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Thriving Amish keep life and school simple

The tiny, one-teacher school in Holmes County, Ohio, seems caught in a time-warp. The white clapboard building sits on a wedge of land between two dirt tracks. It has a combination woodcoal stove and an unpainted wooden floor.

There are no tape-recorders, overhead projectors, televisions or computers. And no electricity to keep the 25 pupils warm in winter or cool in summer.

The only indication of the modern world is the baseball field outside the school that is used once a week in the summer. This is how the Amish, a strict Mennonite sect, educate their young - 10 miles and 100 years away from 21st-century America.

The Amish supported rural public schools during the early years of the 20th century but they have gradually withdrawn from state schooling over the past 75 years.

During the 1960s there were several high-profile disputes with school authorities that wanted to bus Amish children out of their local districts. In 1965 a photograph of an Amish boy running into a cornfield to evade school officials was published in newspapers across the United States.

The Amish also clashed with officialdom over the school-leaving ag. But in 1972 the Supreme Court ruled their children could not be forced to attend public school beyond the age of 13, when they join their parents in community workshops, fields and kitchens. Many become farmers, others train as bakers, carpenters, furniture-makers or quilters.

It would appear to be a doomed way of life, but Dr Mark Dewalt of Winthrop University told the AERA conference in Seattle that in fact the Amish - and their school system - are continuing to thrive. In 1990 there were 708 Amish schools in the US but by last year that number had risen to 1,140.

Most of the one or two-teacher schools are in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana but since 1987 the Amish have migrated to Kansas, Mississippi, Montana, Oklahoma, Virginia, West Virginia and Washington. There are also 30 Amish schools in Canada.

"Amish schools now have a significant impact on rural education in 21 states and the province of Ontario," Dr Dewalt said. "The recent news reports of school shootings and drug arrests in public schools have only served to cement the Amish belief in providing schools for their children."

Contact: dewaltm@winthrop.edu

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