Most children of traditional (Old Order)
Mennonites attend rural schools that are similar to those of 100 years ago. The children walk to a one or two-room school, they have Bible readings and prayer daily, they get their exercise at recess, and they do most of their learning from books because they have no electronic equipment in the classroom. These schools are deliberately old-fashioned because traditional Mennonites see the modern world as having strayed from the old-fashioned values of decorum, devotion to God, respect for others, and hard work.
Mennonite children going to school
The early Mennonite pioneers who settled in Waterloo Region
in the early 1800s brought with them a belief that children should learn to read and write and from the beginning they organized schools. In the early 1840s, new education policies came to Canada West (Ontario) with government assistance for paying teachers and for organizing curriculum. The Mennonites of Waterloo Region welcomed this development and many Mennonites served as trustees on local school boards as their children attended the rural one-room schools. In those days schools were expected to enhance the teachings of the Protestant Christian churches and the Mennonites were comfortable with the Bible readings and prayers of the public education system.
In the 1960s there was another major shift in education policy in Ontario. This included moving from three trustees for each school to one large school board for the entire county. An enhanced curriculum emphasized such things as physical education and required more equipment that was not practical for small one-room schools. As a result, new schools with several classrooms (including a gymnasium) were built, and the old schools were abandoned.
It was these changes that led the Old Order Mennonites to withdraw their children from the public schools. The one traditional group that has continued to send their children to public schools is the David Martin Mennonites; their children make up a large percentage of the students at Linwood Public School.
In 1965 Woolwich Township adopted a township school board of five men that supervised all schools except those in the town of Elmira. (My father, Martin A. Frey, was part of that Woolwich Township School Board.) Within five years most of the one-room schools in Woolwich Township had closed while several schools had major additions and a completely new school was built in Floradale. This began a new policy of children riding the bus to school instead of walking. While these new schools and additions were still in the planning stage, the traditionalist Mennonites also began planning their own schools and as early as 1966 nine one-room parochial schools were operating in Waterloo Region and Wellington County (Martin 2002, p. 9).
Church-run schools were not new in Mennonite circles; the Old Order Amish and Old Order Mennonites had withdrawn from public schools in several U.S. states years earlier. The traditional Mennonites in Waterloo Region saw that large central schools would give their children far more exposure to the broader Canadian culture. As their local schools began using resources such as films and tape players they feared that larger centralized schools would only increase that exposure. Neither did they want their children changing into gym clothes. They reasoned that parochial schools would give parents much better control over how and what their children were taught.
The traditional Mennonites tried to purchase some of the one-room schools that were being closed, but the school board was reluctant to do so. In Woolwich Township, several former schools became private residences and only the New Jerusalem and Balsam Grove schools converted to Mennonite parochial schools. The Three Bridges School developed a unique history. It has remained as a small country school and traditional Mennonites continue to send their children there. When the Waterloo County School Board took over in 1969, the Woolwich Township board specifically requested that it remain as a smaller rural school. The Three Bridges School has a broad catchment area and parents can choose to send their children to a school in town or to this rural school that caters to traditional Mennonites.
First school in Waterloo County
Although various Old Order Mennonites had experience in acting as school trustees, they always worked with a government representative who had education experience and who could give advice. As they planned their parochial school venture, the traditional Mennonites asked James Bauman to teach in one of the schools and to act as a supervisor of less experienced teachers. Bauman was a trained and experienced teacher and was known to the traditional Mennonite community. Between 1966 and 1996 Bauman played an important role in administering the Waterloo-Wellington-Perth Parochial School System.
The parochial schools are run very much the way public schools had been run in earlier days. Small schools dot the countryside and most children walk to school. Most classrooms have between 12 and 25 students. If the number of students climbs too high, another classroom is added and the children are divided with grades 1-4 in one room and grades 5-8 in another. In the early years many textbooks discarded by the public boards were purchased, but eventually alternate sources of textbooks needed to be found. As the parochial school system has evolved, some specific textbooks have been developed under Bauman’s leadership.
The Mennonite parochial school system has both experienced and new teachers. Most of the teachers are women, but there are a few men as well. Before they begin assignments, new teachers spend two weeks practice teaching with two different experienced teachers. In August, teachers gather for professional development. There are also teachers’ meetings throughout the year so that teachers can meet with each other for support and encouragement. Since James Bauman no longer works as an administrator, an advisory board has been established. There is also a committee of ex-teachers who administer standardized tests in order to be sure that the education system is working well (Martin 2002, p. 9).
There is more than one Mennonite parochial school system. In Waterloo Region the Old Order and Markham-Waterloo churches generally work together and teachers are from either group. The Amish and Orthodox Mennonites only hire teachers from their own group.
The Mennonite parochial schools have been operating for more than 40 years and have been very successful in teaching the basics to more than a generation of traditional Mennonites. The schools are totally funded by the parents and the church, and have played an important role in helping to establish boundaries around traditional Mennonite communities.
John F. Peters, “The Ontario Old Order Mennonites as Canadian Citizens” Ontario Mennonite History
, 20.1 (May, 2002) 2-8.
Amsey Martin, “Education Among the Plain People of Waterloo, Wellington and Perth Counties,” Ontario Mennonite History
, 20.1 (May, 2002) 8-10.
“2005-2006 School Directory,” Blackboard Bulletin
, December 2005.
Barb Draper is a local historian with special interest in the history of Old Order Mennonites of Woolwich Township. She is a former teacher who now works part-time for Canadian Mennonite, the newsmagazine of Mennonite Church Canada.