Freeman Academy confronts its rural challenges

School that ‘never had to promote itself’ aims higher than survival

May 1, 2017 by and

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FREEMAN, S.D. — The clanging and clinking of plates, cutlery, pots and pans. The metallic hum of the sausage grinder. The sizzle of New Year’s cookies in the fryer. The wafting strains of music. The persistent babble of conversation.

These are the sounds of Freeman Academy’s annual Schmeck­fest. These are the sounds of money.

The Mennonite-affiliated school has been holding Schmeckfest — German for “tasting festival” — every year since 1958, most recently March 24-25 and March 30-April 1. A cultural celebration, it features traditional Mennonite and Hutterite ethnic foods, crafts, historical presentations and a Broadway-style musical (this year’s show was Briga­doon).

Students Liam Ortman and Tyler Brockmueller sugar New Year’s cookies for Schmeckfest, which raises funds for Freeman Academy. — Rich Preheim for MWR

Students Liam Ortman and Tyler Brockmueller sugar New Year’s cookies for Schmeckfest, which raises funds for Freeman Academy. — Rich Preheim for MWR

Schmeckfest is a cash cow for the rural school, generating $150,000 or more annually. That’s a substantial amount for Freeman Academy, which has long existed on the financial edge. But it’s now taking unprecedented steps to try to increase its viability in a challenging context.

The school has 77 students in first through 12th grades, or an average of 6.4 students per class, the lowest count of the 16 U.S. schools affiliated with Mennonite Church USA’s Mennonite Schools Council. Other than Hopi Mission School, located on Arizona’s Hopi reservation, the academy is the only MSC school in an area that’s 100 percent rural or without a city of more than 2,500 people, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

The two counties that are home to the vast majority of students together have fewer than 16,000 residents. What’s more, as in most of rural America, those numbers are going down. Hutchinson and Turner counties have had declining populations in every U.S. census since 1940.

And the Mennonite population hasn’t been spared. The four local MC USA congregations have a current membership of 1,038, a third fewer than 40 years ago. A Mennonite Brethren congregation’s membership has fallen by almost half during that time. Two congregations have closed in the past 25 years.

As a result of these trends, the school’s survival has been “nip and tuck” for a long time, said board chair Sherilyn Ortman. But people aren’t giving up on it.

“We believe there is still a role for Freeman Academy,” she said. “There is still a place for Anabaptist education.”

But the school may have fewer Mennonite students.

Once a college, too

Its enrollment and population aren’t Freeman Academy’s only distinctives among U.S. MSC members: it’s the oldest and the only one started by Russian Mennonites. Inspired by Bethel College in Kansas, the South Dakota Mennonite College was established in 1900. Classes began three years later.

The school initially offered education for students age 6 and older, including some college-level courses. The lower grades were soon discontinued, and in the 1920s the school became Freeman Junior College and Academy.

The “Old” Mennonite Church earnestly began schools during and after World War II to insulate their children from worldly acculturation.

Money was always tight for Freeman Junior College and Academy, and in 1985 the decision was made to close the college in favor of the high school. But financial challenges have continued. Junior high and elementary classes were added to increase enrollment, but it remains a bare-bones operation.

“There’s a lot of ways of economizing, but there’s not much more we can do right now,” said interim administrator Allan Dueck.

Ortman said a “Lord will provide” mindset has hampered the school. “ ‘The Lord will provide’ is not a sound enrollment strategy,” she said, quoting another board member.

Better than average

Enrollment is key to viability. Most schools aim for 75 percent of income from tuition, Dueck said, but the school generates only 45 percent. That puts greater pressure on other revenue streams, such as donations and Schmeckfest. He said the school could easily accommodate another 30 students without increasing expenses for staff or facilities.

Dueck came to the academy last year after retiring from 20 years at Bethany Christian Schools in Goshen, Ind. He got the board to focus on visioning — something it hadn’t done in a long time, he said — which led to identifying enrollment as the crucial issue.

Dueck said the academy has a good reputation but not better than the local public schools.

“We cannot just be average,” he said. “Average is available all around for free. We need to be above average.”

To reach that goal, he talked about better emphasizing its successful fine arts programs and incorporating peace topics into social studies courses and environmental stewardship into science classes.

“Those kind of aspirations are really encouraging our board and our faculty,” Dueck said.

Nathan Epp approves of the strategy. He teaches science for grades seven through 12 as well as high school Bible. He is the athletic director and a coach. But he’ll give it all up next academic year when he succeeds Dueck as the school’s administrator.

“The spiritual aspect goes beyond just Bible classes,” said Epp, a 1989 graduate who has taught at the school since 2003. “That’s part of the problem-solving process. That’s vital for kids growing up.”

Reaching farther out

Like all Mennonite schools, including colleges, the academy could draw more legacy students. Within 20 miles of Freeman are 25 households where one or both parents are alumni and have school-age children. But only eight households sent their children to the school in 2015-16, according to Will Ortman, husband of the board chair and who has studied local demographics.

The Ortmans — Will, a 1995 graduate, and Sherilyn, who attended Iowa Mennonite School at Kalona — are one of those eight households. Their two children are the fourth generation of the family to attend the school.

The limited number of Mennonites, however, means the school will need to draw more students from other backgrounds. Of the 77 students this year, 38 are Mennonite and 39 non-Mennonite, including nine from China and one from Rwanda.

Five students come from Yankton, a city of nearly 15,000 located 35 miles south of Freeman with no Christian high school. The academy has started to advertise in the Yankton area and has established a relationship with the city’s only Christian elementary school to draw its students north for their high school education. This fall, Freeman Academy will provide transportation from Yankton to Freeman.

The idea of recruiting from Yankton isn’t new, but the academy had never acted on it.

“Our school has never had to promote itself,” Sherilyn Ortman said. “We’re becoming aware of how many people in the immediate area don’t know about us.”

But she knows that interactions with non-Mennonites can be challenging. The Yankton school is more conservative than many academy constituents, and Ortman wonders how the two parties will relate to each other.

She also cited the academy’s cooperative athletic program with a nearby public school. Due to low enrollments, both schools were struggling to field interscholastic sports teams, so they joined efforts last fall. Ortman said the venture has gone well, but it required negotiating when games started with a prayer or with the national anthem.

“We will have to work with others on a broader scale than we have in the past,” she said. “This doesn’t come naturally for a faith community whose identity is somewhat rooted in isolation/separation from ‘the world.’ ”

But that’s overshadowed by the potential Ortman sees for Freeman Academy’s future.

“I feel for the first time we’re making some pretty intentional efforts to thrive,” she said.

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