Southern Alberta school aims to help Mennonites graduate

A southern Alberta school is welcoming young Mennonites from Mexico who have the chance to get the education their parents never did.
Almost all of the 200 students in Grassy Lake's Chamberlain School are Mennonites. (Allison Dempster/CBC)

A southern Alberta school is welcoming young Mennonites from Mexico who have the chance to get the education their parents never did. 

But many are dropping out in Grassy Lake before they graduate. At last report, Chamberlain School's dropout rate was 58 per cent. Almost all of its 200 students are Mennonites in the small hamlet located west of Medicine Hat.

To get more students to graduate, the school is tailoring itself to the community's highly religious population, said Erin Hurkett, the school's former principal who is currently a school district administrator.

That includes closely supervising computer time, banning Halloween celebrations, teaching evolution as a theory to be discussed at home, and offering classes in a Mennonite dialect known as Low German.

"By offering German classes we're showing that we value their culture and their language and I know families really, really appreciate that and it just builds that trust between the school and families in the community," said Hurkett.

Parents didn't graduate

Margaritha Guenther, 17, is from Chihuahua, Mexico. Her family are part of a migration wave that is boosting the populations of fading farm communities in southern Alberta. 

“It's where most of the German people lived. I've always liked school and it was my dream to go further with school, but my parents couldn't afford it in Mexico. When we got here it was very easy for me to just start over with school and it was very fun," she said.

After living in colonies in Mexico and a handful of South American countries, some Low German Mennonites have returned to Canada for jobs and land. 

Cornelius Wiebe, 16, is originally from Canada, but also lived in a Mennonite colony in Mexico. 

"The parents,... most of them went to school in Mexico and that one only goes up to age 13, so they feel they had enough education, they survived, so they feel if the kids can get out of school then and work, they'd be able to survive and have good lives that way."

Teens look forward to graduation

David Torrie, president of the school's parent-teacher council and a fourth generation farmer in Grassy Lake, says for some non-Mennonite families it's been alienating.

"Obviously, there's language differences and cultural differences and sometimes that causes some people to be uncomfortable and there's definitely been people who have moved out of Grassy Lake because they just couldn't handle all the new people. But I think the people that have stayed [have] learned to be friends with their neighbours and really appreciate the different culture and that stuff. And certainly for our school we have this wonderful opportunity to educate kids.”

Along with their brothers and sisters, Guenther and Wiebe will be the first in their families to graduate high school. They already have plans for what they will do afterwards.

"Probably go to college, get my trade certificate and get into mechanics," said Wiebe. “It's a whole lot more difficult, but I think as long as I can keep track of all of it I can do pretty good."

Guenther is also planning on staying in school.

"I do want to graduate and I want to be a nurse after that.”


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