It was easy to see what she meant. When we pulled up to the school, a group of boys playing basketball on a crumbling court out front were guarding each other with real hostility. Inside, a dozen boys and girls, dressed in the school's official uniform of blue jeans and white T-shirts, jostled and sassed each other in the tiny common room. One hulking skinhead leaned against the wall, alone, slump-shouldered, quiet, angry.
Underneath this toughness, one could see signs of softness and hope. Before I'd even started exploring, Gary, a skinny fourteen-year-old, spontaneously grabbed me for a quick tour of what I had come to watch: how the Waldorf-school movement, an old, Austria-bred system of private education, is working in a new venue -- a hard-boiled public institution for troublemakers. After introducing me to each of his teachers, Gary walked me past the primary tools of the Waldorf day: the recorders every student learns to play, the numerous paintings and art projects, and a pile of "main lesson books" -- lengthy creative reports by students on their studies in each academic subject, which they must generate every few weeks.
Later, during an English class, I noticed a fifteen-year-old I'll call Robert waving his hand desperately. A small boy with an angelic walnut-brown face, Robert had been expelled from his previous school for smoking marijuana; soon after his arrival at Mathews, he jumped out the probation officer's window and ran away. On the day I visited, Robert sat attentive throughout a two-hour class. When the teacher finally called on him, he flawlessly recited six lines memorized from The Merchant of Venice. In the early days, Evelyn Arcuri, the teacher, said later, when she asked the students to return their materials, "they would just toss stuff at me. Now there's better control. They're more engaged." I noticed something similar. One twelve-year-old boy sat with me after school, regaling me, in enthusiastic detail, with a creative mixture of Greek and Roman history. The boy could barely read, but he'd been inspired by the oral storytelling that Waldorf teachers emphasize. These roughnecks even like Waldorf's focus on art. Thomas, an outgoing and restless seventeen-year-old, had found that when he was forced to draw pictures of stories he had read or heard, "you get more visual ideas of what you're doing." Arcuri believes she can see that the students are learning more from what they draw. "This year kids are saying, 'Can I take this home?' We never had that happen before."
Mikkelsen and her teachers attribute these changes to the battery of skills they learned at Rudolf Steiner College, a small private school near Sacramento that serves as the West Coast teacher-training center for Waldorf schools. Much of what teachers learn there is how to reach children through all their senses. Child-development experts have long advocated a multisensory approach to learning -- as a way both to deeply imprint lessons in a youngster and to accommodate the different learning styles that are bound to exist among diverse students, particularly those with learning difficulties. Yet few education systems in this country have the history with these methods that Waldorf schools do. "I now have a way to give it to them many times, in different ways," Arcuri told me. "We had tried everything with these kids," Mikkelsen recalls. "Nothing worked. You can't lecture to them. Independent study doesn't work. They need constant support and a lot of socializing." During Mikkelsen's discussions with teachers at the Steiner College, "I said to them, 'If this is so good, if Rudolf Steiner is as hot as you say, then this will work for our kids. Otherwise, it's another bunch of elitist B.S.'"