May 30, 2018

Are there Amish graduations? A primer on Lancaster County's Amish and Old Order Mennonite schools

Old Order Mennonite schools
Staff Writer
Lancaster Online
May 22, 2018

It’s graduation time for Lancaster County’s Amish and Old Order Mennonite schools.

Hundreds of schools will send eighth-grade graduates into the world with no pomp and circumstance. Plain-sect children will leave their private parochial schools, which were established as a right fought for and won before the Supreme Court.

In 1972, church members and their supporters argued that their religion and education were so entwined that a requirement to go to high school would take teens away from their culture and ultimately destroy the community. Since then, the number of Plain schools has grown to more than 300.

The schools are more than academic; they’re an important part of culture.

“Education is never a neutral endeavor,” says Steven Nolt, senior scholar at the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies at Elizabethtown College. “It’s always shaping you for some kind of life. Old Order schools are training children for a successful Old Order way of life.”

Here's a primer on Plain-sect education, with insight from Nolt, schoolteachers and a school board member who spoke recently to a full house at Garden Spot Village and did not want to be identified.

Where do Amish and Old Order Mennonite children go to school in Lancaster County?

They go to their own private schools. There also are a few schools that combine both sects.

These students attended public schools through the mid-1900s. The first Amish schools opened in East Lampeter Township in the 1930s.

How long do students go to school?

Amish and Old Order Mennonite students attend school through eighth grade.

In the 1940s and ’50s, there were conflicts with the state over keeping older children out of school, and some Amish fathers were jailed. That was resolved in 1955 with an agreement to allow Plain sects to operate their own schools, where students could leave after eighth grade.

If students graduate eighth grade before age 15, they must go to what’s known as a “three-hour school” until that birthday. Students work during the week and keep a journal, then meet one day a week at the home of a teacher to review eighth-grade lessons.

Less-restrictive sects, such as the Weaverland Conference, go through 10th grade and have larger schools.

How many Plain schools are there in Lancaster County?

There are 254 Old Order Amish schools and 54 Old Order Mennonite schools. Most are one-room schools. A new school is built when there’s a need for students in an area.

What is the overall philosophy of Amish and Mennonite education?

The objective is a basic education so students can be an asset to the community.

“Schooling is both a way to get the basic academic skills that you need for making a life in the world,” Nolt says. “And also a place for cultivating the values and dispositions that are necessary for having a successful Old Order life.”

The curriculum and schools discourage competition and encourage cooperation. It’s typical for teachers to have a bulletin board showing when a group has mastered a lesson instead of tracking individual students.

“At recess, they tend to require the students to form new ball teams every day so there aren’t any ongoing competitions or rivalries,” Nolt says.

It’s a structured environment, but that structure can foster creativity.

What are the schools like?

The schools are small, mostly one-room, and are low-tech, with a clock or maybe an engine-powered water pump. That shows technology isn’t important.

Each school has 25 to 35 students seated by grade. The teacher, sometimes working with a teacher’s aide, will call a grade or two to a work table in the front for lessons.

What subjects are taught?

Reading, writing and math, up to pre-algebra, are taught in English. There’s time for penmanship and geography. There’s not a lot of history or science.

Most of the schools have some German instruction, with an emphasis on reading to understand formal religious texts like hymnals, prayer books or the Bible.

Who decides what is taught?

The Old Order Book Society was organized in the 1950s to evaluate books for schools. Each school has a school board made of several students’ fathers. They make decisions on hiring teachers and pay.

Who are the teachers in these schools?

Teachers are graduates of Amish and Old Order schools and usually women age 17 to 20. Few make teaching a career because when they don’t teach after marriage. There are a few male teachers, but that is rare, Nolt says, partially because pay is low.

For example, one local school pays $50 to $75 daily.

Teachers meet every six weeks to share ideas.

Do students take achievement tests like the PSSA?

They’re not required, but some schools have used their own written tests or the Iowa Assessments.

How long is the school year?

School starts in mid- to late August and ends in early to mid-May with about the same number of days as public schools: 180. That’s possible because breaks are short (two days off for Christmas) and there are few snow days.

How do students travel to school?

Schools are within walking distance, so students walk, ride on a scooter or get a ride from an older child driving a pony cart. In rural areas, students might use a school bus.

What does a typical graduation ceremony look like?

There is an end-of-the year picnic with family members.

Can a student continue his or her education?

“If you as an eighth-grader are thinking that differently from your parents about your future, you’re probably not on track to joining the church,” Nolt says.

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