Creating a Public Secondary School Program for a Religious and Cultural Minority: An Innovative Collaboration with Conservative Mennonites, 1996-2012
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This thesis presents a historical review of the interactions between an Ontario public school board and three conservative Mennonite church groups between 1996 and 2012 to found a high school program that accommodated the Mennonites’ beliefs and cultures. It is a critical consideration of how conservative Mennonite church groups, who were historically opposed to formal education beyond the age of fourteen, were able to collaborate with a public school board to found the Elmira Life and Work School (ELAWS) in Waterloo Region in Ontario. ELAWS, founded in 1996, is an innovative response to accommodation in the educational sphere. The Waterloo Region District School Board (WRDSB) was willing to re-think many assumptions regarding secondary schooling to establish ELAWS. These included an iconoclastic review of the five-day school week and the curriculum set by the province of Ontario. At the same time, several conservative Mennonite church groups were willing to enter into a period of self-examination. They decided they were willing to negotiate with a public school board, and that obtaining a secondary school diploma was worth risks that could result from stepping into the public domain. They were willing to test the school board to discover if they could be granted certain liberties. In the creation of the ELAWS program, we can see how a public school board and religious minority groups were able to compromise on the definition of secondary education. They were able to create an unprecedented educational model, one that could be applied in other jurisdictions. This thesis, as a case study of one secondary school, contributes to a broader understanding of how groups with particular views of education can be accommodated within Ontario’s public school system. This thesis offers an original perspective on the benefits that may be realized when Ontario’s public school system collaborates with conservative Mennonite communities. While previous studies have examined relationships between public school boards and conservative Mennonite students in elementary school, this is the first study to investigate secondary schooling. This research could provide a framework for other religious minority groups who would like to engage with a secondary school system to create a program that would benefit all stakeholders. Other authors have conducted research about Low German Mennonites and their interaction with public education, but none have looked into the decisions that were made to accommodate three different groups of conservative Mennonite students, each with divergent needs, in one program. The example provided by ELAWS may hold significant implications for the study of educational accommodations in Canada. ELAWS was developed because of several factors. These included provincial authorities enforcing Ontario education laws that required youth to attend school until age sixteen; recognition by conservative Mennonite community members that a grade twelve diploma was becoming the minimum requirement for job opportunities; and most important, the deepening of trust between an Ontario public school board and the conservative Mennonite community. The research reported in this thesis is based on primary source materials, field research and oral interviews with several stakeholders. The stakeholders include WRDSB staff, parents of ELAWS students, and former ELAWS students. The first chapter provides an overview of the significance of the founding of ELAWS and an introduction to the three conservative Mennonite groups initially involved in the program. Chapter 2 includes a review of the history of conservative Mennonite education in Canada. The third chapter explores a group of conservative Mennonites who are identified as belonging to the Low-German-speaking Mennonite community. This chapter reviews that community’s perspective on formal education and offers reactions from that community toward secondary schooling. Chapter 4 examines the reasons why some groups within the conservative Mennonite community sought out the public school board as a solution to the challenges of meeting minimal requirements for apprenticeship training, the rising cost of farmland, and the increased technical knowledge required in running twenty-first century technology. Chapter 5 reviews tensions that grew within certain conservative Mennonite communities relating to public education starting in 2012. The chapter explores the movement away from the acceptance of public education and towards a major adaptation in which the conservative church groups began founding secondary school programs of their own, following the ELAWS model.
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Janice Harper (2018). Creating a Public Secondary School Program for a Religious and Cultural Minority: An Innovative Collaboration with Conservative Mennonites, 1996-2012. UWSpace. http://hdl.handle.net/10012/14081