Austin school says young minds don't need computers

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AUSTIN — Software entrepreneur Shawn Rucks and his wife Angela discussed several educational routes for their daughter, Zoe. They ended up choosing a school that aims to unlock a child's potential... without a computer.

"I don't know what's right," Shawn Rucks said. "I just know what feels right for us."

The couple enrolled their four-year-old daughter at Austin Waldorf School. It opened 31 years ago and remains committed to its approach.

"We don't have computers in the classroom," said Austin Waldorf administrator Susan Darcy. "We believe that having real-life learning opportunities that are geared for a certain developmental age is best."

There are 160 Waldorf schools in the nation. Austin Waldorf is the only one in Texas. The school's ban not only includes computers, but all electronic media, including television.

Limited computer use is being considered for research at the library for middle school students.

"I feel that introducing technology early is actually cheating children," Darcy said. "We are denying them a huge scope of their childhood. It's a distraction. There is so much more that can be learned for the young child."

When News 8 visited the school, we found colorful classrooms filled with chalk boards, art and wooden desks.

Teachers start off the day in elementary school with a series of exercises to "warm up" the brain, to prepare it for learning.

One exercise requires students to bounce a ball — first with their right hand, then their left. Darcy said the exercise improves vision and helps children develop the right and left sides of the brain.

Other exercises include chanting multiplication tables with a leg workout.

When we stopped by a seventh grade classroom, students were reciting poetry. After finishing that task, the group moved on to their geometry class.

"Whether it's mathematics or reading — whatever subject — we want them to do some part of the lesson with it artistically," said Bill Toole, a middle school teacher at Waldorf.

Toole is aware that the school's program has its critics. School districts across Texas are pushing for more technology in the early years, claiming students are at a disadvantage without computers.

But for Toole, the goal at Waldorf is to build the foundation that prepares kids for that technology. "We really want them to be able to not be so dependent on those in the early years so they can — as they grow older — be able to master them," he said.

While technology is on the sidelines for several years at Austin Waldorf School, it is introduced to students in the ninth grade. Classes include digital logic, hardware, and programming.

Senior Cooper Karish remembered his first computer class. "We were all really excited. We didn't know what was going on, but you get used to it faster than you think you would," he said, adding, "I think I can hold my own on a computer."

Austin Waldorf argues their that students are not losing their competitive age by making them wait. Fifteen out of last year's graduating class of 18 continued their academic career at institutions that include Williams College, the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, and New York University.

Karish hopes to attend Princeton next year. He admits that he questioned the choice his parents made, but at the end, it paid off.

"You learn to interact with each other first, and then you learn to interact through media," he said. "I think cementing that one-on-one relationship is important."

The Rucks family agrees on the need for that connection for their daughter, Zoe.

"This sort of education makes her a more confident and creative person, and have relationship skills and talk to people face-to-face and be part of her community instead of staring at a computer," Angela Rucks said.

The school also encourages parents to adopt the tech/media ban at home.

"We do understand that we are flying in the face of modern age, yet quite honestly, many parents who come to Austin Waldorf School already understand that there's something about technology that isn't entirely healthy for everyone full-force," Darcy said.

The curriculum at Austin Waldorf also includes music, art and foreign languages from kindergarten through 12th grade. Students are required to take German and Spanish. Every lesson includes an art project.

Music also plays a huge role on campus. Kids pick up the flute in first grade and a string instrument in third. Arts also include knitting, painting and sculpting.

Music and art are mandatory all 12 grades, including in kindergarten. Tuition rates range from $8,000 to $13,000.

"[It's] a real experience with head, heart and hands," Toole said. "It's really for developing a whole person and a person that's able to stand on their own two feet and be able to meet challenges."

As for the Rucks family, they hope their educational choice will bring out the best in Zoe.

"The important thing is that she finds something she is really passionate about and she follows that, Shawn Rucks said. "I think that's the biggest gift we can do for her."