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As August comes to a close and September begins, our thoughts turn to the beginning of another school year. Many of the American population are familiar with at least the idea of a one room school house. For most, it is a thing of the past that their parents or even grandparents attended, but for the Amish community, a one room school house is still the primary means of an education.
In the 1950's there were several occasions where Amish parents were put in jail for not sending their children to the public schools. Eventually, the 1972 Wisconsin vs Yoder case reached the Supreme Court and legalized the Amish education system. The Amish community was given a special exemption from mandatory education after the eighth grade under the American right to the freedom of religion.
Spread throughout the back roads of the Amish Heartland, Amish school buildings lay with a playground just outside the door. Two smaller buildings accompany the school acting as a boys and girls restroom. The inside of the school house is not decorated with the frills of the country's public or private schools. These one room school houses contain rows of wooden desks all facing one long blackboard flanked by cork bulletin boards. The alphabet marches across the walls, illustrating the proper penmanship and prompting the young readers, just beginning their journey. Roll-up maps depicting continents await the afternoon geography lesson.
The Amish children can be seen walking to school early in the morning, carrying their lunch pail. Public transportation does not exist in the Amish Heartland. There is not a bus that will roll around the countryside collecting children and parents do not take their children, having to start their own busy days. Instead, the children walk or ride their bikes to the schools. The schools are situated in the communities in such a way that any one child seldom walks more than two miles to school.
Teachers for the schools are often single women in the community. The schooling required to become a teacher is an eighth grade graduation certificate, though generally the new teachers will assist an experienced teacher before taking complete control of their own classroom.
The school buildings are built and maintained by the parents and members of the community who believe an Amish education is best for their children. Annual tuitions are paid by each parent, the price increasing for each addition child. The tuition covers the teacher's salary as well as the books, making the payment a one time deal.
In the non-electric environment of the Amish community, the school houses contain no electric equipment. Heating is often provided by wood or coal burning stoves, or in some cases by a natural gas furnace. The responsibility of lighting the heater will either fall to the teacher or an older child. Cafeteria facilities such as stoves are not necessary because the child bring a packed lunch, though in schoolhouses with natural gas, a stove will be available for the children to warm up any hot dishes.
Supplies are often reused for as long as possible acting as a perfect model of efficiency. Books and other student supplies are used by multiple children while the decorations only serve educational purposes. A cardboard tree, heavy with construction paper leaves and apples, sprouting from a bulletin board would have been created by the students themselves. The project gives the young students the opportunity to practice their fine motor skills through the cutting and gluing of the individual pieces. While the older children learned a bit on construction, design, leadership skills and teamwork.
The books used for the various subjects often interweave faith and the scripture. A science book will teach the student about the orderly world around them and its potential usefulness to the glory of God. Reading books will contain scripture quotations pointing out the path to joy.
One workbook used in the schools is "Learning to Drive Safely With a Horse and Buggy". The main focus is on traffic safety and road laws, such as obeying stop signs and marking how to mark your buggy for safety. Also covered within the workbook are handling a horse safely, how to properly inspect a buggy, harness, and horse. There is a section on road courtesy and stories that offer examples of different safe or courteous practices.
Standard education for the Amish children instills in them the basic skills they will require in everyday life. The children are taught reading, writing, geography, arithmetic, English and German. Physical activity comes in the way of two fifteen minute recess periods during which the older children compete in various running games. The younger children utilize the playground equipment, often times including swings, a slide and a merry-go-round. The hour-long noon recess provides time for a more involved game, with softball being a favorite pass time.
Education is taken very seriously in the Amish community. Parents want their children to know the purpose of learning: to grow in the wisdom and the knowledge of God.