A Cana­dian story of com­pro­mise and ac­com­mo­da­tion

For­mer Elmira teacher records story of the unique ELAWS Men­non­ite ed­u­ca­tion pro­gram at lo­cal high school

The Woolwich Observer - - NEWS - FAISAL ALI

THE STORY OF CANADA as a coun­try has of­ten been one of mu­tual co­op­er­a­tion and re­spect be­tween its di­verse parts. From old di­vi­sions be­tween English, French and Indige­nous pop­u­la­tions dat­ing back to be­fore Con­fed­er­a­tion to mod­ern day im­mi­gra­tion chang­ing the makeup of the land, Canada has of­ten been forced to at least try to ac­com­mo­date the needs of a vast coun­try stretch­ing from At­lantic to Pa­cific to Arc­tic coasts.

Sto­ries of suc­cess and fail­ure abound in Canada, and even lo­cally ex­am­ples of both va­ri­eties can be found, par­tic­u­larly in the town­ship’s co­hab­i­ta­tion with its con­ser­va­tive Men­non­ite com­mu­ni­ties. Rep­re­sent­ing an ex­am­ple of the for­mer is the story of the Elmira Work and Life Skills (ELAWS) pro­gram, an al­ter­na­tive ed­u­ca­tion pro­gram run out of the Elmira Dis­trict Se­condary School.

“ELAWS was most likely ... the first and the only pro­gram of its type in the world,” suggested Jan­ice Harper, a for­mer teacher at EDSS who taught in ELAWS and stud­ied the pro­gram’s his­tory as part of her master’s the­sis.

Launched first in 1996 with some five stu­dents, and then again in the early 2000s, the lo­cal ELAWS pro­gram was cre­ated as a col­lab­o­ra­tion be­tween the pub­lic school board and Men­non­ite church groups. The pro­gram was de­signed to cater to the dis­tinct re­li­gious and so­cial re­quire­ments of the con­ser­va­tive com­mu­ni­ties, while still fol­low­ing pro­vin­cial re­quire­ments to qual­ify for a diploma pro­gram.

The re­sult­ing suc­cess and growth of the pro­gram has en­abled hun­dreds of lo­cal res­i­dents of the town­ships to ob­tain se­condary school di­plo­mas, where they would oth­er­wise have been with­out, and in­spired the creation of sim­i­lar pro­grams across the prov­ince.

“There’s two main rea­sons that it’s unique. The first is that it com­bines a va­ri­ety of Men­non­ite groups,” ex­plained Harper. Un­like many high school pro­grams cre­ated for or by con­ser­va­tive groups, the ELAWS pro­gram does not ex­clu­sively serve any par­tic­u­lar re­li­gious denom­i­na­tion, and in­stead com­bines mul­ti­ple faiths, in­clud­ing non-Men­non­ites, into a sin­gle class­room.

The pro­gram is also unique in be­ing specif­i­cally a pub­lic school sys­tem, as op­posed to a pri­vate or parochial in­sti­tu­tion.

“ELAWS was the very first pro­gram to ac­tu­ally in­tro­duce pub­lic school­ing and se­condary school­ing to the con­ser­va­tive Men­non­ite com­mu­nity,” she said. “In ed­u­ca­tion his­tory, that’s huge.”

His­tor­i­cally, con­ser­va­tive Men­non­ite groups of­ten es­chewed a high school ed­u­ca­tion, favour­ing in­stead a hands-on ed­u­ca­tion, such as could be gained work­ing on the fam­ily farm or tra­di­tional prac­tice. Usu­ally, that meant hav­ing to drop out of school by age of 14, when the five-day school weeks be­came un­ten­able for par­ents hop­ing to train their youth di­rectly in the fam­ily trade.

The sec­u­lar sys­tem also failed to ac­com­mo­date other el­e­ments unique to the con­ser­va­tive cul­ture. Fam­i­lies wanted their chil­dren sep­a­rate from the so­cial life of the main­stream stu­dent body, in­clud­ing in or­ga­nized sports and other school ac­tiv­i­ties. Con­ser­va­tive Men­non­ites were also op­posed to sex­ual ed­u­ca­tion, wanted lim­ited ac­cess to tech­nol­ogy for their chil­dren, and were against re­quire­ments to change for phys­i­cal ac­tiv­ity classes.

The re­sult of these dif­fer­ences was that chil­dren fell out of the pub­lic ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem at a young age, with lit­tle op­por­tu­nity for an al­ter­na­tive. But that hadn’t al­ways been the case though, notes Harper.

“What most peo­ple don’t re­al­ize is even all of the Old Or­der Men­non­ites went to pub­lic school,” she ex­plained. “So they all went to the small ru­ral pub­lic schools, be­cause they were on ev­ery cor­ner. You still see them ev­ery­where.”

These ele­men­tary schools were typ­i­cally no larger than one or twoclass­room build­ings with lit­tle in the way of gyms, li­braries or other fa­cil­i­ties, though they served the Men­non­ite com­mu­ni­ties ad­e­quately.

A split emerged in the 1960s, how­ever, when the Min­istry of Ed­u­ca­tion moved to amal­ga­mate schools across the prov­ince. The smaller, ru­ral in­sti­tu­tions were forcibly closed down, and stu­dents were ex­pected to bus to larger cen­tral­ized lo­ca­tions – more in line with to­day’s think­ing.

The move was part of a broader ef­fort in the prov­ince to raise the qual­ity of ed­u­ca­tion in ru­ral On­tario, where the sparsely equipped schools were seen as lack­ing next to those avail­able in the prov­ince’s ur­ban cen­tres.

Men­non­ites staunchly op­posed the changes and with­drew their chil­dren from the pub­lic sys­tem en mass, and the prov­ince agreed to let them. A com­pro­mise was made by the then-min­is­ter of ed­u­ca­tion in On­tario, and fu­ture premier, Wil­liam Davis. Un­der what be­came known as the Three Bridges Agree­ment, fam­i­lies were al­lowed to re­move their chil­dren from for­mal school­ing at 14 pro­vided they were needed at home to work on the fam­ily


As time went on, how­ever, and the de­mands for a for­mal ed­u­ca­tion grew in the work­place, more con­ser­va­tive Men­non­ite fam­i­lies saw the ben­e­fit of a high school diploma.

Rec­og­niz­ing the need, a first at­tempt at cre­at­ing a Men­non­ite-spe­cific pro­gram at EDSS was made in 1996 with just five stu­dents at­tend­ing. It was a start, though the pro­gram was a far cry from what its suc­ces­sor ELAWS would be­come.

The pro­gram gave high school-aged chil­dren an ed­u­ca­tion, in an ac­tual high school no less. But func­tion­ally, the ed­u­ca­tion re­sem­bled more of a ba­sic English-speak­ing in­struc­tions than an al­ter­na­tive se­condary school ed­u­ca­tion.

“[The stu­dents] came when they wanted, there was no ex­pec­ta­tion that they would ever grad­u­ate. It was re­ally English learn­ing is what it was. It was ESL (English as a se­cond lan­guage) learn­ing.”

A se­cond at­tempt was made in 2000, this time by a re­cently re­tired EDSS teacher. Wayne Ziegel served as head of the school’s co-op pro­gram, and af­ter his re­tire­ment was re­quested by the school’s then-prin­ci­pal to help cre­ate a pro­gram that would serve the Men­non­ite com­mu­ni­ties in the town­ship.

Ziegel ac­cepted the task and be­gan to reach out to com­mu­ni­ties across the re­gion – com­mu­ni­ties that had been largely left in­com­mu­ni­cado by the pub­lic ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem for half a cen­tury. The cul­mi­na­tion of those ef­forts re­sulted in an un­prece­dented meet­ing be­ing held in 2004 at the Coun­try­side Chris­tian School in Hawkesville be­tween Men­non­ites and pub­lic school of­fi­cials.

“This was re­ally un­heard of,” said Harper. “Be­cause since the 1960s, they had dis­en­gaged from pub­lic school­ing. And then, there was never a his­tory of se­condary school­ing. So when they met, when 100 peo­ple showed up at that meet­ing – all dif­fer­ent groups of Men­non­ites – all met with pub­lic se­condary school peo­ple, this was un­prece­dented. And then they agreed to come to­gether, to work to­gether.”

The creation of ELAWS proved to be a game changer: it was a seg­re­gated sys­tem de­signed by ed­u­ca­tors and Men­non­ites alike that up­turned some of the rigid de­mands of pub­lic school­ing. Gone were the strict re­quire­ments of the manda­tory five-day school weeks in favour of a more flex­i­ble, co-op style sys­tem. So too were the re­quire­ment for chang­ing in for gym classes and sex­ual ed­u­ca­tion stricken.

More­over, classes were de­signed to match the ed­u­ca­tional needs of con­ser­va­tive groups specif­i­cally, of­fer­ing more classes in prac­ti­cal, as op­posed to strictly aca­demic, sub­jects. Men­non­ite groups could also di­rect the sub­ject ma­te­ri­als be­ing taught as well in the class­room, en­sur­ing they could send their chil­dren to class with peace of mind.

The pro­gram has en­dured for 20 years now, and with an av­er­age stu­dent body of 100 stu­dents a year has meant that that hun­dreds, if not thou­sands, of chil­dren liv­ing in the re­gion have been able to earn their di­plo­mas and, con­se­quently, bet­ter op­por­tu­ni­ties and prospects over the rest of their lives.

“Through hard work, lis­ten­ing and com­pro­mis­ing by the school sys­tem and dif­fer­ent groups of con­ser­va­tive Men­non­ite par­ents, the ELAWS pro­gram was able to ac­com­mo­date and in­te­grate pre­vi­ously dis­en­gaged com­mu­ni­ties within a pub­lic ed­u­ca­tion set­ting,” said Harper.

The ELAWS pro­gram will be host­ing an in­for­ma­tional ses­sion at the Li­ons Hall (40 South St. W., Elmira) on Jan­uary 15 for any­one in­ter­ested in learn­ing more about the pro­gram or en­rolling. The ses­sion starts at 7:30 p.m., and fam­i­lies are en­cour­aged to come by to have their ques­tions an­swered.

Ques­tions about the in­for­ma­tion night or the pro­gram can also be di­rected to ELAWS pro­gram co­or­di­na­tor Jeff Martin at 519-669-5414, ext. 5480, or


Since its creation 20 years ago, the ELAWS pro­gram has en­abled hun­dreds of youth in con­ser­va­tive com­mu­ni­ties to work to­wards their high school di­plo­mas, in­clud­ing cur­rent par­tic­i­pants Grace Jantzi, Nancy Braun, Der­rick Martin and Eric Bau­man.

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