For the many Old Order Amish and Old Order Mennonite children living in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, the ringing school bell signals a time to shift attention from field work to school work, a time to drop the hoe and pick up a pencil.
Order Amish children attend one-room schools through the eighth grade and are usually taught by a young, unmarried woman. As a result of the county’s growing Old Order population, enrollment in their one-room schools is surging. During recent years Old Order leaders have been over-seeing the construction of new one-room school buildings at the rate of about five per year.
A 1972 Supreme Court ruling exempted the Old Order sects from compulsory attendance laws beyond the eighth grade. The one-room schools restrict worldly influences and stress the basics such as reading, writing and arithmetic. The importance of the community and cooperation among its members are also emphasized.
The following answer to a question we received as part of our “Ask the Amish” feature was given by the resident experts at the Mennonite Information Center in Lancaster:
“Why are Amish schools different?”
“School for Old Order Amish and Mennonites is only a part of the learning necessary for preparation for the adult world. Children have formal schooling in one-room schools to 8th grade and then have a structured learning program supervised by their parents. Classes in the one-room Amish schools are conducted in English, and the children learn English when they go to school. The teachers are Amish and they have no more than an eighth grade education themselves. When the landmark United States Supreme Court decision of 1972 gave exemption for Amish and related groups from state compulsory attendance laws beyond the eighth grade, Chief Justice Burger wrote: “it is neither fair nor correct to suggest that the Amish are opposed to education beyond the eighth grade level. What this record shows is that they are opposed to conventional formal education of the type provided by a certified high school because it comes at the child’s crucial adolescent period of religious development.”
Mennonites, on the other hand, have dozens of parochial elementary schools, more than 20 high schools, eleven colleges, and three seminaries sponsored by Mennonite groups in North America. Mennonite families choose whether to send their children to public or church-sponsored schools. Higher education became a vocational necessity as Mennonites left the farm. Missions and service opportunities also gave rise to the need for higher education.”