The Story of Toronto Waldorf School

Reprinted with permission from Gerhard Rudolph, from the 2003 issue of outofbounds, a magazine for the alumni/ae of Toronto Waldorf School.

Early Initiatives: 1954 - 1964

It was as early as 1954 that a small group of young people met on a regular basis to study lectures by Rudolf Steiner and to socialize in general. Some of the participants came from Europe and, with the relentless carnage of the Second World War still freshly in mind, were on the search for a meaningful and human philosophy of life. There were John and Pat Kettle, Gerhard and Helga Rudolph, Frank and Franzeska Steinruck, Helmut and Renate Krause. From 1961 onwards, Aedsgard and Elisabeth Koekebakker, and a number of other participants joined the group. Each year at Advent, they began to rehearse the Oberufer Christmas plays, which were then performed in churches, halls and hospitals in Toronto.

In 1956, three young Canadian musicians, Graham Jackson, Harry Kretz and Irene MacLellan, independently took an enthusiastic interest in Waldorf education. In the following year, they attended the teacher-training program at the New York Steiner School and later went to many places in Europe in order to become fully acquainted with the philosophy and practice of this education. In 1963, after a long and intense immersion abroad, Graham and his wife, Veronica, returned to Toronto.

In 1957 Francis Edmunds, one of the most experienced Waldorf teachers in England, gave his first lecture on Waldorf education at Trinity College, University of Toronto. Encouraged by the enthusiasm and optimism of this lecture, the original group started to concentrate its studies more and more on questions of education. From 1959 onwards, members of the group attended the annual conferences at the Green Meadow Waldorf School in Spring Valley, NY. These experiences prompted them to organize their own conference in Toronto in 1962. Dr. Ernst Katz, physics professor at the University of Ann Arbor, John Gardner, chair of the Garden City Waldorf School and Dr. Godfrey from Edmonton, were invited as guest speakers to this well attended and successful event.

The lectures by Mr. Edmunds, by now founder and principal of Emerson College in England, became regular yearly occasions, each time rekindling new enthusiasm for the creation of a Waldorf school in Toronto.

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Planning, Preparing, Implementing: 1964 - 1968

By 1964, the resolve to found a Waldorf school in Toronto had been firmly established and decisive steps for its implementation were systematically pursued. The Waldorf Education Committee was formed, consisting of Bob and Shirley Routledge, Helmut and Renate Krause, and Graham and Veronica Jackson, with the task of organizing public events and preparing to form a legal school entity.

During the winter, Graham Jackson gave a series of lectures on Waldorf education in Toronto, usually followed by demonstrations and classes in Bothmer gymnastics. In the fall of 1964, the Rudolphs decided to leave everything behind in Toronto and enroll in the teacher-training program at Emerson College in England.

In 1965, the Waldorf Education Committee was greatly strengthened when John and Pat Kettle and Douglas Andress joined their ranks. The first concrete step was made when Douglas and Else Andress purchased a nursery school in Willowdale. At the time there were twenty children registered in the nursery. The teachers, Helen Coleman, Doreen Browning (later Rawlings) and Mieke Cryns, stayed on for many years with Toronto Waldorf School. The little school moved into some rented rooms in the annex building of St. Patrick's Anglican Church, also located in Willowdale. The committee changed the nursery's name from “Bunny Hop’ to “Sunnyhill’ and its business management was taken over by Veronica and Graham Jackson and Shirley and Bob Routledge.

In April of that year, the Waldorf School Association of Ontario (WSAO) was officially incorporated. The aims of the WSAO were described as:

  • To explain and promote the ideals and principles of Waldorf education amongst educators and the public in Toronto and, with time, in all of Ontario.
  • To prepare the establishment of a Waldorf school in Toronto and later the founding of more schools in the rest of the province.

Mr. Edmunds advised the directors of the WSAO to split the task into four parts:

  1. Faculty and Staff
  2. Public and Publicity
  3. Site and Building
  4. Finance and Administration


The three couples, the Andresses, Routledges, and Kettles, worked on these tasks in a very thorough and professional way creating hypothetical cases of possible enrollment numbers, fees, salaries, rental costs, initial deficits, possible locations, etc., always assisted by Graham Jackson with regard to educational considerations.

In order to establish a future faculty, Pat and John Kettle traveled to Michael Hall Waldorf School in Forest Row, England, to meet with a number of potential teachers who had been invited by the committee. The meeting took place in the home of Helga and Gerhard Rudolph during the Whitsun holidays of 1967. (Gerhard had become a class teacher at Michael Hall in the meantime.) Present were Alan and Mary Howard, Helmut Krause, Diana Lawrence (later Hughes), Cecil Jordan, George Wilson, Pat and John Kettle, and Helga and Gerhard Rudolph.

For three days, they discussed the plans for the future school and what contribution to it each could make. In the end, Alan Howard, Mary Howard and Diana Lawrence pledged that they would come to start the school in September of 1968. Helmut and Renate Krause committed themselves to join in 1969 and the Rudolphs agreed that they would come as soon as their commitments at Michael Hall had been fulfilled. It was a tremendous good fortune to have in the Howards two very experienced teachers to guide the new school into life.

In May 1968, several rooms at St. Patrick's were rented and alterations were designed and carried out. The Sunnyhill Nursery School still occupied the basement.

On June 16th, 1968, Toronto Waldorf School was officially incorporated. The committee had completed their preparations. The worthiness of the cause and the thoroughness of the planning inspired Cawthra and Julyan Mulock and Douglas and Else Andress to pledge to cover all losses predicted for the first three years.

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Birth and Infancy of the School: 1968 - 1972

Finally, the historic day arrived: On September 3rd, 1968, Toronto Waldorf School opened its doors.

Alan Howard wrote later:

We teachers opened the door and ushered in the very first students, on the very first day, of the very first Waldorf school in Canada. Nobody noticed us very much, there weren't long columns and pictures about it in the Globe and Mail, the traffic down Lillian Street went by as before, but we all felt that history was being made, and as Wordsworth said, “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive."

In September 1968, nineteen children were enrolled in Grades 1 and 2. The existing nursery downstairs had grown to sixty children.

In March 1968, a shop was rented at a plaza in Willowdale to house a Waldorf Information Centre. A display of Waldorf students' work, books, toys, and posters caught the eyes of passers by and prospective parents.

Toronto Waldorf School was admitted as a full member of the Association of Waldorf Schools of North America (AWSNA) in June 1969, a recognition that is rare for such a young school.

Since the building at St. Patrick's had only room for six grades, the search for property and the design of a new school building became a top priority. In the fall of 1971, Don Stewart, a parent of the school, offered a piece of land on Bathurst Street as a gift to the school. However, the size of the lot was inadequate. After long negotiations with a neighbouring farmer, additional land across the ravine could be acquired, making up thirteen and a half acres in total. Plans for the proposed building were prepared by Denis Bowman, architect and parent of the school, in close cooperation with the faculty.

The building was designed to house two kindergartens, twelve classrooms, a small gym, arts and crafts rooms, office and auxiliary space, a kitchen and a forum with a stage. The idea was to construct the outer shell of the building and to complete the interior spaces in accordance with the growing number of classes. This step-by-step approach made it possible to realize such an ambitious plan with the limited financial resources available.

In the summer of 1972, excavation began at the new site on Bathurst Street and on October 14th of that year, the foundation-stone was laid. This was another historic moment in the life of the school.

The faculty was small and consisted of a close and intimate group of dedicated teachers, in these early years. The faculty administered the school in a consensus-based system of decision-making. There was no principal. They were committed to the aims of Waldorf education and were encouraged by the wonderful results that a truly human curriculum was able to provide. They were able to reach consensus in dealing with the many challenges facing the new enterprise. Above all, they were guided by Alan Howard, a wise, wonderfully modest and very experienced teacher and human being.

In June of 1973, the school started its move to the Bathurst Street site and a new chapter of the school began. During this time, many parents of the school invested endless time, resources and positive energy in the new venture. Many thanks should go to them for their confidence in the school.

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The Pioneering Years: 1973 - 1984

The school building was largely unfinished when we moved in. The mezzanine and the forum level were unusable, there were no doors and windows on that level and the roof remained unfinished during the winter. The forum floor, which served as roof substitute, was not watertight in spite of efforts to seal cracks. With strong resolve, the seven grades of the school moved into the usable part on the main floor in September of 1973, with only a two-week delay. This was the result of the backbreaking and heartwarming efforts of the whole community.

Financially, this enterprise was possible through generous support in the form of guarantees and loans by Cawthra and Julyan Mulock, and through short term and low-interest loans by other friends of the school. Some of these contributions needed to be returned and it became necessary to consolidate these debts into one mortgage arrangement. However, no bank or company was willing to provide a mortgage for a young school with a half-finished building as collateral. Again, the provision of promissory notes in lieu of the collateral by friends of the school made it possible to receive the necessary mortgage. The school was always able to fulfill the repayment plan of the mortgage and the promissory notes remained untouched.

During the summer of 1974, the faculty spent their entire summer holiday completing the structure of the roof and covering it with a tar emulsion.

It was decided to expand the school into the high school right away during the 1974-75 academic year. Necessary preparations involved obtaining commitment from the Grade 8 parents, establishing our own high school curriculum, meeting with the Ministry of Education concerning their course outlines and accreditation, providing space and facilities, hiring teachers, and planning for financial support. The preparation committee consisted of Ron Mason, a parent and high school principal, Aedsgard Koekebakker, Allan Hughes, and Gerhard Rudolph.

The meetings with the ministry inspectors were very informative and helpful. They provided much written material and explained how to proceed with the accreditation of special subjects outside their usual curriculum.

In June 1975, TWS had its first Grade 8 graduation. Aedsgard Koekebakker produced “Robert of Sicily,’ a delightful play, which was performed by his fourteen students in the school's basement (the forum was not yet ready for use). Following right afterwards in June, Toronto Waldorf School hosted the Teachers' Meeting of AWSNA, an annual meeting of Waldorf teachers from across the North American continent. The preparation of the event took much time, but it was quite an honour for a small school like ours to be asked to host it. This event put the school “on the map.’

During the holidays, major projects had to be completed. For instance: the construction of staircases to the forum level, the wiring, plumbing, dry-walling, and painting of three upper level class rooms, as well as the installation of three science labs on the main floor. Teachers learned new building skills every year.

The first high school class was held in September of 1976. The forum was opened for the first time for Renate Kurth's Grade 8 play in June of 1977.

Around this time, the faculty decided to limit teachers' vacation work on the school building to three weeks each year, for the sake of time for school preparation and for the restoring of inner forces. Some teachers helped with the running of a summer camp. Others worked on the completion of the interior of three additional classrooms upstairs and of the forum, which still needed much work to get it ready for general use.

In the next years, Jan Wintjes, a contractor and parent of the school, and his crew applied the wooden siding around the upper level of the building free of charge. His continuous generous support was always greatly appreciated.

In June of 1979, TWS graduated its first Grade 12 class. Towards the end of the academic year in 1980, the school was honoured by the visit of its patron, Pauline McGibbon, Lieutenant Governor of Ontario, arranged by Henry Dynes, a parent of the school. It was a very formal occasion with a rigid protocol and great pomp and circumstance. TWS students had to learn the words to “O Canada’ in both official languages.

During the holidays, a great change in the allocation of classrooms took place. Many lower school classes moved upstairs. The classrooms on the main floor were turned into a third kindergarten, a woodwork room and a handwork room.

Most interior spaces of the building were now usable, including the mezzanine. Now greater concentration could be devoted to the school grounds. The parking area along Bathurst Street was considerably extended towards the south. The exit to Bathurst Street was relocated opposite Teefy Avenue. Traffic lights were installed. The road to the school was widened and paved. The last ramps to the upper level classrooms were completed and the whole area was re-graded.

In 1981-82, the stage was extended into the forum. The blackout disk was built for the sky dome. The art room, library and language rooms moved up to the mezzanine. In September, 1982, the gym in the basement became too small for the growing high school classes and high school gym activities were moved up to the forum, where they created noise problems for the eurythmy lessons backstage and time-table problems for drama rehearsals and performances. The need for a separate field house became very evident.

After the graduation of three Grade 12 classes in 1982, it seemed about time to establish a Student Council, which still is composed of two elected members each from Grades Nine to Eleven and three from Grade twelve. This Council has become an essential organ in the life of the school.

One of the major concerns in a growing Waldorf school is recruiting trained Waldorf teachers. In Canada, this problem was even more pronounced since all the teacher training centres were in Europe or in the United States and immigration restrictions made it often very difficult to hire applicants from other countries. Then in 1982, first steps were made to institute an in-service teacher-training program at Toronto Waldorf School. This was the starting point for the teacher education program, which is now a well-established independent institution, administered and directed by the Rudolf Steiner Centre.

The second AWSNA conference was held at TWS in June of 1983. In contrast to the first one in 1975, the conference could be held in a nearly completed building and attended by a well-established TWS high school faculty.

In 1983, a teacher-training program opened its doors at a location in downtown Toronto. The “Third Stream Coop" was founded to supply organic food from farmers in the surrounding areas to the school community.

The school acquired an additional ten acres from a neighbouring farmer in 1986. The sports field was extended to about double its original size. Five and a half acres were leased to the Hesperus Fellowship Community for a seniors' residence. Construction of its building began. In June 1987, the Hesperus building was completed and the first residents moved in.

Around this time, the school reached the end of the pioneering stage. The building was complete and fully usable. Certain policies and procedures had been established, festivals and ceremonies throughout the year had found an appropriate form, and with the graduation of ten high school classes, the initial dream and years of hard work were producing great results.

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The Establishment Years: 1989 to 2003

With the increasing number of teachers attending faculty meetings, it became more difficult for some participants to feel included and make their voice heard. In a special conference, the faculty explored new forms of working together. After a lengthy and worthwhile discussion, it was decided to introduce a mandate system. Faculty members would join a mandate group, and each group was to be responsible for one specific aspect of the school's operation. Each group was expected to report their decisions back to the whole faculty. In 1989-90, the mandate system was implemented. During this academic year, the planning for the new field-house continued. A site for the proposed building was chosen and the size of the building was extended to include art and crafts rooms and space for the WSAO and the Rudolf Steiner Centre.

In June of 1990, again surrounded by all classes, faculty, staff and parents, the ceremony of the turning of the sod for the new building took place. The new building was called the “Arts and Sports Wing".

In June of 1991, the Arts and Sports Wing was opened with a festive assembly inside the building. The third AWSNA Teachers Conference was held at TWS. During the summer holidays, all arts and crafts furniture and equipment together with sports equipment were moved to the new building. The WSAO and the Rudolf Steiner Centre also moved into their new spaces. The close proximity of the RSC to the school proved to be a very good arrangement. It made it possible for student teachers to do their practice teaching at the school and for TWS faculty to teach some of the teacher training programs. It also made it convenient for the RSC to provide seminars and lectures to the school community.

The first OAC classes began in 1992, in spite of the financial concerns of some teachers. However, this program proved to be very successful and ran very well until all OAC courses were abolished by the ministry in 2003. In the same year, a three-week practicum program was introduced for Grades 9, 10 and 11.

The year 1994 was a big year for the school. Many people in the school community prepared for celebrations of the school's twenty-fifth birthday. Some members of the alumni/ae organized a 25th Anniversary Reunion and Conference for all former students of the school, teachers, former teachers, and friends of the school. Over a hundred alumni/ae and many teachers and former teachers attended.

During the 1995 vacation, a number of teachers had to deal with increasing interference by the Ministry of Education, especially with their implementation of a province-wide standardized testing program, which went directly against Waldorf pedagogical principles. After a court injunction, a compromise was reached but this was not a real solution to this problem. The Committee for Freedom in Education became very active, seeking the advice and the support of AWSNA and from the international Waldorf school federation called the “Hague Circle.’

The school began a self-evaluation process in the 1997-98 academic year, which required many meetings at all levels. This process was instituted by AWSNA, in order to ensure that all their member-schools maintain high standards of Waldorf education. It was also an attempt instigated by TWS to provide North American Waldorf schools with an alternative to state inspections, state accreditation and standardized testing.

In June of 1999, the AWSNA evaluation team visited the school and made observations for their final report. TWS was granted accreditation.

In September 2002, as a result of the discussions during the in-house conferences aided by Andy Leaf, new procedures were introduced in the way faculty administered the school. In the following school year, a “Circle of Chairs’ (an executive body composed of the chairs of the high school, lower school and early childhood faculties; faculty chair and the administrative co-ordinator) began to represent the faculty to the parents and the public and deal with organizational and administrative concerns. This model made it possible for faculty chairs to have more time to deal with these matters and enable the rest of the faculty to concentrate more intensely on pedagogical issues.

Looking at the impressive buildings, facilities, and organizational structures that have been created during the last thirty-four years, one can only be amazed that the dreams of the past have actually come true. Considering the limited finances in the beginning, all this seems a miracle. But, obviously, we did not come together to build buildings. Our intention and our hopes were that the spirit of our teaching would manifest itself in society at large. The real fruits of all our efforts can only show themselves in what the alumni/ae of the school bring to the world.

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The Land

Toronto Waldorf School is located at 9100 Bathurst Street in Thornhill. The school is housed in an attractive building well away from the main road on the edge of a natural ravine. One may walk or drive down across a small wooden bridge over the Little Don River that flows gently through the ravine. An inspiring view of the school meets the eyes as one comes up the hill on the other side. This short but pleasant walk gives our students the opportunity to begin their day out in the fresh air, uplifted by the forces of nature. We occupy a place where opposite and contrasting elements meet: to the south, the soft limestone of the Niagara Escarpment and to the north, the massive mineral - rich granite of the Canadian Shield. We are far inland from the ocean yet we are connected to it by the St. Lawrence River that runs northeast from the Great Lakes. These lakes almost surround our geographic area made up of gentle rolling hills and fertile farmlands. Ours is a continental climate defined by hot humid summers and cold dry winters. There is a wide variety of flora and fauna in the region.

The Huron Indians once inhabited the area. They were a peaceful, agricultural society living between the nomadic Algonkian tribes to the north and the powerful Iroquois confederacy to the south. An ancient rivalry, exacerbated by the competition for the fur trade between the French and the English, culminated in the Huron being massacred, assimilated or driven out by the Iroquois. The area served as an Iroquoian hunting ground for many years until European immigrants began to clear the land for farm use and settlement.

The little town of muddy York was started on the north shore of Lake Ontario by the English. It became a foothold for development in Upper Canada and grew over the years to become Ontario's provincial capital and the largest metropolitan centre in all of Canada. In recent years, Toronto has become home to many peoples from around the world and has established a truly multicultural identity.

Today Toronto Waldorf School stands between the rural landscape that has characterized this area for more than a century and a half, and a sprawling sea of urban development that now borders the school's 23-acre campus, substantially altering the "feel" of the area and the landscape we have known. "We are in a middle ground." We must consider our links with the past as a source of strength for the work we do and the challenges we face. We must strive not only to serve the times in which we live but to build bridges into the future as well, a future that will accept and embrace freedom in education, inspired, we hope by the example we set.

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