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Sustaining a great education -- in Detroit

Years ago, I had a friend who longed to send her daughter to the Detroit Waldorf School. Only one thing stood in her way: the private school tuition.

If only she had made a few phone calls. Turns out the prestigious school has a new tuition program that assists families who want its education – and to pay the rent, too.

This year, nearly 60 percent of the school's families held a tuition adjustment meeting as part of Detroit Waldorf's new Sustainable Tuition model.

To me, that number is shocking and inspiring. Shocking that so many people need the school to prorate their tuition. Inspiring because the school actually made it happen.

This is a story of how a school not only saved itself, but it saved so many families the grief of choosing between a great learning institution and the basics of life.

Yes, I know, not everyone needs to attend a private school. There are lots and lots of great public, charter and magnate schools in and around Detroit. But the bottom line is this: If you want the Waldorf experience, the school wants you.

Here's how it works: The cost to educate a child at the Detroit Waldorf School is about $12,500 annually. A serious shock to the system, I know.

“In essence, we meet with every family in the school and share the school's strategic plan and budget,” explained Outreach Director Melanie Reiser. “We ask every family to contribute to the maximum of their ability and that they are willing to place this as a high priority in their family finances. Then we work together with the family to come to an adjustment that is sustainable for the school and the family.”

Get that? They work together!

Tuition covers about 70 percent of the cost to educate students. Because the school is not supported by government or outside funding, the difference in costs is covered by fundraising, grant writing and low teacher salaries.

Every family volunteers a minimum of 30 hours per year to aid the school's fund-raising efforts. And some 88 percent of parents are in involved in one or more of the school's major fundraisers.

Detroit Waldorf itself sets aside $385,000 of its budget to support the Sustainable Tuition program. This is the program's second year, Reiser said, and it won't be its last.

A little background: The first Waldorf School was founded in 1919 in Stuttgart, Germany. Its philosophies are based on the teachings of Rudolf Steiner, an Austrian scientist, educator and artist. Today, there are nearly 1,000 Waldorf schools on six continents.

The Detroit Waldorf School was founded in 1965. It is located three miles east of downtown in historic Indian Village (just blocks from Time's D-Shack…). The building, a large yet humble maze of classrooms, was designed by beloved local architect Albert Kahn. Several rooms even have fireplaces. Sigh.

The best part of the school (in my fine opinion) is the four-acre campus. There are multiple species of Michigan trees towering above, providing a dappled shade befitting a Hallmark moment. The wooden play structures and meandering paths scream, “This place makes an IDEAL place to be a kid!”

The classrooms are just as lovely. The goal, Reiser said, is to give students a feeling of warmth and protection. There aren't piles of toys in the nursery school beeping and chirping. Instead, there are play clothes, wooden blocks and a place to make bread with the teacher (yes, they bake bread. It's like Little House the Prairie in the City.)

Kind of old-fashioned, I know. But as the mother of two children, I like it.

I believe Michigan needs great schools. We need kids who love nature, the arts, science, literature, mathematics and more. And it seems to me that Detroit Waldorf is the kind of place where these things happen.

By the way, you (yes, you, dear Reader) can help. The school is hosting a Knit-a-thon through Oct. 24 to raise funds to support Detroit Waldorf and its families. (Hurry – registration ends this week.)

Each participant (kids, moms, dads, grandmas, coworkers, whoever) collects pledges for knitting 6-inch squares. Collectively, they will put the squares together on Oct. 24 during the Cast Off event (more clever knitting terms!) and donate the resulting blankets to Children's Hospital of Michigan. You can go to the event even if you've never knitted and just want to support a good cause (and help raise the $30,000 goal at the same time).

Knitting and fiber arts are a part of the Waldorf School curriculum, explained Kathryn Savoie, Knit-a-Thon chair. It blends the arts, develops fine motor skills, improves attention and offers a sly way of learning mathematics all at the same time.

This time, I won't participate. I can't knit. But I can donate online. Go, knitters, go! To register, click here.

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