Waldorf School founder Caroline Phinney has always been the optimistic sort. She was born in Rawalpindi, which was part of India under British colonial rule, but today is part of Pakistan. Phinney’s Canadian mother had sailed to Calcutta at age 26 to found a school of physical education and hygiene. There she met her husband, who was a banker working for Lloyd’s. The couple married in 1939 and had four children, including Phinney’s twin sister, Mary, who now teaches midwifery in Canada.

With the British empire in tatters after the war, Phinney’s family moved to Toronto, where she grew up singing songs, attending church, and living a picturesque, bucolic life.

“Each summer we migrated to a tiny log cabin on Canoe Lake in Algonquin Park in Ontario,” she wrote in a biographical essay. Winters were spent ice skating in her hosed-down back yard, and along the streets to school. Her education itself was more traditional, she says. In other words, dull, except for her fifth and sixth-grade teacher, who “stirred us through his love of drama and music, learning games, and deep discussions.”

Phinney studied Russian and French literature at the University of Toronto, where she first discovered eurythmy and Waldorf education. There was a movement to start a Waldorf school in Toronto at the time, and Phinney said she was taken in by the approach after she got to know a neighbor family from Austria who personally knew Rudolph Steiner. It was then that Waldorf education began its lengthy journey to Princeton.

Phinney, after all, was still in college. She intended to return to India after graduation, but the Canadian University Services Overseas told her she was needed more in Africa. She went to Burundi, living in a convent with the Bene Terezia nuns and doing general health and missionary-style work. She moved back to Toronto when war broke out between the Hutu and Tutsi.

She enrolled in graduate school to study political science, and soon met “a dashing young man from Paris” who later became her first husband. Phinney taught history and French in Toronto’s first French-speaking public high school. Eventually she landed a job teaching literature at the Green Meadow Waldorf School in New York.

Before moving to Princeton, Phinney completed her Waldorf training at Emerson College in England. In the fall of 1977 she organized the first all-day workshop in Waldorf education at the Unitarian Church on Cherry Hill Road. She and her husband, who was on sabbatical, then spent a year in India before coming back to lay more formal groundwork for the Waldorf School of Princeton.

Based on the approach of Rudolph Steiner, an Austrian educator who in 1919 founded a school in Stuttgart, Germany, that concentrated on the importance of ethics, imagination, and experiential education in the development of intellect, Waldorf methodology is a worldwide practice. The schools are not Christian academies, though Steiner was a largely Christian-oriented philosopher. The program values compassion and spirituality but also teaches science and literature in a tactile way.

All students in Princeton, for example, devise their own science projects, grow their own food in an on-site organic garden, and develop and act in an annual school play. The idea is to engage the students in active learning rather than lashing them to a desk, Phinney says. There are no textbook lectures, there are stories, because stories are more engaging and more interactive. Even sports are taught in a cooperative way.

Though Waldorf education first came, informally, to Princeton in 1935, it was not until 1977, a year after Phinney moved to town with her second husband, Bob, a professor emeritus of geology at Princeton University, that a formal Waldorf program developed here. That November, following a visit by a Waldorf educator from Toronto, the Waldorf Association for the Princeton Area formed.

The formal decision was made over Labor Day weekend, 1982. That weekend Joan Almon, one of Phinney’s earliest colleagues, and then-chair of the Waldorf Early Childhood Association, told Phinney, “The time is ripe.”

Phinney began the Lakefield Play Group — the direct precursor to the school — in January, 1983. Her first class consisted of three students, whom she taught at her apartment on Lake Lane.

For six months Phinney taught from her home, but by the fall of 1983 she was teaching the early childhood program in a space rented from Johnson Park School on Rosedale Road. The formal grade school began in 1985 and found its permanent home, in the photo above, on the former Classen Farm on Cherry Hill Road, where the family offered a discounted rate on a 20-acre parcel.

The first class at the grade school was taught by Ekkehard Heyder, a renowned Waldorf teacher from Germany, which gave the fledgling school some needed educational heft, Phinney says. Heyder died last January.

The school has since grown to an enrollment of 177 students, with an annual budget of about $2.6 million. Much to Phinney’s disappointment, the Waldorf School of Princeton does not include a high school curriculum. Some years, eighth grade graduates as few as 17 students — not enough, even when quadrupled, to carry a high school program.

Phinney is optimistic that the Waldorf School of Princeton will one day have a high school program. “This is not airy-fairy stuff,” she says. “It’s a real, moral education.”

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