The Elmira Life and Work Skills program

Providing high school learning for Mennonite communities

Watercolour image of a portable

If you travel around the countryside in Waterloo Region on a weekday, visiting the St. Jacobs Farmers’ Market, stopping at pie stores and woodworking shops, you might wonder about all the teenage workers you encounter, and you may think, “Why aren’t these kids in school?” The answer to that question might surprise you: They are in school.

Traditionally, conservative Mennonites stop attending school after Grade 8, leaving formal education at age 14. This is permitted under Supervised Alternative Learning (SAL) regulations, because the students are participating in a supervised alternative learning experience, often on their own farms.

Perhaps you’ve had a glass of milk today, or had an apple chip at Starbucks. Maybe you put maple syrup on your pancakes this morning, or you’ll use a clove or two of garlic when you prepare pork chops for dinner tonight. You may have warmed up under a quilt after a recent sleigh ride. Any one of these products may have been produced by conservative Mennonite teenagers.

Until the 1960s, most conservative Mennonite children attended small one- and two-room public schools in the Waterloo Region countryside. In the mid-1960s the Ministry of Education
decided to close those schools and bus students to larger, centralized schools with more facilities, including gymnasiums. These changes had the effect of modernizing the experience of the students, and this was unacceptable for most conservative Mennonite families. It marked the end of their engagement with the public education system.

Sometimes known as the Plain people, conservative Mennonites choose to remain separate from modern society. There are many groups of conservative Mennonites, and while there are differences in specific practices, they are all Christian Anabaptists, named after Menno Simons, a Low Country theological leader from the 16th century.i

Times, however, have changed since the 1960s, and so have the conservative Mennonite communities. By the early 2000s, even though they wanted to retain a way of life that did not conform to contemporary society, the communities had come to recognize that a high school education was becoming essential. Farms were now multi-million dollar businesses, agricultural land was expensive and scarce, and there was a growing demand for skilled tradespeople. But the community remained extremely reluctant to re-engage in the world of public education. They were afraid of losing their children to a world that did not reflect their quiet, rural, pacifist culture. But more than anything else, they valued the kind of education that could be gained through working. They valued the stewardship of time, and wanted their teenagers to ‘learn from doing.’ Their needs differed from those of mainstream students. These parents did not want too much ‘sitting in the books,’ and they did not want their teenagers to be active in the social life of the school, including organized sports and assemblies. They wanted limited access to technology and no sexual education, and they did not want their teenagers to have to change for physical education classes. But they did want, for the first time ever, an Ontario Secondary School Diploma.

It was in response to this shift that the Elmira Life and Work Skills (ELAWS) program came into being. Through a long process of discussion between teachers, the Waterloo Region District School Board and the Mennonite communities, a timetable was crafted that could accommodate both the conservative Mennonite community and the public school board.

Jeff Martin, who, like several of the teachers, has Mennonite roots himself, is the coordinator of the program. “The program originated from a need in the community,” he explains. “We had Mennonite families who saw the value of a high school education, yet at the same time wanted to mentor their children in the home, on the farm or in the workplace.”

An alternative program, ELAWS offers a direct route to employment or to community college. All courses are at the applied level, a decision made by educators, together with the parents, as college is acceptable for practical career choices, such as being an electrician or a registered nursing assistant.

ELAWS now serves about 100 students from Grade 9 to 12. It is staffed by four full-time and several subject specialist teachers whose subjects might include, for example, green industries and accounting. Ken Reid teaches co-op, a variety of English courses, history, geography, career/civics and computers. He notes that he is able to meet ministry guidelines, while still choosing materials that honour the cultural reality of his students. For instance, he has every Grade 10 history student interview a parent or grandparent to gain their perspective on life before their church groups adopted the use of electricity or motor vehicles.

Martin, a qualified technology teacher, works closely with a parent council to make decisions, including course offerings and field trips. Over the years the program has moved from the Elmira District Secondary School to an off-site location and back again, and from using paper-based Independent Learning Centre (ILC) booklets to the distribution of a laptop to every student. Every one of these decisions was discussed until there was mutual agreement among all the Mennonite groups and the school staff. The teachers have to learn to be accepting and to respect the values of the communities. This is particularly true in the case of ‘hands on’ courses, where it’s essential to recognize the value placed on traditional, informal apprenticeships, where elders teach the young. At the same time, the community has had to adapt to current educational requirements. As a former guidance counsellor pointed out, “This is not a private school; we are an authentic credit-granting institution.”

The students attend classes in separate portables and in segregated technology and family studies classes at Elmira District Secondary School. They come to school one or two days a week, and spend the rest of the time, beginning from Grade 9, working and accumulating Co-operative Education credits. All of the teachers in the program have their co-op qualifications and often help to find employment opportunities in the non-Mennonite world. For example, Martin and Reid have placed several boys in a plant that provides factory automation and robotic integrators. The teachers monitor the students in their barns and kitchens, in cabinet making, auto and welding shops, in restaurants, bakeries, and egg-grading stations, and yes, at the St. Jacobs Market and on Martin’s Apple Farm.

By offering a Specialist High Skills Major in the Environment, ELAWS is able to offer safety instruction at no cost to the parents. “They really appreciate our ability to provide certification in chainsaw safety, working at heights, forklift management, safe food handling, first aid and CPR. These are all important skills for the employers, but they are not taught in their own communities,” said Adam Hiller, who teaches co-op, several grades of math, computers, and financial literacy.

The ELAWS program is an ongoing example of how a public school system works to accommodate specific needs. It provides education for a group of people who have no history of participating in secondary schooling. Through meaningful compromise and collaboration between community leaders and educators, members of a previously under-educated population are able to achieve a common goal, an Ontario Secondary School Diploma.

i Krahn, Cornelius and Cornelius J. Dyck. “Menno Simons (1496-1561).” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1990. Web. 13 Jan 2018. gameo.org/index.php?title=Menno_Simons_(1496-1561)&oldid=145845.

About Janice Harper
Janice Harper is a teacher at the Elmira DSS in District 24, Waterloo.

1 Comment on The Elmira Life and Work Skills program

  1. ROXY REIMER // April 19, 2018 at 3:59 am // Reply

    I really enjoyed reading your article Janice. i grew up in Niagara-on-the-Lake which is a Mennonite fruit farming region where i too have Mennonite roots and i also worked on fruit farms. I am pleased to learn that the Waterloo Board & the Ministry appreciate the Mennonites and their strong faith, work ethics & harvest. It is impressive to read that together, all participants are developing an education that accommodates such an awesome culture & economics in our great country.

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