If schools are factories, Suncoast Waldorf flavors its product with Willy Wonka creativity, motherly nurturing and an appreciation for the natural.
There are no letter grades or exams at this small K-8 school attended by students from all over Pinellas County. Instead, there are essays written about each student by instructors at year's end, complete with a personalized poem. Art, music and physical activity are laced into nearly every academic endeavor.
Such is the contrast of this school — the only one of its kind in the county and one of three in the state — to what is echoing in the national debate: that students are learning to pass standardized tests rather than absorbing knowledge or becoming well-rounded people.
The latest ripple in that sea of dialogue is A Race to Nowhere, the feature-length documentary lament about how rising academic pressure is leading students to depression.
For some parents who attended a local screening hosted by Suncoast Waldorf, it affirmed their decision to send their children to a school with this philosophy: "to bring forth a person who loves learning for its own sake, not one who learns in order to pass a test."
The attitude of Waldorf educators, a small but growing clique in America — there are about 160 in the United States, including some in public charter programs — is to educate the whole child.
On a crisp morning this month, teacher Christian Davis' sixth-grade class filtered into the open yard of the campus, climbing ancient oaks and meandering around untold holes dug in hopes of reaching China, or at least some subterranean magma tube.
Recess, even in middle school, is part of the daily routine at a Waldorf school.
And so are teachers who, ideally, stay with their students from the first grade through eighth.
They become more than instructors.
"The relationship is profoundly different. You spend more time with the students than their parents in many cases," said Davis, 33.
He said that bond between teacher and student makes his work more rewarding and allows him to understand students' issues, especially during the hormonal middle school years.
"Being their teacher for five years before then, you know the children well enough to see that they're going through a phase, and not just to dismiss the students because of their behavior," he said.
Waldorf teachers typically undergo two years of postgraduate training, learning not only education theory but a broad palette of subjects.
Principal Barbara Bedingfield, who founded the school in 1998, said Waldorf teachers must be "renaissance" people, because they teach all subjects, including music. (Singing and flute lessons are part of the curriculum from the earliest grades.)
Abstention from the artificial is also a hallmark. There are no Lego bricks or Barbies in a Waldorf kindergarten. There's little plastic for that matter.
Blocks are hewn from unprocessed wood, the bark and ridges as much a tactile education as the castles the students construct. Dolls are sewn from cloth, and their faces have neutral expressions.
"So the child can fill it with their imagination," Bedingfield said.
In elementary classrooms, multiplication is taught with a physical component — a boon for even the most fidgety first-grader. Blue racquetballs patter with each repetition.
"Three." Bounce. "Times three." Bounce. "Is nine," the students say in unison.
Field trips to bowling alleys supplant a day's math lesson. Classroom plays about the Roman Empire are favored over a textbook chapter.
These teaching strategies add up to one goal: To make learning a joy.
Why this choice
For parents interviewed, the reasons for choosing Waldorf range from the practical to the existential.
Christina Wise wanted her son, in first grade at the school, to be spared the constant academic pressure she experienced growing up.
"It's important to me that my children are developing into people who will be kind, make a difference in the world. It's not solely about the academics," Wise said.
While tuition is about $10,000 per year for middle school, Bedingfield said that if a parent truly wants a student to attend, scholarships are available, and if a parent possesses a skill — whether knowing how to use a broom or speak a foreign language — her or she could help out at the school to reduce the cost.
Leah West, a single mom, sends her three young children to the school. A Web designer, she received a discount by offering her services to the school.
Why go to the trouble? One of her sons was bullied in public school, West said. "He was a broken and battered child," she said. "Now he's flourishing."
Shelby Schmitt, 14, began her first semester at Dunedin High School this August.
Bells ring, she goes to class. A different teacher each period. She takes the tests — some of them on ubiquitous bubble sheets — and almost daily, teachers make remarks about what seems to be the only thing that really matters.
"The FCAT. The lesson is, every day, 'You're going to need to learn this because it's on the FCAT. It's an FCAT strategy,'" she said.
Until this year, such things were foreign to Shelby, who was just selected to play varsity soccer for Dunedin.
She was one of the handful of Suncoast's students who went through the full treatment — first grade through eighth grades — at the 100-student private school.
For the first seven, Davis was her teacher.
Culture shock was inevitable.
"There's a lot more cursing," Shelby said of her classmates.
And the teachers: "You don't really talk to your teachers. You pretty much just listen."
Before her first day, she said, she was unsure how she would do. "I was really nervous about the tests we'd have to take. I didn't have homework from first to seventh grade. I thought it would be a big concern."
But after Day One, she found that schoolwork was not only fun and exciting but manageable.
As a freshman, she is in both honors and advanced placement classes.
The one downside to attending a traditional high school, she said, is that counselors placed her in an FCAT reading class that replaced a foreign language class, a subject she enjoys. (At Waldorf, Spanish and German are taught by native speakers from elementary grades on.)
She says she can read and comprehend just fine. How many books has she read? "Like, a thousand," she said, without much exaggeration.
Tied with Harry Potter, her favorite book is The Old Man and the Sea.
And despite some initial worry about those dreaded FCATs, once she had an idea of what is on them, the concern vanished.
"I'm not too worried about it. I'm pretty sure that it's not going to be that much of a challenge," she said.
Dominick Tao can be reached at (727) 580-2951 or firstname.lastname@example.org.