AFTER BEING "counseled out" of several Montgomery County public schools for behavioral problems, Steven Edmonston landed in one of the county's special education classes. There, his parents say, he developed a number of nervous habits that included facial twitching. Steven's parents, David and Heidi Edmonston, decided it was time to look for alternatives for their son's education. Ten-year-old Steven now attends the Oneness Family Peace School, and his parents say that the intentionally peaceful and spiritual environment of the school has made their son more relaxed and willing to participate in school activities.
The Oneness school in Chevy Chase is one of a handful of non-sectarian schools in the metropolitan area whose curriculum includes a "spiritual" component. Others include the Washington Waldorf School in Bethesda and the Maharishi School of the Age of Enlightenment in Wheaton. Parents who choose these schools say they believe addressing a child's spritual needs is as important as teaching the three Rs. Each school, say parents and school officials, addresses the inner life and the soul of the child, whether through meditation or through the creation of moods and stories in the classroom.
"A sense of peace is created at Oneness because the children are enabled to feel inner things, like self-confidence, self-worth and the importance of others," says David Edmonston. "Outer things like concentration and cooperation seem to fall into place because of the attention paid to the inner."
"My spirit has risen," says Steven, who is in the fourth grade and in his second year at Oneness. "I like the fact that people are more peaceful here. It makes me feel better when people are peaceful."
The Edmonstons -- he owns a home improvement company and she is a homemaker -- were comfortable with the idea of the Oneness School. But Marshall Alcorn, an assistant professor of English at George Washington University, said he initially had mixed feelings about sending his two sons, Skye, 6, and Sean, 4, to Oneness.
On the one hand, he did not want the disciplined, "sit-down-and-listen" environment of a public school for his sons. But neither did Alcorn "want my children exposed to any heavy-handed orthodox doctrine," he said.
The two children have attended the Oneness school for a year, and Alcorn and his wife, Janice, a consultant for the Agency for International Development, have come to appreciate the spiritual aspect of the school. Alcorn described it as a "broad-based ethical system."
"I wanted a school that encourages moral responsibilities, but is not idealistic. My sons seem calmer now. They have learned self-discipline at Oneness," he said.
Oneness school founder and director Andrew Kutt said the school takes its name from the writings of Indian guru Sri Chinmoy. The name, Kutt said, means that the world is a single family of cultures, religions and races with each playing an important role.
The school occupies two rooms in the basement of St. John's Episcopal Church in Chevy Chase. In what seems like a modern version of the one-room frontier schoolhouse, 6-year-olds and 11-year-olds interact easily and help each other with school work. A copy of the Koran sits on a book case in front of a poster celebrating the fourth centenary of the death of Teresa of Avila. Nearby were Native American sand paintings used by medicine men, statues of Shiva, Buddha and St. Francis, crucifixes from South America and a wooden plaque of the Virgin Mary from Yugoslavia.
In addition to the regular schoolwork, Kutt, a Montessori-certified teacher, and Sharon Ray, who has taught in the Prince William County public schools, give their students a meditation-like experience every day. One morning Kutt asked the students to think about peaceful times in their lives and what made those times peaceful. In the ensuing silence the only sound in the room was the running water in a small plastic fountain perched on a bookcase.
"Kids today are utterly overstimulated," says Kutt. "In other eras, there was a time of the day when you sat around the fire or whittled or knitted, but not today."The Maharishi School MEDITATION IS also an important part of the Maharishi School, where all teachers and students practice transcendental meditation twice a day. (School officials also require that at least one parent practice TM.) Older students sit for 15 minutes each time while the younger ones repeat their mantras -- a word designed to aid in meditation -- to themselves as they play quietly.
Teachers at the school say meditating helps makes the students eager to learn. First-grade teacher Monica White, who has taught for 20 years, said, "This has been my best experience. These kids really want to learn. I was not expecting to get so far with them so soon. I don't have to yell at them. I control them with smiles."
While practioners of TM make many claims for its benefits -- Maharishi School admissions director Pamela Whitworth calls it "a way of unfolding your potential and feeling increasingly comfortable" -- others are more skeptical, as educational counselor Ethna Hopper admits.
"Americans are very leery of a school named Maharishi," says Hopper, who has has advised area parents and children on their educational choices since 1979. But, adds Hopper, "what I have experienced at Maharishi is a serenity for children and an educational challenge which is exciting."
Ann Henderson agrees. Her daughter, Amy, is now in the eighth grade and has attended the Maharishi School since kindergarten.
"I have been very pleased academically with the school," Henderson said. "There are spiritual and academic aspects of the school and you don't have to give up one for the other. It's a wonderful balance.
"Amy is breathtakingly self-assured. It is a sign of inner poise," said Henderson, who works for the National Committee for Citizens in Education. "You wonder how many of our children have an inner life, what's developing inside. They just go from one stimulation to another."
In addition to practicing TM and closely following the curriculum of the Montgomery County public schools, each Maharishi student also studies the 16 principles of the science of creative intelligence (SCI), a curriculum developed by Maharishi Maheshi Yog. The school's literature describes SCI as a "systematic study of universal principles found in all disciplines and in the lives of the students as they grow toward enlightenment."
Among these principles are: "The nature of life is to grow; Rest and activity are the steps of progress; Thought leads to action, action leads to achievement, achievement leads to fulfillment; The world is as we are." The Waldorf School THE WASHINGTON Waldorf School is one of approximately 400 Waldorf schools worldwide. The Waldorf movement was founded by Austrian scientist/philosopher Rudolf Steiner who was invited in 1919 to open a school for the children of Waldorf Astoria cigarette factory in Stuttgart. Other schools quickly followed throughout central Europe and in England. In 1928 the first Rudolf Steiner school in America opened in New York. It is still in operation.
"We are not teaching religious precepts or dogma at Waldorf," said second-grade teacher Donald Bufano. "We teach children in a way that recognizes they have an eternal spiritual being that has a spiritual past and a spiritual future. How that translates into the classroom is they hear many stories and many moods are conveyed that have to do with reverence and respect for life, respect for individuals, the dignity of the human being and the dignity of the earth."
At Waldorf schools, the teacher has the same children from the first through the eighth grades. Advocates of the Waldorf system say having the same teacher provides an important continuity, which enables the teacher to address not only the problems, but the promise of each child.
And, says second-grade teacher Donald Bufano, "If you do it right the children see that each year you're different. The children see a teacher who was one way in the first grade, but who is now really different in the fifth grade. They're subconsciously being taught that human beings can change, can be different, can evolve, can look at things from different points of view."
Another cornerstone of Waldorf education is the "main lesson" and the "main lesson" book. Students in the elementary grades as wall as those in high school study one subject for two hours in the morning for three to four weeks. During that time of concentration, they also create their own books with text and illustrations.
Thus in Cynthia Bennett's ninth-grade geology class, instead of learning about rocks from a book, each of the nine students had a rock on his desk. As the students discovered various characteristics of their rocks, Bennett wrote them on the blackboard. The students' homework assignment was to write down the characteristics of their rocks and to make drawings of them.
"If you just passed out ditto sheets or textbooks, then the child has a second- or even third-generation experience," said Bufano. "Maybe they cover more ground but the main lesson book goes deeper and that's part of the spiritual education."
But does this prepare students for college?
Yes, says Frank Hall, 11th grade advisor and high school English and history teacher.
"The incredible quantity and quality of writing experience with the main lesson books serves them well in college," Hall said. However, the high school does not bill itself as a college preparatory school. "That's not the fundamental purpose of the high school," says Hall. "The purpose is to educate the students to the whole range of possibilities of the human mind so they have the freedom to choose what they want to do thereafter."
"I would be upset if it were college prep," says Marcia Tatum who has a daughter, Heather, in the 10th grade and a son, James, in the fourth grade. "The task of Waldorf is to educate all types, not to prepare for college. It gives the students a flexibility for life. The curriculum is very rich."
That curriculum includes math, science, literature, poetics, drama, two languages, and arts and crafts such as weaving, papermaking, bookbinding and basketry. "We want them to experience the full range of what it means to be a human being rather than specializing or narrowing down too quickly. We give them an experience in high school that is broad and all-inclusive," says Hall.
Fern Robinson is a Washington-based free-lance writer.