New realities for Mennonite schools

January 5, 2011 | Focus On | Number 1
By Gail Schellenberg | For the Canadian Association of Mennonite Schools

The 10 members of the Canadian Association of Mennonite Schools (CAMS)—located in every province between Ontario and British Columbia—can all trace their lineage to a Mennonite conference or group. We have seven schools directly connected to Mennonite Church Canada through their supporting churches, two schools that connect to the Mennonite Brethren Conference and one school connected to the Evangelical Mennonite Conference of Manitoba. While each school is distinctive, there are many commonalities as well.

The percentage of students from our Mennonite churches fluctuates from year to year, but demographic surveys in many churches across Canada indicate that in the next five to 10 years there will be a steady decline of students and young people within our churches.

Westgate Mennonite Collegiate, Winnipeg, Man., currently has 49 percent of its student population coming from one of 13 supporting Mennonite congregations. Rockway Mennonite Collegiate, Kitchener, Ont., presently has 37 percent of its students from MC Eastern Canada congregations. Mennonite Collegiate Institute (MCI), Gretna, Man., continues to have upwards of 80 percent of its students from a Mennonite background. Rosthern Junior College, Sask., has 46 percent of its students coming from MC Saskatchewan and MC Alberta congregations.

We recognize that with declining numbers of young people within our churches, we must have a multi-pronged approach to sustainable development. We need to be creative in attracting constituency students; some of the strategies that schools are undertaking is to designate non-teaching time to staff in order to focus on promotions and networking with our pastors, youth leaders and Sunday school teachers.

We continue in our efforts to re-engage with our constituent churches in different ways, including the possibility of providing educational, dramatic and musical contributions to the life of the church, as well as partnering with area church youth organizations and Mennonite camp organizations to provide youth programs.

Financial support from our conferences and local congregations is significant to each of our schools. Contributions have stayed at the same rate over the past couple of decades, and in conversations with pastors and area church executives it seems likely that this will continue as they struggle to meet their own budgets.

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At the same time, capital investment for campus improvement and building projects at MCI and Rosthern, among others, has seen consistent support, with those dollars overwhelmingly coming from individuals and businesses affiliated with the local churches. However, a number of schools are hearing from supporters that student fees should cover the cost of education so that donations can account for capital growth or renewal.

While CAMS schools in the Prairie provinces receive some funding from their provincial governments, Ontario schools face an entirely different financial picture. With no provincial funding for any students, Rockway and UMEI Christian High School are completely reliant on donations and fundraising to supplement their student fees. Families have to make a significant tuition commitment for students to attend and, with students coming from all over Waterloo Region and beyond, transportation becomes a real issue for many families.

As we look to the future, we continue to struggle with sustainability. While we want to continue to attract as many of our church young people as possible, we will also look at other quality students from our neighbourhoods and surrounding areas who are looking for something new, something that has been missing from their school experience. Reaching and growing this latter group is key to sustaining the business of our schools. Many are also accepting a slightly larger international student population, which also relieves some of the decline in Mennonite students.

Parental and student support from both Mennonite and non-Mennonite constituencies for both our educational and extra-curricular choices has been, and continues to be, very strong. We strive to be sensitive to the interests of our students and constituency as we plan and implement programs in both of these areas.

Equally as important is the focus on having each student find a place to thrive, to risk, to achieve and to contribute their gifts. It is the challenge of integrating and connecting the knowledge gained with the capacity to love and serve creatively in our world. It is the challenge of nurturing relationships within community and within our vision as a people of faith.

As our current and past students engage in their world, they are often our best advertisements. When they speak of their experiences in our schools, they tell of our commitment to academic opportunity and excellence; our extra-curricular programs that provide “enriched” program extensions; and the rich experiences we provide that build faith, purpose and service to others as integral to all areas of school and life.

Gail Schellenberg is the principal of Rosthern Junior College, Sask.

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