Rockway Mennonite School

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.

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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.

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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.

United Mennonite Educational Institute — It’s Early History

At the end of World War II, all the (partly) assimilated Mennonite groups in Ontario launched their own private high schools. Partly this was related to changes in the Ontario high school system during the war, which renewed an emphasis on patriotic teaching. In the fall of 1944 a reinvigorated cadet training program for boys in high school became compulsory, complete with uniforms and drills. Mennonite boys could ordinarily request an alternative activity such as first aid training, but peer pressure to join the cadets was strong. All the more assimilated Mennonite denominations had seen a significant number of their young men enter active military service during World War II, so an alternative to Ontario’s British-oriented curriculum became attractive to Mennonite leaders.

In addition, the more culturally comfortable Mennonites, as well as the churches from the 1920s immigration of Mennonites from the Soviet Union, believed more advanced education enhanced Christian service, particularly for those considering a Christian vocation. Increasing interest in overseas mission work only underscored the need for adequate preparation.

We talked earlier of the Mennonite Brethren high school in Virgil, Ontario, Eden Christian College, as it was known for most of its years. This week we’re look at United Mennonite Educational Institute, located in the Leamington Mennonite community.

The majority of Mennonites in the Leamington area were United Mennonites (also from the 1920s migration), so it was this group that had the resources and enrollment potential to envision a high school to serve that community. As in Virgil, first Bible school courses were taught at the Leamington United Mennonite Church in the 1930s, but those ended with the beginning of World War II.

Word reached Leamington that United Mennonite students in Niagara planned to attend the Brethren in Christ’s Ontario Bible School in fall 1943. After a visit to the Leamington community by Brethren in Christ bishop Ernest J. Swalm, during which he stayed with elder N. N. Driedger, Swalm successfully addressed concerns of the Leamington people. Thus twelve boys from Leamington joined those from Niagara who attended Ontario Bible School that fall. The following year twenty students from Leamington attended, including some girls.

By fall 1945, however, the Bible school in Leamington decided to add some high school courses to its curriculum. Jacob A. Dyck and John C. Neufeld taught the courses in the Leamington United Mennonite Church basement, with an attendance of twenty-five students in grades nine and ten.

In 1946 a building for the United Mennonite Bible School was erected on seven acres of land along Concession 6 north of Leamington. The school added grade eleven in 1946 and grade twelve in the following year. The first classes in the new building began in January 1947.

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UMEI in 1990. UMEI Christian High School photo

The decision to build the school at the Leamington location was not a foregone conclusion. All the United Mennonite congregations in Ontario participated in the conversations about launching a school, and the association that was established to support the school included members from all geographic areas of the conference. The association model was chosen because a significant number of persons opposed the project, and this model placed financial responsibility only on committed supporters. Perhaps more importantly, the United Mennonites had no structural body in position to launch a high school. The United Mennonite Conference had only organized again in 1944 with four congregations, and the large Leamington congregation, with almost seven hundred members, had not yet formally joined the conference.

One reason Leamington was selected was that it was seen to have the greatest potential for providing students for the new school. The Essex County Mennonite settlement had grown rapidly into the 1940s, and it seemed likely this trend would continue. The school had 78 students in 1947–48, the first year that it offered grade twelve, and had a graduating class of ten students. In 1948 the school’s name was changed to United Mennonite Educational Institute, popularly known as UMEI. With the seeming growth potential, an auditorium and gymnasium was added in 1950–51. This facility became a Mennonite community center for numerous activities, including churchwide conferences. In 1950–51 the school added grade thirteen, but this proved too expensive to maintain and was dropped after two years.

Except for an upward enrollment blip in the two grade thirteen years, the student population remained in the seventy to ninety range until the 1960s. UMEI never achieved the student enrollment that Eden Christian College did in Virgil. One reason was the low number of students that came from outside the Essex County Mennonite community. United Mennonite students on the Niagara Peninsula often chose to commute to Eden rather than to live in a dormitory at Leamington. Over the years, use of the dormitory decreased until it was closed in 1970. In 1974 enrollment exceeded 120 for the first time, and the number of graduates topped 30.

In the next decades the school worked to attract more students from other Mennonite and non-Mennonite groups. Despite the influx of students from outside the core community, the decade of the 1980s, with its difficult economic times, created great stress for administration and staff. The graduating classes for 1989 and 1990 had only ten students each, and in 1988 enrollment dropped to 54 students, making the operation of the school financially unviable.

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UMEI Christian High School students welcome a Syrian refugee family to Leamington, May 2017. UMEI Christian High School photo

The 1990s saw a revival for UMEI, but the numbers never returned to the levels of the early 1970s. The demographics of the supporting Mennonite community limited potential for growth, and the school’s size did not allow for academic specializations that were available in large public high schools. By 1995 over 40 percent of the students came from outside the sponsoring Mennonite community. Ultimately, the effort to expand the base of supporters led to a name change in 2006 to UMEI Christian High School. By fall 2012 total enrollment dropped to 42.

Notwithstanding the difficulties, UMEI Christian High School continued to play an important role within the Mennonite community. Many of its graduates became leaders in the churches and the community.

To learn more about Mennonite secondary education in Ontario, read In Search of Promised Lands. Next week we’ll look at Rockway Mennonite School.