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The Waldorf Way: Silicon Valley school eschews technology

By Rehema Ellis
NBC News

From the moment you walk into the Waldorf School of the Peninsula there are clear signs that something different is happening.

Allysun Sokolowski, a third-grade teacher,  greets each one of her 29 students by name and shakes their hand as they enter the classroom. It's easy for her because she's known these kids at the Los Altos, Calif., school for a while.

"I've been teaching the same children from first grade, second grade and now we're in third grade. And I will teach these children all the way through eighth grade," she said.

It's the Waldorf way.

Teachers establish a strong bond with students. As a result, Waldorf teachers quickly point out there's no need for tests or grades.

"I don't need grades to know how well they're doing," said Sokolowski. "I know their strengths, I know their weaknesses. I know what will be hard for them and where they will shine. I'm their teacher with a capital 't.'"

The intense student-teacher connection might help explain why students from elementary to high school are thriving. The school boasts a nearly perfect graduation rate.

Despite being in the heart of Silicon Valley, Waldorf students are not caught up in the gadget frenzy that has consumed so many other school children nationwide. Computers are not used in the elementary school and they are used sparingly at the high school level. Teachers say they're not anti-technology, but, as they put it, they're just in favor of healthy education.

Read the New York Times’ report on the Waldorf school

"I'm concerned that if we say we need technology to engage students we're missing the fact that what engages students is good teachers and good teaching," said Lisa Babinet, a Waldorf math teacher.

I asked a group of high school students if they misssed having computers and iPads as part of their lessons they all emphatically said "No."

The San Antonio Elementary School focuses on technology and feels it helps close the achievement gap in under-served communities by getting students ready for the digital age.

"I don't think we're gonna be left behind at all because it's not like we're not a part of technology at all," said sophomore Isabelle Senteno. "We are a part of it, we just don't incorporate it in the lessons."

Jack Pelose, a freshman who transferred to Waldorf from a school that used a lot of technology, said he noticed the benefits of not using computers in class. "My cursive has gotten a lot better since I've been here," he said.

"Everything about technology is so easy to pick up and use nowadays," added senior Zach Wurtz added. "The companies design it so anyone can use it when they choose to."

The students talked about being annoyed sometimes when they hang out with friends who are not Waldorf students, who spend a lot of time on social networking sites and texting.

Video: At another Silicon Valley school, iPads are in vogue

One Waldorf student said he sometimes has to ask his friends to put down the gadgets so they can just talk.

And if you're wondering, like I did, how the Waldorf education translates in the outside world, Laila Waheed, a graduate now in her first year of college, offered some insight.

Waheed, 18, has a laptop but never takes it to lectures. She takes notes by hand -- like she did at Waldorf -- and she later transfers her notes into her computer. It's a form of studying, she said.

"If you stood at the back of the classroom and looked at every screen, at least half of them would be on Facebook," Waheed said of all the other students who are typing away on their laptops during lectures.

"A Waldorf education gives you a foundation to say, 'OK, I can put my phone in my bag. I can have a half-an-hour conversation with a person. I don't need to be totally connected all the time,'" Waheed said. "And that's more valuable for making personal connections that will last longer than the next text you're going to get."

It sounds like something a Waldorf student would say. But it’s also a sentiment echoed by her father, an engineer manager at Cisco.

"I don't think anyone is debating the value of technology and the use of computers," Muneer Waheed said. "There is no going back. This is the future."

But he and his wife have been clear about wanting the mostly technology-free zone that Waldorf provides for their two children.

"They need the environment and the foundation to develop and get their core values -- the love of education and their own passion," he said. "That's what's going to stay with them. The computer is just a tool."

See more of Rehema Ellis' reporting on NBC's Nightly News with Brian Williams Wednesday evening.