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In the Latin American Mennonite colony, the village school is an important institution in the perpetuation of colony life.

Reasons why students leave school


Low German-speaking Mennonites have a strong work ethic, and hard manual labour is seen as a practical way to care for your family. Working to financially provide for your family is highly valued. At home, self-worth is traditionally developed by finding a job and saving money to buy a house or a car. Therefore, if a student does not feel like finishing high school there is often not much objection from parents. They may even encourage their children to quit school due to concerns regarding curriculum content. The combination of strongly valuing work, uncertainty about what youth are being taught and sometimes knowing of job openings can result in parents deciding to allow or even encourage their children to quit school and begin work.

Parents tend to place the responsibility of choosing to continue with high school on their children. Because of the strong cultural expectations in the community and at home, it is logical that many youth will choose to enter the workforce. Low German parents have different values and purposes for education (see Religious and cultural understandings) than those of mainstream Canadian parents, and these values sometimes clash with educational expectations in Canada.

A growing recognition that education is important


Overall, there seems to be a growing recognition that school is necessary, but there is still resistance to it as part of the culture/world that should not be engaged with. However, this issue is loaded with cultural, social and economical contexts; there are many variables that can cause a family to recognize education as important. For example, Low German families who have been settled in Canada for many years are more apt to see education as important, but those just arriving from Latin American countries are still in the process of understanding the culture and way of life in Canada and how education impacts opportunities. Those who are no longer part of more conservative traditions may also have a greater understanding of the importance of education and encourage their children to remain in school.

Alternative learning programs

In several areas within Southern Ontario, there are alternative learning programs that youth can enrol in. These programs are great for Low German families because they consist of only Mennonite youth and there is a strong emphasis on work. Students are able to obtain the necessary credits and receive a high school diploma in four years while working and doing co-op placements. Parents often feel at ease placing their youth in these programs because youth get an education while maintaining their commitment to work. They also like these programs because co-op employers will sometimes hire the students after they have completed the educational component.

Available Programs:

Listed here are some alternative learning programs in Southwestern Ontario for Low German- speaking Mennonites:

ASPIRE program at East Elgin Secondary School (Thames Valley District School Board)

TURNING POINT program at Valley Heights Secondary School (Grand Erie District School Board)

CASE or Riverside Learning at Listowel District Secondary School (Avon-Maitland District School Board)

ULEARN or ELAWS at Elmira District Secondary School (Waterloo Region District School Board)

ROUTES program at Crossroads Public School—both secondary and elementary programs (District School Board of Niagara)

BRIDGES at Straffordville elementary school and Summers’ Corners elementary school (Thames Valley District School Board)

Visit your local school board website or contact the coordinator of these alternative programs to learn more about each regional alternative learning program for high school-aged youth and/or any programs available for elementary-aged school children.

Strengths and challenges of alternative learning programs

These alternative learning programs are geared specifically to Low German individuals. The separation from mainstream schools eases fears for parents who are concerned about the effect of outside influences on their children. Teachers in these programs adapt their teaching strategies so that students can engage and overcome language and systemic barriers. The experience, practical skills and potential for paid employment post co-op placement usually increases the perceived value of the program for families. The flexibility of the program and the collaboration with other service providers strengthens the support Low German families feel in these programs.

However, these programs still face the challenge of competing with the ongoing lure of work. Even when students are enrolled in these programs, work can take a high priority and threaten to pull students away from the programs completely. Additionally, because of strong values regarding all family members contributing to household functioning, homework and assignments are sometimes challenging for youth to complete. Physical constraints in the home such as the lack of study space and materials and/or internet access may contribute to the student’s difficulty in finishing alternative learning programs.

Opening closed doorsdoors

Many parents feel anxious as their children enter high school, and it is no different for Low German parents. They are often concerned about their youth engaging in elements of adolescent culture that they cannot support. It is helpful for service providers to acknowledge these fears and to encourage parents to remain/become involved in this stage of the education process (see: A strategic plan for welcoming Low German Students into your school). Youth may also lack necessary peer support, given that for many Low German families, completing high school is a (relatively) new endeavour. It is therefore that much more daunting a task for youth to undertake. Language barriers, cultural misunderstandings, lack of knowledge about options and isolation sometimes prevent youth and/or parents from seeking out help and becoming aware of the options available to them.