Amish take a step back to the future School: Abandoning their traditional opposition to secondary education, Amish and Mennonite graduates of a Garrett County public school are pursuing GED diplomas.

November 08, 1998|By Mary Maushard | Mary Maushard,SUN STAFF

GORTNER -- In a tiny schoolhouse in a Garrett County meadow, the past, present and future converge.

Amish and Mennonite children have attended Swan Meadow, a public elementary and middle school, for more than 100 years. For the first time, the school's graduates are returning to the simple brick building this fall to pursue high school diplomas -- a departure from their traditions.

Every Tuesday evening, 16 students -- age 13 and older -- come to Swan Meadow, in the rolling hills south of Oakland, to study for state General Educational Development (GED) diplomas.

Though secondary education has long been considered unnecessary by New Order Amish dairy farmers, the desire, and need, for schooling beyond eighth grade is beginning to take root. There's even talk in this traditional community of the need to find jobs off the farms and learn about such things as computers.

"I wanted more education," says Karen Peachey, a shy 13-year-old who finished eighth grade in the spring. Karen likes staying home, helping milk her family's 47 cows and taking care of her five younger siblings. But she has come to believe further education "would be useful if you would want to have a job sometime."

The deeply private Amish have had an uneasy relationship with public schooling. The right for them to leave school after eighth grade was hard won. Before a 1972 Supreme Court decision protected that practice, they were often prosecuted for not keeping their children in school until age 16.

The new GED program is not the first thing to set Swan Meadow apart.

"It's not normal, not normal at all, for Amish and conservative Mennonites to go to public school," says Paul Yoder, an alumnus of the school, the father of three Swan Meadow pupils and president of its parent-teacher group.

Amish schools

Most Amish communities around the country establish their own schools with Amish teachers, who teach both religious and secular subjects. But Swan Meadow is a public school, run by Garrett County largely for Amish or Mennonite children.

The Amish in Garrett belong to a relatively liberal sect. They have electricity and telephones, and they farm with tractors. The Mennonites, closely connected to the Amish, tend to be even less restricted in their practices.

"The reason the Amish and Mennonites go here is because of the sensitivity of the [county] Board of Education to culture and community," Yoder said.

Linda Fleming, Swan Meadow's principal for seven years, is not Amish, nor is anyone else on her teaching staff, but they have the blessing of the community.

'Cream of the crop'

"We probably have the cream of the crop in teachers," says Paul Petersheim, a Mennonite farmer, Swan Meadow graduate and parent of five graduates. "We're very happy with the quality of the education."

In contrast to other areas where Amish live, parents here say there never has been much sentiment for an Amish school in Garrett, because they are so pleased with Swan Meadow.

As a public school, Swan Meadow follows the Garrett County curriculum and makes few, if any, concessions academically to its pupils. However, some adaptations have been made.

One is the skirts-only policy for female teachers. "We choose not to wear pants," says Liz Gilbert, one of two full-time teachers. "It's important to them, and it doesn't really matter to us."

Fleming recalls an important early lesson in accommodating Amish families.

A teacher wanted to use educational videos in class, so Fleming assembled a group of parents to review them. They approved some, turned down others as inappropriate and decided to reconsider some.

Sensing unease, Fleming discovered that the content of the videos was not the real concern. "It was the instrument we use to show the videos," she says. "Their consciences could not allow them to approve the TV."

The school didn't use the videos. The parents were pleased and thanked the teachers and the principal with a Christmas dinner.

English fluency

Sometimes, it's the parents who adapt.

For Amish children, English is a second language, taught after the Pennsylvania Dutch and High German used in their church services. Early on, Fleming noticed that some first-graders -- children are home-schooled for kindergarten -- did not speak English well because they had not been introduced to it until age 4.

She asked parents to start teaching English a year earlier. They did, and the first-graders are more fluent.

Amish settlers built the first Swan Meadow School in the 1880s. In the 1950s, using their labor and county funds, the community members built a larger school. During the past two summers, the community and the county teamed up again to replace aging portable classrooms with permanent ones and add a library and computer lab.

Envy of educators

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