Magazine Feature

Uncommon Ground

An Ohio school district with a high percentage of Amish students learns the value of respect and compromise.
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Illustration by Ryan Hartley

From a distance, the playground scene on this cool but sunny October morning at Winesburg Elementary School in northeastern Ohio could be a view of children at play anywhere. A closer look reveals some of the girls are wearing calf-length dresses and head coverings while others wear jeans and sweatshirts; about half the boys are wearing suspenders and solid-color shirts.

Winesburg Elementary and other nearby schools are a little-known success story in the public school system. These schools are attended by Amish and non-Amish children with different cultural practices and different home languages, yet students cooperate in the classroom and on the playground, forming meaningful friendships and achieving academic goals.

The Amish, a Christian sect easily identifiable by their distinctive clothing and language (most speak Pennsylvania Dutch, a German dialect, at home and church), have lived in this country since the 1700s. Before the 1930s, Amish children attended rural public schools. With the advent of modern school facilities with new forms of technology, many Amish formed their own one-room schools.

Ten percent of Amish students attend public schools today. In Holmes County, Ohio, that percentage is higher; half of all the children enrolled in area public schools are Amish. In classrooms there, Amish children sit side by side with English (as the Amish refer to non-Amish whose mother tongue is English), and the relationships between the children, staff and families are harmonious.

Ask teachers and administrators what they do to create this harmony, and the first answer typically is, “We don’t do anything special.” Dig deeper, though, and it becomes clear that they do a lot.


Communication and Compromise

Good communication is the key to cross-cultural relationships, says Rhoda Mast, who served as the principal at Mount Eaton Elementary in neighboring Wayne County before retiring in 2011. Sixty-five percent of Mount Eaton’s students are Amish. When misunderstandings arose during Mast’s tenure, her first step was to ask questions and listen carefully to the answers.

When she learned that many Amish families were planning to keep their children home on the day a zoo representative was slated to bring a reptile collection, for example, Mast didn’t understand why. She went directly to the parents. “Talk to me more about this,” she urged them. She discovered that they viewed any serpent as a symbol of Satan.

Rather than force these students to opt out, Mast forged a compromise. In the end, all the students attended the assembly, and the zoologist didn’t bring any snakes to the school, displaying and describing instead all the other reptiles in her collection.

Similarly, at Halloween, school officials removed references that might be offensive to some families, emphasizing instead an autumn harvest theme and fall activities everyone could enjoy.

Veterans Day was more complicated. Several of the school’s teachers and students had family members serving in the military, and recognition of veterans’ sacrifices was important to them. The Amish, however, do not serve in the military, instead embracing nonresistance. To recognize both worldviews, Mast created a program that honored the achievements of both veterans and peacemakers, historical and contemporary.

At times she was able to reach out to the Amish community simply by being aware of their needs. When she noticed Amish families had to park their horse-drawn buggies several blocks away and walk to the school when they visited, she installed a hitching post on school grounds.

Trust earned by small gestures like the hitching post smoothed the way for other compromises. The Amish eschew many forms of modern technology, but the use of computers in the classroom tends to not be a problem at Mount Eaton. The school’s parental consent form for Internet use specifies that the technology will only be used for teacher-directed activities and notifies parents they can request a list of websites their child has visited.

Dan McKey is the principal at Winesburg Elementary in the East Holmes School District where 60 percent of students are Amish and 40 percent English. The school has similar computer policies. “Parents appreciate that the computers are used for academics and not entertainment,” he says.

An avid reader, McKey is enthusiastic about children’s literature and often incorporates it into his school’s monthly assemblies. “There are lots of great books, at all levels, that send a subtle message that you can be very different and still be good friends,” he says. Students absorb those messages, and they serve as part of the school’s wraparound atmosphere of inclusion.

Help Students Build Cross-Cultural Friendships

  • Keep the lines of communication open and fluid.
  • Listen respectfully and carefully.
  • Create a space for students to share personal experiences.
  • Validate all perspectives.

Cross-cultural Friendships

Koby, 17, now a high school student, attended Winesburg throughout his elementary school years. Koby, who is English, says he was unaware of everything teachers and administrators were doing to build bridges between the cultures while he was at school, but looking back, he has a greater awareness and appreciation for their efforts.

“It worked,” he says. “We played basketball together at recess, and we worked on projects together in the classroom. One of my best friends was Amish.” Some of Koby’s Amish friends ended up going to different middle schools, and in eighth grade Koby made a point of attending their graduation ceremony.

That kind of extended friendship across cultures is something Mast has seen, too. She knows one group of Amish and English girls who took separate educational paths at the conclusion of sixth grade, five years ago, but still stay in touch and gather regularly for overnight parties.

That’s the kind of friendship Maria and Macey are forming today at Winesburg Elementary. Maria is Amish and Macey is English, but the fourth-graders have been best friends since kindergarten. They notice lifestyle differences when they visit each other’s home. “They have TV and we don’t,” says Maria.

“Her house has gas lights,” adds Macey. “You have to light them. Ours, you just turn a switch.”

But the girls know their differences strengthen their friendship. Koby, the older student, agrees. He says his years at Winesburg taught him “to be more open to other cultures, to recognize and understand differences.”

The combination of respect and compromise nurtured at these cross-cultural schools—computer policies, hitching posts, professional development for staff, friends-with-differences literary messages—has paid off in cultural richness.

Sarah is a Winesburg sixth-grader. She is English, and she loves that she has been able to learn so much about Amish culture during her years at Winesburg. “To me, it’s natural,” she says. “Everybody is different, and that’s what brings us all together, our difference. Different is awesome!”  

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