North Star fosters lifelong learners

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Stephanie Jadrnicek
For The Lancaster News

When Cat Maas was pregnant with her first child, she began considering her daughter’s future school options. She didn’t think public school was the right fit for her family, and she longed for an educational setting with more freedom and creativity. 
“We were looking at a Montessori school,” Maas said. “From there, I started learning more about Montessori and was introduced to Waldorf education. I knew that’s what I wanted for my children – a Waldorf education.”
Based on the educational philosophy of renowned artist, scientist and philosopher Rudolf Steiner, the Waldorf education model offers children a developmentally appropriate, experiential and academically rigorous approach to learning that uses all forms of art to enrich and enhance the educational experience.
Rather than relocating to the closest Waldorf school in Asheville or Raleigh, N.C., Maas decided to start from scratch. She launched a Forest School program from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Fridays where students ages 4-12 gather at Marvin Efird Park for an outdoor lesson and a nature walk.
The Forest School program now has 14 students and after seeing the interest of other parents who are seeking an alternative approach to learning, Maas opened the doors to the North Star Initiative in Indian Land this fall. The small private school, which meets in the education building at Crossroads Lutheran Church, blends Montessori methods with a Waldorf-style teaching practice.
“There’s great value in the manipulatives of Montessori and its structure,” Maas said. “But it’s lacking what Waldorf can bring, such as the imaginative element and the developmentally appropriate curriculum.”
In its first year, North Star Initiative has eight students – five kindergartners (ages 3.5-6) and three first-graders. Three of the students are Maas’ own children – first-grader Bella, 7, and kindergartners Sophie, 5, and Gabe, 4.
Maas said she intends to add a grade each year, so next year the school would offer kindergarten, first and second grades.
Mornings at North Star Initiative begin with circle time before the first-graders break off for their academic lesson. Rather than receiving a printed workbook, the students create their own. On the blank pages, they write math equations they learn from Maas through stories.
“The story is a fairytale to introduce word problems,” she said. “Each student has 12 stones in their hands. I have them choose a number of stones and to divide it equally, then we write the equation into our books.”
Both Montessori and Waldorf education models use visual and tactile teaching methods to stimulate many of the students’ senses, so the children not only better absorb the information but also stay interested.
While the first-graders focus on math, the kindergartners play with wooden games designed to develop the fine motor skills they’ll need when they begin writing. All of the students participate in preparing their snacks and cleaning up afterward.
“It’s important to make sure these children have a good understanding of what it is to be a part of this world,” Maas said. “Not only to be in a classroom within four walls, but also how to take care of others and our environment.” 
Leslie Rice’s son Noah, 8, and daughter Elina, 6, attend North Star Initiative. Leslie worked as a counselor for 10 years in an inpatient psychiatric unit with young children. She said although some of the children had bona fide mental illnesses, many had adjustment disorders associated with stresses about school and performance.
“I just want it to be different for our kids. I see them learning in a better fashion,” Rice said. “They’ll bring what they learn home with them. I see them pulling out the chalkboard and feeling a sense of mastery and feeling good about learning instead of ambivalent or uncertain or even negative.”
Noah said he enjoys learning. His favorite activity at North Star Initiative is learning about manners.
“They want to make sure we learn manners and I take all the manners I learn home with me,” he said. “We learn to not talk while we’re chewing, to wipe our hands on our napkins and wipe our mouths before taking a drink.”
Maas said the goal of Waldorf education is to create resilient lifelong learners.
“Resilience is so important because more and more children are struggling. The depression rates have increased substantially over the past few years,” she said.
“We want to prepare these children for life. Children who have the initiative to learn on their own will succeed in college or in whatever they choose to do.
“They will know what to do to make themselves happy and how to contribute to society.”
Annual tuition fees are $1,875 for the Forest School, $4,000 for half-day kindergarten, $7,000 for full-day kindergarten and $8,000 for first and second grades. For details, call (704) 214-2951 or email cat@thenorthstar-initiative.com.