Maria currently is and student bathrooms were across the hallway. Grades 1, 2, 3, 4, 5/6, 7/8. Where current grade 1 classroom and offices are now was large unfinished room.
September 1991 – first eurythmy teacher – Reg Down – hired and middle room was converted to eurythmy room as per Reg’s wishes. It was carpeted, piano bought and John Pengelly hired as first eurythmy accompanist. Current Grade 4 building was built – class 6/7 was housed in town during the fall as construction was finished and moved into their classroom sometime in October. Was built to be eventually put on top of ‘designed’ upper grade building. This design changed and the ‘portable’ was eventually given a full foundation.
1990s – Current parent room began as an out building and was converted into a small classroom. During the 90’s there were renovations every summer as we expanded and changed in an effort to house our growing classes. Almost impossible to list all the changes that were made!
September 2000 – Current upper grade building was completed- David Dobie architect – matching provincial grant was obtained – $500,000 was total cost.
2001-02 – Gymnasium completed – David Dobie architect – matching provincial grant and a great deal of money from individual parents was used for its construction – cost approx: .5 million dollars.
2003 – Kinderhouse completed – provincial funding received for building a daycare – also a matching grant – a large amount of money was received and the agreement was that a Day Care had to be run for 10 years or funding would have been rescinded.
2004- Eurythmy room built and old eurythmy room divided into classroom and office space.
The Nelson Waldorf School is part of a growing community of schools that embrace the educational philosophy of Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925).The first Waldorf School was founded in 1919 in Stuttgart,Germany by Emil Molt,the director of the Waldorf Astoria Company, out of his concern for the new generation of school children emerging from the devastation of the first World War.
If these children were to develop capacities that would allow them to transform society,they would need to be taught in a new way—one that addressed their essential humanity, that enhanced their concern for other people, and that fostered a sense of responsibility for the earth.They would need an education that went beyond dry, intellectual schooling, an education that would cultivate their artistic abilities and develop their practical skills, and above all, one that would nurture the capacities that would allow them to adapt to a rapidly changing world.
Molt approached Rudolf Steiner to develop a form of education to meet those needs.Born in Austria and educated in Vienna, Steiner, already recognized as an editor of Goethe’s scientific works, had become increasingly well known in Europe as an author and lecturer. In 1919, at Emil Molt’s request, he developed a curriculum and trained the teachers for the first Waldorf School.
Waldorf education is based on a developmental approach, addressing the needs of the growing child. It strives to transform education into an art that educates the whole child—the head, the heart, and the hands. Its highest endeavour is to “develop free human beings who are able of themselves to impart purpose and direction to their lives.”
Because of its philosophical base and its innovative teaching methods, the original Waldorf School quickly grew, gaining international recognition and inspiring the establishment of new schools. There are now more than 1000 schools in over 25 countries. Many of over one hundred schools in North America are members of the Association of Waldorf Schools of North America (AWSNA).Each school is an independent, self-governing entity.