We have previously written about two earlier Mennonite high schools begun at the end of World War II — Eden Christian College in Virgil, Ontario and the United Mennonite Educational Institute in Leamington, Ontario.
Unlike the immigrants of the 1920s, Ontario Mennonites with roots in Pennsylvania found high schools to be relatively new territory at the end of World War II, even though their Mennonite cousins in the United States were establishing and expanding high schools. In 1944 no more than 20 percent of the young people of the Mennonite Conference of Ontario went to high school, less than half the Ontario average.
But World War II, as well as increasing interaction with the larger society, and the technological demands of even agriculturally related professions pushed the conference to explore Mennonite secondary education.
The Mennonite Church schools in the United States were burgeoning at a time when nonconformity remained a strong emphasis within a denomination that nonetheless accepted the need for increased education. Similarly, the Mennonite Conference of Ontario leaders sought to safeguard their young people from the world and to bolster the principle of nonconformity. Some scholars have talked about this as an effort to “arrest the secularization process” through these private schools.
Rockway Mennonite School, March 1948. David Hunsburger photo
The Ontario Mennonite Bible School board, which had run its program at First Mennonite Church in Kitchener for almost forty years, initially discussed the concept of a Mennonite high school and even had conversations with the Ontario Department of Education. Ultimately, however, the Mennonite Conference of Ontario gave the task to a new high school committee. By early 1945 this committee, chaired by St. Jacobs pastor Roy Koch, recommended purchasing a fourteen-acre farm on the eastern edge of Kitchener, near Rockway Gardens.
They recommended a committee member—Harold D. Groh—as principal. Groh was one member of the conference who possessed a high school teaching certificate. His primary work before then had been to lead the conference’s Toronto mission; he had also taught part time several years at the Brethren in Christ high school. Groh served as Rockway’s principal until 1956. The board also hired one additional teacher in that first year: Salome Bauman, a grade one public school teacher with twelve years of experience. Bauman was a gifted, inspiring teacher who influenced many students in her twenty-five years of service to the school.
Rockway Mennonite School’s first graduating class, 1948 L to r: Lois Martin, Delford Zehr, J.C. Wenger (speaker at graduation), Harold Groh, Ellen Martin, Roy Steckley, Robert Witmer. Photo taken November 11, 1948. David Hunsberger photo
As was the case for the other new Mennonite high schools, Rockway’s first year (1945–46) took place in primitive circumstances. The hastily renovated farmhouse was used as a girls’ dorm and classroom building. When it became clear a new building could not be erected by fall 1946, the barn was renovated into an office, dining hall, and classroom facility. Thirty-eight students attended the first year—27 in grade nine and 11 in grade ten. These were similar to the opening numbers at the Mennonite Brethren high school in Virgil, and the United Mennonite school in Leamington.
In 1954 and 1959, Rockway added new classroom facilities. As happened at the two other schools, the vision for students living in a dorm did not survive; the farmhouse dorm closed in 1958. Ross T. Bender, later dean at Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary (now Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary), served as principal from 1956–60, when enrollment grew to 170 students, a level not reached again until the 1980s. Ross Bender’s years saw a marked shift in the school’s vision, from the safeguarding of youth to preparing them to live in the world “confidently and victoriously.”
The early 1960s brought dramatic changes to the way Ontario educated its high school students, introducing new specialized fields of training. The province introduced specialized curricular requirements to the high school system. This effectively required the Mennonite schools to focus on an arts and science curriculum, since none of them were large enough to launch vocational and technology courses or the full-fledged business and commerce courses included in the other streams. This forced some students to transfer to the public system if they wanted to take advantage of those programs. The government wanted students to choose their stream after grade nine. This created stress for the Mennonite schools and enrollment at Rockway dropped below 100.
Rockway went through a crisis of identity in the early 1970s. The Mennonite Conference of Ontario, which still owned the school, had accumulated significant debts. Furthermore, Rockway’s educational philosophy was pulled in two directions; some wanted an evangelical Christian school, others favored cutting-edge educational theories that encouraged student participation in shaping the program. The resulting conflict within the board and administration saw constituency confidence in the school shrink.
Finally the conference considered a variety of options that were then tested in a plebiscite in conference churches in May 1970. The options included keeping Rockway as a conference-owned school or turning it over to an independent association.
The decision was made to follow an association model. The Rockway Mennonite School Association was formed in 1971 and took over management of the school, while the conference continued to own the property. This did not end the educational philosophy debate, however, and for several years Rockway functioned as a small experimental school with mixed success. Administrative instability and financial concerns created so much chaos that a vote was held in 1972 within the association on whether to close the school. Finally the board turned to a leader experienced in working within an association model. Bill Kruger, who was serving as principal at Westgate, began duties at Rockway in the summer of 1972.
Kruger brought strong, steady leadership to the school, and the student body and program offerings gradually grew. When the school began to teach grade thirteen courses in 1980, it changed its name to Rockway Mennonite Collegiate. The decade following also saw the school grow dramatically in size, partly because of the addition of grades seven and eight in 1986.
As with the other Mennonite secondary schools, most of the growth came from outside the Mennonite community. By 1993–94 there were some 150 non-Mennonite Christian students, including over 50 international students (mostly from Hong Kong), along with over 150 Mennonite Church Eastern Canada students, for a total in the 320s. To accommodate the growth, several smaller additions were built, along with a large addition in 1993 that included a double gym. When Kruger left in 1991, the school was in a healthy state. His successor, Bert Lobe, introduced a China international exchange program in 1991 that made the school particularly attractive. A Rockway diploma program was established by Lobe’s successor, Terry Schellenberg. This diploma provided special recognition for additional community service and completion of a set of religious studies courses.
The growth continued, partly spurred by an acrimonious conflict between Ontario public school teachers and the province’s Conservative government, which led to a public teacher strike in 1997. Still, some troubling trends began to appear. By 2000, enrollment exceeded 400, but direct financial support from the Mennonite Conference of Eastern Canada had flattened, even as the number of MCEC students climbed to two hundred. In the 2000s enrollment declined. Three factors contributed to the slump: (1) the province eliminated grade 13, which removed a significant piece of Rockway’s program; (2) the tax regulations for church-run student aid programs became closely interpreted and strictly enforced (increasing the real cost of sending Mennonite students to Rockway); and (3) as in other Assimilated Mennonite groups, the demographics of reduced birth rates meant that fewer Mennonite students were available to enroll. By 2012 the student population ranged between 310 and 320, with about 35 percent coming from the Mennonite community. Tuition for MCEC students in 2011–12 was $7,300, while Mennonite Brethren and Brethren in Christ students paid $10,400 and other Canadian students paid $11,500. International students paid $17,000.
To learn more about Ontario Mennonite secondary education, read In Search of Promised Lands.