Arts & Life

We don’t need no (public) education

Brick wall. Photo: Toban Dyck.

To call it a problem is too simple. But the numbers are telling of the unique challenges in southern Manitoba’s Garden Valley School Division. There are 4,335 students registered in its catchment area. And there are 525 students currently attending homeschools in the same area. It has the highest percentage of homeschoolers in Manitoba.

It’s a growing concern in a school division desperate to stay relevant to a diverse student base where attitudes on education fill a large spectrum.  A committee has been formed to look into why parents are opting out of the public school system and enrolling in private or home school, its main goal being to ensure every student is receiving a good education and not slipping through the cracks.

In some provinces it’s age 15. Others 16. And some mandate education until the age of 18. But most Old Colony Mennonite schools in Mexico and other settlements in Central and South America stop educating children at the age of 12, for girls, and 13, for boys. And the Winkler area is home to large Old Colony settlements.

It’s one thing for them to keep their children in school until 16,” said GVSD superintendent Vern Reimer. “But it’s another thing entirely to for them to make the leap to 18.” And it was when the province raised the drop-out age to 18 in 2012 that the division started noticing the increase.

From 2011-2012 the number of students leaving the public school system leapt from 205 to 345, an upward trend that has yet to level out. From 2012-2013, there were 415 students in homeschools.

“This is a response to legislation,” said Reimer. “The students who could have quit before now have to stay. Society is unique here, and it requires a unique response from us.”

They’re mostly in villages, intentionally isolated from more cosmopolitan influences and largely disengaged from the groups homeschoolers form. The Old Colony Mennonites originated in Manitoba and chose their name to refer to the first Mennonite settlement in Russia established in the late 1700s. In Russia at the time, the Old Colony or Chortitza Mennonites were poorer, more socially conservative, and less educated than the groups that came to Russia in the early 1800s.

School attendance was made compulsory in Canada during World War I. Schools were mandated to hire certified instructors, fly the Union Jack, and teach in English, requiring the largely Low German-speaking Mennonites to become bilingual. Between 1922 and 1930 nearly 8,000 Old Colony Mennonites left Canada for Mexico and Paraguay, far from minimum drop-out ages, sex education, evolution theory, musical instruments, technology, and other worldly influences.

Some schools in Mexico only lasted six or seven years, a length of time perceived as long enough for children to learn their place as farmers, homemakers, or church members.

There are certain elements of the public schools that make Old Colony parents uncomfortable.  The obvious ones are sex education and lack of biblical instruction, but there are some more surprising reasons. “More schooling is seen not only as superfluous, but often as dangerous—too much knowledge can lead one away from the traditional, simple lifestyle that has been practiced by their forefathers and foremothers for hundreds of years,” said Robyn Sneath, a Trudeau Scholarship recipient for her work focused on the relationship between education and Old Colony Mennonites. “The purpose of traditional Mennonite education in Mexico is to reinforce the boundaries that separate them from the wider world.”

Since the initial exodus, many have trickled back to Manitoba, and Canada in general. And many still primarily speak Low German at home, preserving what they can of their culture.

Katharina Braun, 22, homeschools her five siblings, who range in age from 9 to 18. Her family is from an Old Colony settlement in Belize. They moved to Canada seven years ago and now live in Carman, Manitoba, a community located about 40 kilometres north of Winkler. Braun and her father know English, but her mother only speaks Low German.

“My family is a Christian family. They didn’t agree with evolution being taught in the public schools, so they decided the best thing to do was to pull them out,” said Braun, who finished high school before they moved to Carman and is also a fluent Low German speaker.

Katharina’s parents want their children to finish high school.

“It’s tough,” she said. “They are all different ages. There are moments you want to run, but it’s doable.”

Over a decade ago the division opened GVC Tech, a vocation-based supplement to the area’s then single high school. It offered hands-on skills programs such as manufacturing, agriculture, and diesel mechanics. “Most of the dads work in manufacturing,” said Reimer. “And many of them think, ‘if you can’t run a farm you should be in manufacturing, helping the industry out.’”

“We tried to respond to a practical need. There’s demand from these communities to work with their hands.”

Meridian, an ag-manufacturer with a plant in Winkler, is an active employer in the area. And has about 397 people in its employ in its Winkler plant alone. The company actively recruits throughout the year, and hires many workers that may not have their high school education but that do possess skills suited to the industry. “Education is not the deciding factor when considering a candidate for hire,” said spokesperson Johanna Hildebrand.

There are, as of September, a total of 199,532 students registered in Manitoba. And of the 2815 students enrolled in homeschool across Manitoba, there are two liaison workers monitoring them. “They don’t necessarily check-in; just when there’s flags,” said Darryl Gervais, Director of Instruction and Curriculum for the province.

If a child under the age of 16 is pulled from school, the penalty at the extreme end is a fine of $500 given to the parent or guardian. If the child is 16 or over, that fine drops to $200.  It’s a slap on the wrist.

In Ontario, there is no accountability for homeschoolers additional to a letter of intent sent in before September. Progress reports throughout the year are not required.

Manitoba differs. It requires those wishing to homeschool their children to check in at least twice during the school year, as well as provide a letter of intent.

“These progress reports consist of a checked box. The process is very unregulated. You can be a homeschooler and not educate your children,” said Wendy Loewen, herself a homeschooler in the area. “The system allows for this. There is no one checking in on families. And little support. The system keeps track, but it does not monitor.”

Loewen, who was a classroom teacher in Nunavut and has helped the territory develop curriculum, decided with her husband to homeschool their three children when they moved to southern Manitoba. “I can now do all the things I wanted to do in the classroom in terms of enrichment, but couldn’t before. In this area, there are certain assumptions made about people who homeschool, some of which are that we chose this for religious or isolation purposes.”

“This was not our rationale,” said Loewen, whose approach to education represents fulfilled potential, as opposed to preservation and isolation.

Her eldest was homeschooled, but finished high school at the United World College in the Netherlands after being one of 52 students accepted into the program worldwide. Their other two children demonstrate similar promise.

“It has been a deep and meaningful experience for my children,” said Loewen.  “They are socially adept, play violin and piano. We make regular trips to the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, and attend the ballet.”

Her 16-year-old daughter could have graduated with her high school diploma this year, but chose to stay on track with her graduating class. She is poised to graduate at 17 instead. Loewen’s homeschooling story sits in contrast to the Old Colony experience.

Parents want what’s best for their children, in general, and what that looks like differs case to case. For some parents it’s the tug of cultivating exceptionality against the small-town pressure of homogeneity. And something resembling the opposite for others. Then, add religion to the mix.

The Garden Valley School Division has to yet to receive any recommendations from the committee, but whatever it suggests, the Division will adapt to ensure the diverse demographic in its catchment receives the best education possible, be it at home, or elsewhere.


Toban Dyck is a writer and farmer. His Twitter handle is @tobandyck.