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The Papalotes School in Oaxaca, Mexico

The Papalotes School, located in Oaxaca, Mexico, is the first Waldorf School in the history of the State of Oaxaca. It was founded five years ago by a group of parents and educators concerned about the state of education in the second-poorest state in the nation. Over this time, we have formed a solid Board of Directors (including our teachers as full members) capable of confronting the challenges of teacher training, curriculum planning, promotion of an alternative project in a region where schooling remains rigid and doctrinaire, setting fair tuition and a work-exchange payment system in light of the financial challenges of Oaxacan residents, and the creation of an ecologically-sustainable infrastructure.

Photo of Kurt Hackbarth
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It has been a long but satisfying journey in our five years in Papalotes (Spanish for "kites", the image that appears in our school icon). At times, we did not think we would make it, but here we are, consolidating our program and growing it in a steady, sustainable manner: whereas we began with just one, kindergarten group, we now have a pre-school, kindergarten and a multi-age elementary school through fifth grade. What I would like to do here is share some of the most important lessons we have learned over this time:
  • Create a strong Board of Directors. Our board, which is legally constituted as a non-profit organization, includes parents, both of our main teachers as full, voting members and myself, an educator and "wild card". It took us several years to consolidate a cohesive, productive board and we are now looking to expand it to include other members: educators, fund raisers and community activists in an advisory capacity.
  • Invest in your teachers. Waldorf training is both extensive and expensive and, in Oaxaca, no Waldorf-trained teachers were to be found. Fortunately, through collaboration with the Anthroposophic Center in Cuernavaca, Mexico, we are able to send our teachers for training for three weeks every summer for five summers, as well as to periodic weekend workshops in Mexico City over the course of the year. The school pays the cost of the workshops and the teachers contribute by applying for tuition-reduction scholarships offered by the Anthroposophic Center. We are also the only private school in Oaxaca to pay our teachers 12-month salaries, including the summer break.
  • Involve your parents. In addition to the parents who serve on the Board of Directors, all Papalotes parents are involved in the school by means of the "tequios" - collective work projects, a long-standing tradition in Oaxacan communities (see our classroom-building picture above). As in the communities, the "tequios" are mandatory; parents who cannot attend are required to make a monetary contribution. Parents are also involved through monthly educational meetings, in which different facets of Waldorf education are discussed.
  • Provide alternative tuition arrangements. In order to meet the needs of parents who cannot pay full tuition in a high-need community, Papalotes offers a work-exchange tuition program. Interested parents must make a written proposal of the work they offer in exchange for the tuition reduction, which is then negotiated with the Board. Some examples of work exchange include theater and handcrafts workshops for the students, as well as carpentry and repair work.
  • Distinguish what is possible and what is not. Our original goal was to provide fully bilingual Waldorf education in Spanish and English. Over time, however, we realized that it was enough of a challenge to establish a Waldorf curriculum to a multi-age primary group, and that asking our teacher to also be fully bilingual was a step beyond what we were able to accomplish. So we stepped back, including English as a separate subject (taught through an active method called "Total Physical Response").
  • Fundraise! Last year, we held our first, successful crowd-funding campaign on the Indiegogo site. We hold several fundraisers over the course of the year, including clown and magic shows, cooking demonstrations and the like. We have also received funding earmarked for teacher training from the Friends of Waldorf Education located in Berlin, Germany. 

We welcome you to learn more about Papalotes at our website or at our email:


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Photo of Luar Gullian Inchausti

Education is the root of everything.

It is common to see in low-incomes populations that parents use not to invest in their children education... and it is totally comprehensive. We are talking about families, in the best of cases, that their first and last worry is how they are going to survive to the next day, they are people who don't have satisfied the lower part of the famous Maslow's pyramid.

And why is not important for parents the education of their children?
Because they don't have the necessity of it.
Simple and clear.
We have the obligation to create that necessity into parents. If they really see and feel the importance of giving an consistent education they will do it. We are animals and we work through necessities.

Under my opinion, in order to fix this problem we have to focus in parents, tutors... of children. Because they are finally in charge of their children and they have most of the influence on them.

We don't have to send food them, we have to teach them how they could get it.
They don't need electronic tools, phones, apps, multimedias... they need the knowledge that are going to help them progress.

Photo of Valeria Fernandez Cortina

Great to hear that you have been able to put this school together! Any ideas of how you could replicate this for underprivileged children?

Photo of Meena Kadri

Indeed – would be exciting to hear your thoughts on this, Kurt. We're sure you have many great learnings to share! We also hope that, with your experience in this domain & our OpenIDEO focus on collaboration, that you'll join conversations across the challenge.

And here's a friendly tip: update your OpenIDEO profile so folks can dig who they're collaborating with here. Think skills, experience, passions & more.

Photo of Kurt Hackbarth

Valeria and Meena, thanks for the replies and apologies for the delay in responding. The first thing I would really challenge people to think about when considering the situation of underprivileged children is what kind of opportunities we are actually providing them. Oftentimes, with the well-intentioned premise of extending educational opportunities to the 5-and-under age group (vis-a-vis programs such as Head Start, for example), we wind up extending a model that does precisely the opposite of allowing young children to thrive. High-pressure, high-stakes education, pushing reading, computers, homework and test-based teaching at an ever-earlier age, reinforcing a competitive, isolating model the effect of which is to reinforce the same kind of society that fostered the problem of underprivilege in the first place. At Papalotes, we opted for the Waldorf model out of a clear conviction that Waldorf education seeks to educate the whole child in a creative and age-appropriate manner.

Of course, the families of underprivileged children are precisely the families that tend not to know that alternatives to the hegemonic system of education exist - or if they do, couldn't possibly afford them. Over the years, what is called "alternative" education has come to be associated with an upper and upper-middle class elite, scorned, for different reasons, by those on all sides of the political spectrum. Of course, the tuition costs for a typical Waldorf school in the US only feed that distrust. This is both unfortunate and ironic in light of the fact that Waldorf schools were first founded to educate the children of cigarette-factory workers in post-World War I Germany; for their part, Montessori schools were founded to find an innovative way of educating children with deliquency and disciplinary problems.

In order, then, to extend educational opportunities to underprivileged children that don't wind up doing more harm than good, parents have to be encouraged to question what education is, to reflect on how they were educated and how they want their children to be. This is an empowering process that allows parents to realize that, instead of one, underperforming model, there exists a choice of educational methods out there. At Papalotes, we hold open-house and community-outreach sessions, along with once-a-month study groups with the parents of our students to encourage that conversation to take place. Our Board of Directors is made up of parents and teachers, itself an empowering process. We have no principal or layer of administrators to pay. In addition, we offer tuition-reduction possibilities for lower-income families by means of our work-exchange programs. Community work ("tequios") is required from all families both to foster community and to keep tuition costs low: our fees, for example, are competitive with and even lower than those of the rest of Oaxaca's private schools, while at the same time we manage to pay our teachers for their training as well as offer them a full, 12-month salary: a given in the US but not in Mexico, where private-school teachers do not tend to receive paid summer vacations. In all honesty, however, this still prices us out of the large majority of Oaxaca's families: with greater fundraising and sponsorships, we hope to offer full scholarships and to expand our community outreach.

I hope this goes some way towards answering your questions and look forward to receiving any feedback you might have.



Photo of Valeria Fernandez Cortina

Sorry Kirt it took me even a longer time to reply and did not see your email...

What you said in the following statement :

In order, then, to extend educational opportunities to underprivileged children that don't wind up doing more harm than good, parents have to be encouraged to question what education is, to reflect on how they were educated and how they want their children to be. This is an empowering process that allows parents to realize that, instead of one, underperforming model, there exists a choice of educational methods out there.

Made me think how we could do that in Mexico, how can we question parents, how can we make them reflect upon the importance of better education, and then of course how can we create a model of alternative education for lower income communities. THAT WOULD BE MY DREAM!!