By J.W. Schnarr
Southern Alberta Newspapers
Criticism of Mennonite congregated sites by school districts equate to little more than a money grab, say those involved in providing resources for some of those sites in southern Alberta.
John Ross is a home school coordinator for Hope Christian School in Champion. His son, Jeff Ross, is an assistant coordinator. Following a June 12 Lethbridge Herald story that appeared on the front page (“Home-schooling loophole spells trouble”) featuring a number of school superintendents criticizing congregated sites used by some Mennonite groups, John and Jeff said there is another side to the story.
Jeff said the real reason behind why school districts are concerned with congregated sites is not the level of education provided, but because absorbing the students from congregated sites into the districts would mean more education funding.
“They want the money from these kids,” he said. “They are not really concerned with the quality of education because every other home schooler, the majority in Alberta, are not at congregated sites.”
“It is a money grab,” said John. “There’s no other reason for it. Why aren’t they going after home schoolers who they envision are just playing outside every day?”
“They don’t even try to live up to the truancy responsibilities they have. Legally, they are bound to charge kids or parents with truancy. Instead, they simply turn a blind eye and blame it on home schoolers. Blame it on ‘obscure little schools,’ as they put it.”
John has been with Hope Christian School for 12 years. He said the congregated sites cropped up out of a desire for Mennonite families to educate their children outside of the public system.
Instructors are often chosen from members of the church who are educated or who are interested in teaching. Jeff said congregated sites are simply the result of parent-directed education.
“That’s something that sort of gets forgotten when public schools get involved in the conversation,” he said. “The mosaic of education involves parent-directed education. It’s been around in Alberta for a long time.”
John said there are roughly 1,100 students in Alberta who take part in home schooling programming. The ratio of home school and congregated site learners is about 50 per cent each.
There may also be a diversity issue involved, as Mennonite families coming from places like Mexico or Paraguay have different experiences that need to be considered.
“As far a supporting diversity as a concept, we need to give these people a path to gaining a good, strong education in Canada,” Jeff said. “We need to give something that respects their religious views, as we do for many other groups.”
Jeff takes issue with the language used when talking about Mennonite education, citing words such as “lazy” or “undisciplined” when it comes to education for their children.
“That’s the language that gets used,” he said. “But comparatively to the general population, these people are much more steadfast about those kinds of things.”
“These kids, in these families, sometimes get portrayed as lazy and undisciplined,” he added. “But this population group is one of the hardest working, least lazy, and most disciplined groups you could possibly imagine.”
Statements about the qualifications of home school instructors miss the mark, according to John, because home schooling does not have the same teaching standard that is present in public school.
“A typical home school mother in Calgary or Edmonton, having her kids at home, is not a teacher,” he said.
“And they are not qualified. So what you have, really, in these congregated sites, are the best educated church members who have a heart to teach, in there teaching those Mennonite kids. There’s nothing illegal about it. There’s nothing wrong about it.”
Jeff added it is not the place of school district administrators to judge the teaching quality provided by home educators.
“They don’t go around to home schooling moms and ask if they are qualified to teach their kids,” he said.
John said with a new government in power, school districts have been pushing the province to do more to regulate congregated sites.
“It’s based on inaccuracies,” he said. “I don’t know if they are lies. I’ve brought it to their attention many times, but they still sing that same old tune.”
Jeff said it is overlooked at the taxpayer savings that are available when children are home schooled.
“For every one child in the public school system, you can home school five to six kids from a funding perspective,” he said. “So if you want to discuss how to address some of the provincial budget issues in a struggling economy, it is a great thing for the economy when kids are home schooled. And it‘s a great thing for these communities.”