High School and Beyond


Reasons why students leave school


Low German speaking Mennonites have a strong work ethic. 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.

15 year-old Susie and her 9 siblings moved to Canada with their parents 6 months ago. They had been in a remote village in Durango with a high rate of poverty. In order to survive economically, the older children must now work in factories or fields in the summer while the younger children stay at home and help their mother with household chores. 

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 that 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 remain in school.

“I have seen a growing realization of the importance of education over the years… . There are good things happening–our participation rate has increased in the last five years, and I have noticed that more families seem to be settling in the area, rather than having ‘two worlds’ (Mexico and Canada), in which they are constantly moving back and forth. Our program has really been able to focus on technical work (shop work, machine work, etc.), so that also helps parents to see that education is an important step along the road to getting a good job.” -Teacher from an alternative learning program

“I’m going to own and work at a restaurant. I will have to take business and cooking classes at college.” - Low German Jr. High student 

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 4 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 placement employers will sometimes hire the students after they have completed the educational component.

Available Programs:

Valley Heights’ Turning Point Program (Launched in 2006 in the Grand Erie District School Board)

Turning Point 9/10

  • Students earn credits in four terms:
  • Term 1 (Sept-mid Nov): Work or attend classes at Valley Heights to earn elective credits (art, physical education, business)
  • Terms 2 and 3 (mid Nov-mid April): Focus on compulsory credits in face to face classes at Valley Heights (english, math, history, geography)
  • Term 4 (mid April-June): Earn cooperative education credits through work or volunteer placements

Turning Point 11/12

  • Students earn credits in several ways:
  • Face to face classes at Valley Heights and/or Houghton Public School Portables
  • eLearning classes with Teacher support in Room 123 at Valley Heights, Houghton Portables or Aylmer EMMC Church
  • Evening Homework Help at Houghton on Tuesday and Thursday from 6pm-9pm
  • Cooperative education credits
  • English Literacy Development Classes: Building English reading and writing skills
  • For more information about the Valley Heights Turning Point Program, please call 519-586-3522

A.S.P.I.R.E. (Arbeit Schule Program in Rural Elgin, Thames Valley District School Board)

  • A secondary school program leading to a Certificate of Achievement or an Ontario Secondary School Diploma
  • Operates out of East Elgin Secondary School in Aylmer
  • Classroom times are available Monday through Friday and Tuesday evenings
  • Courses are delivered through classroom instruction and online
  • ASPIRE offers academic and experiential learning credits in preparation for the workplace, college or university
  • Community outreach events are held to promote and support learning for the Low German speaking Mennonite community
  • Free

Contact: Catarina Vindasius at 226.268.8059 or Abe Wall Vice Principal, EESS at 519.773.3174 ext. 67354

CASE and Riverside Durango (since 2006, Avon Maitland District School Board)

CASE Community-based Alternative Secondary Education (Ages 14-21) FREE

A separate, structured, culturally respectful classroom program at Listowel District Secondary School for Low German, conservative Mennonite, and homeschool families. Students attend classes on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, and also participate in co-operative education placements three days per week.  CASE students earn an Ontario Secondary School Diploma.  Several hundred of our graduates have gone on to family life, to the workplace, to business ownership, to apprenticeship, to college, and also to university.  Tech and foods classes, safety certifications, science labs, and optional field trips and sports activities are offered. Students can participate in the Ontario Youth Apprenticeship Program.

Riverside Durango (Ages 14-21) FREE

Independent and small group learning for students who cannot participate in CASE, with evening classes and teacher support.

The same as the ULearn program for Waterloo Region students, and similar to ASPIRE, but for students from Perth and Huron counties in places such as Millbank, Milverton, Atwood, etc.  

Evening courses include Spanish, tech, foods, and academic support.  Riverside students also may join CASE activities.  An iPad computer (optional) is provided to support coursework.

Riverside teachers also administer and monitor SAL (Supervised Alternative Learning) in our area. We will work with service providers to assist any families who are moving into or live in Huron and Perth to establish an important local connection to education services and access to bussing, etc. Riverside Durango is a part of Riverside Rural Learning, a new name for our independent learning and night school model for excused students that dates back to 2007.

ELAWS (Elmira Life and Work Skills), Waterloo Region District School Board)

  • Blend classroom instruction with valuable work experience
  • Earn OSSD while gaining hands-on experience in the workplace setting
  • Aims to develop skills that enable youth to enter the workforce (emphasis on math/technical skills/writing), strong interest in apprenticeship
  • Teachers are sensitive to values of students and their families
  • Classes are held at the main campus but separate from the mainstream high school population
  • Grade 9-10 students attend classes on Tuesday and Wednesday
  • Grade 11-12 students choose either Monday or Tuesday (remainder of week is spent at co-op placements and completing homework)
  • Certification programs available: Safety, CPR, First Aid, Food handling, etc.
  • Free
  • Visit website for more details

Contact: Jeff Martin

Elmira District Secondary School
4 University Ave.
Elmira, ON N3B 1K2
519.669.5414 x480


The ULearn model is built on flexibility in order to meet the needs of the community it serves.  Students have access to independent learning resources and teacher support in a variety of subjects.

For example:

  • High School Credit Courses (Math, English)
  • Co-operative Education Credit Courses
  • English Language Learning Courses

ULearn students participate in a variety of ways.

ULearn Linwood Day School

  • Classes held at Linwood Public School
  • Students complete essential level high school courses
  • Monday focuses on Grade 9 and 10 compulsory courses
  • Friday offers all day drop-in but focuses on after work support for shop workers

ULearn Independent Study

  • For students unable to attend Linwood Day School or who require a more personalized learning experience
  • Students meet monthly (minimum) with a teacher at home, at a library, or at work
  • Students can attend the Tuesday evening homework club at Linwood Public School from 7-9 pm and get additional support.
  • Courses focus on reading, writing and math skills

U-SAL (Supervised Alternative Learning)

  • For students between 14-18 who by law must be connected with a school program but cannot complete course work
  • Students are monitored monthly by an U-Learn teacher
  • Courses can be offered if requested
  • Meets school attendance regulations outlined in both the Education Act and the Employment Standards Act

Contact: Ryan Gingerich (ryan_gingerich@wrdsb.on.ca) or Linda Ruby (linda_ruby@wrdsb.on.ca)

Linwood Public School
50 Pine Street

Centre Peel Secondary School (Upper Grand District School Board)

  • Grade 9-10 courses are taught in a portable behind Centre Peel School
  • All compulsory core courses offered as well as Learning Strategies; Visual Arts; Food and Nutrition; Individual, Family, and Social Living; Exploring Technology, Transportation, and Manufacturing
  • Program runs two days per week with a third day available for tutoring
  • Free

Contact: Rhonda Gingrich, Centre Peel Principal

Heather Pedjasse, Norwell High School Principal
519.343.3107 ext. 305

Routes: Cultivating opportunities for Low German Communities

Crossroads Public School (District School Board of Niagara)

  • Lesen, Schreiben, Rechmen for students between the ages of 4 and 14 to work towards their Grade 8 Graduation Diploma using a flexible program.
    • Focused on math, reading and writing with their peers in small group settings
    • Programming developed with community input and respectful of religious and cultural beliefs
    • Extra activities available (e.g. guitar club)
  • Arbeit Schule for students aged 14 and up, to work towards their Ontario Secondary School Diploma
    • Students may work full-time (co-op credits)
    • Flexible hours
    • Monday class at Crossroads Public School, 1350 Niagara Stone Road, Niagara-on-the-Lake
    • Students work at their own pace and courses meet individual needs

Contact: Gerda Klassen, Crossroads Public School, 905.468.7793

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 doors

Many Low German parents state they want a better life for their children than they had for themselves and there is growing understanding about how education fits into that picture. When parents see other Low German children attending high school and emerging with their cultural integrity intact, it puts them at ease; they are then more likely to encourage their children to complete high school as well.


“When my daughter first went to high school I knew she was a good girl, so I was confident that she would not become involved in dangerous activities. I really encouraged her to sit and be friends with her youth group instead of the kids she went to grade school with, as I believed her youth group friends would be a better influence on her.” (Daughter later went to university for Social Work and is currently working in her field.) -Low German Mother

Grassroots efforts within the Low German community to raise awareness about school are encouraging because others can then see the importance its own members are placing on education.

“I want my children to have a better life than I did.” - Low German parent

“School is important because if you don’t go to school then you don’t get very good jobs.”  – Low German Jr. High student

“I want to be a kindergarten teacher.” - Low German Jr. High student

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.

“George was a student who sat on the bus alone everyday in high school. He would often get mocked and verbally or physically beat up because he came from a large Mennonite family. Examples like this often caused other children to dissociate themselves from their Mennonite identity, for fear that they would also get made fun of.” - Recounted by a 23 year old Low German woman

Jake does not really associate himself as a Mennonite, as he sees himself as the same as his mainstream Canadian peers. But he does remember that when he was in grade school he saw the Mennonite kids being “pushed around” and called names such as “stinky”. He says that now, in high school, he doesn’t see as much outright bullying, but notes that there is a definite physical separation of those who are newer to Canada or are from families that are more conservative (In terms of their the way they dress and carry themselves). -18 year old youth

A story of transition

Isaac and Mary moved to Canada just over 18 years ago. Their first two children, Peter and Sarah were born in Mexico. John, Philip and Martha were born in Canada. Peter already had one year of education in Mexico but when they arrived in Canada, Sarah was only 5 and seemed especially young to be going to school.  Isaac and Sarah found the school system to be very different and were initially hesitant to send their oldest two children to school.

Eighteen years later, Peter has earned his GDP and is working as a welder in a shop while continuing to help his father and uncle farm. He hopes to take over the farm one day. He continues to speak Low German at home with his wife and family as well as at work, but is also fluent in English.

Sarah recently graduated from High School and is now enrolled in a homecare diploma program. She is also fluent in both Low German and English but only uses Low German within her family context. She is the first person, even within her extended family, to pursue post-secondary education. It came as a surprise to her parents that she did this and they experienced those familiar hesitancies from so long ago when they first sent her to elementary school. But they understand that this will open up opportunities for Sarah to have a good paying job in the future and are tentatively supportive of her.

John is currently in high school. Though there are many Low German youth in his school, he neither explicitly identifies with them nor avoids them like some of his peers do. He sees how the Low German youth are sometimes treated differently but does not experience this himself. Sometimes he helps newcomer students as they first settle into school because he can speak Low German and thinks it is a nice thing to do but this has not produced many long-term friendships. He is not sure what he wants to do after he graduates but is not interested in farming.

Philip is in Junior High. He does not identify as a Low German Mennonite and most of his peers do not know he can speak another language. Sometimes he worries that his older brother’s helpfulness will result in him being asked to help out as well. He uses English at home even though he is able to speak Low German. Sometimes his parents feel this is disrespectful but he insists that it just happens naturally. He thinks in English and it comes more naturally to him.

Martha is proud to call herself a Mennonite. Her friends are impressed with her ability to speak another language and sometimes they spend recesses learning different phrases. Martha wears pants or dresses to school and is comfortable with the other girls who do not wear pants. They remind her of some of her cousins. She says that no one bullies her in school for being a Mennonite and that everyone in school treats the Mennonites well. She knows English better than Low German and it is a bit of a game at home between her and her parents to keep learning Low German so she speaks both languages in the home.

Isaac and Mary can see the cultural shifts that are happening even within their own family. On one hand they are pleased with how their older children maintained important cultural and religious values as they went through high school, while on the other hand they worry that adopting some of the Canadian cultural values will inevitably lead to losing the Low German values completely. Nevertheless, they know their lives in Canada are much more economically stable and are relieved to have been able to provide for their children in ways that their parents never were able to provide for them.


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