The annual eighth-grade graduation took place Wednesday at Westview School Corp., and about half the graduating pupils were Amish.
For most of these students, the graduation ceremony signals the end of their formal education, as attendance in high school and beyond is considered by many Amish to be contrary to their religion and way of life.
“As a general percentage, between 40 and 45 percent of our students in our eighth-grade class are Amish,” said Randy Zimmerly, superintendent of the Westview School Corp. “We pretty much know that all of those kids are going to decline going on to high school.”
Why, exactly, do Amish students tend to end their formal educations at eighth grade when a majority of non-Amish students continue on through 12th grade and beyond? What’s more, how are they legally able to do it?
According to Steve Nolt, professor of history at Goshen College and co-author of the new book “The Amish,” the answer can be found in the Amish belief system.
The Amish are in essence a group of traditionalist Christian church fellowships that form a subgroup of the Mennonite churches. The Amish are known for simple living, plain dress, and a reluctance to adopt many conveniences of modern technology.
“Amish culture is small scale, it’s local, it’s compact, it’s practical, it doesn’t celebrate individualism or individual achievement,” Nolt said. “So a high school education in many ways just runs counter to a lot of Amish values. There are certainly values being taught in the public schools that the Amish would favor — politeness, working hard, taking turns, doing your best. But the emphasis on higher education — that at every level it’s about maximizing individual achievement and potential — in that way, Amish life and values are quite different.”
According to Nolt, there are probably three or four major Amish objections to high school which are rooted in a history that goes back into the early 20th century.
“At that time, very few people went to high school at all,” Nolt said. “But as the years progressed, that began to change, and schools began to consolidate and grow larger. The Amish tried to resist going along with some of those changes because they were trying to maintain their community and way of life as they understood it.”
Nolt pointed out that the Amish as a rule preferred schools that were close to their homes and weren’t large.
“They like things that are small-scale, so the idea of a large, consolidated school system didn’t really appeal to them,” Nolt said. “The Amish understanding of education is education that is practical for their way of life — things like mathematics, reading and writing. So the more advanced or abstract subjects or topics that were starting to pop up in the evolving high school curriculum were things they didn’t see as necessary, or in some cases even saw as threatening to their way of life.”
Also playing a role in the Amish outlook on higher education is what Nolt described as the gradual evolution of high schools in the United States into a channel for sending people out of rural communities — preparing them for college, jobs in other places, professions, and maximizing the individual, rather than the community.
“We actually have records as early as the early 1920s of Amish families in Elkhart and LaGrange counties not sending their kids to high school for these reasons,” Nolt said. “Then, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the tension between public school districts and Amish families started becoming more of an issue across both Indiana and the country as a whole.”
Those tensions would finally come to a head in 1971 with the conviction of three Amish students. Each from a different family, the students stopped attending New Glarus High School in the New Glarus, Wis., school district at the end of the eighth grade, all due to their parents’ religious beliefs.
Jonas Yoder, the father of one of the students involved, represented the three families when the case went to trial. That case eventually led to the students being convicted of violating Wisconsin’s compulsory school attendance law, which required children to attend school until the age of 16.
Yoder appealed the decision, and the case went to the Wisconsin Supreme Court, which found in Yoder’s favor. The state then appealed the ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court. Central to Yoder’s case was the argument that a parent’s fundamental right to freedom of religion outweighs the state’s interest in educating its children.
“In 1972, in the Supreme Court case of Wisconsin vs. Yoder, there was a unanimous ruling in which the Supreme Court said that the court understood this as a religious liberty issue, and that because the Amish way of life is rooted in their faith, and because that would be undermined by compulsory public education, that Wisconsin — and by extension all states — needed to grant the Amish this exemption,” Nolt said. “That didn’t really have a big impact on Indiana, because Indiana had already come to a fairly amicable policy when dealing with the Amish education issue. But the Supreme Court case more or less settled things on the matter for the entire country.”
So the Amish were successful in securing their right to pull their children out of school after eighth grade. But why eighth grade? Why not sixth grade, or 10th grade? According to Nolt, the answer can again be found in the mid-20th century.
“It’s usually not helpful to say the Amish are trying to freeze time, but with education that’s kind of the case,” Nolt said. “In the mid-20th century, Amish families had participated in rural public schools. There weren’t Amish private schools in the 1800s or early 1900s, so they participated in local one-room public schools — small schools that went from grades one to eight — and Amish families were pretty satisfied with that.”
It was when those small schools began to consolidate and grow larger, however, that problems began to occur.
“So they were dissenting from those kinds of things, but they had never really objected to the one to eight (grade) local schools,” Nolt said. “So the eighth grade cutoff, that’s kind of a continuation of something they had always done.”
Such has been the impact of public schools on Amish students. But what about the impact of Amish students on public schools?
For school corporations including Westview that have a large Amish population in the early grades, one could assume that losing nearly 100 students a year would be a devastating blow to a corporation’s bottom line.
“We’re paid by the state per student, and when you lose about 100 students per year, that can be a pretty significant loss,” said Westview Guidance Counselor Jennifer May.
Through Indiana’s state funding formula, which is the mechanism for determining how much money the state gives to each public school corporation, each district receives a minimum of about $4,200 per enrolled student. Multiply that number by 100, and you get $420,000 — a pretty hefty loss.
While that figure may seem like sticker shock, Zimmerly was quick to note that the yearly eighth-grade Amish exodus is by no means a new occurrence for Westview or similar school corporations
“There is really no impact on us, because it’s very predictable and we know it’s taking place and it’s something we can plan on,” Zimmerly said. “...The pattern is well-established, and there’s not a lot of fluctuation, so it’s not a hardship at all to us.”
Also playing an integral role in the success of the annual transition is the strong relationship that has been formed over the years between the school corporation and its Amish families.
“Our Amish families have traditionally been very, very open with us and given us adequate notice of what their plans are for their children,” Zimmerly said. “We’ve had great communication with a majority of our families. We’re here to support them however we think we can be helpful, and understand sometimes they prefer to offer some services themselves and can do a good job of it. In the long run, the focus is on the family and the children, and we feel it’s a good partnership.”