Schools put to the test

How can Mennonite education remain ‘worth it’?

Jun 10, 2019 by

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Pop quiz: How many Mennonite students does a Mennonite school need? Today’s answer: all of the above.

As denominational identity erodes, institutional loyalty that defined religion in the 20th century goes with it, and schools — be they elementary or university — are not immune.

Warwick River Christian School flirted with extinction this spring, ultimately sacrificing middle-school classes to save kindergarten through fifth grade. The school counted more than 340 students in 2008 but had only 70 students signed up for next fall.

Only one of those remaining students is Mennonite. Warwick River board chair Danni Clark says this is not because families are choosing the cheaper public option. There just aren’t many families with young children in the schools’ sponsoring congregations.

Among the members of Mennonite Schools Council, Warwick River is a bit of an extreme example. About 30 percent of students at MSC schools are Mennonite (Mennonite Church USA colleges reported only 23 percent). With a few exceptions, non-Mennonite students are the majority at MC USA schools.

Assuming these schools are located in areas of relatively high Mennonite population, one might expect classes to serve mostly Mennonites. But people from other strands of Christianity, or no religious background at all, seem to be lining up sooner. What do they find attractive about Mennonite education that Mennonites don’t? Is our frugality stronger than other aspects of our identity? Do the schools need to become more affordable?

When non-Mennonites become the majority in “our” institutions, there can be a tendency to shift language and priorities to make them feel welcome. But broadening the schools’ appeal doesn’t mean downplaying core values. Mennonite Education Agency senior director Elaine Moyer says Anabaptist distinctives attract prospective students from diverse backgrounds.

“The reason people are coming to us is because of the core identity, the mutual aid, the service, the care for others, the humility, the generosity,” she said. “They do get it.”

If only more of us did.

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