School Choice & Charters

A World Apart

By Mary Ann Zehr — March 08, 2000 16 min read

‘We have to put forth a lot of effort to keep separate—not to assimilate. We want to keep it so we’re a light in the world.’

—Hutterite Tim Waldner

When Tim Waldner’s 9-year-old daughter, Suzanna, got sick recently, he took her into town to see a doctor.

“We were sitting in the waiting room,” he recalls. “She asked me, ‘Dad, why do we have to go to an outside doctor? Why don’t we have a Hutterite doctor?’”

He says he encouraged her to “go for it” and become a doctor herself.

Until recently, such a goal would have been almost unthinkable for American members of the communal Christian sect known as Hutterites, few of whom attend school beyond the 8th grade.

Similar in some respects to the Amish, Hutterites have maintained many of the customs they brought with them when they immigrated to South Dakota from the Ukraine more than a century ago. They live in closely knit, self-sufficient communities, or “colonies,” mostly in rural areas of the Midwest and western Canada. They speak a German dialect and favor plain dress—black pants with suspenders and homemade shirts for the men, and calf-length dresses for the women.

Formal education traditionally hasn’t been a priority for them, because they haven’t seen the need. Indeed, the only reason a Hutterite might be encouraged to go to college is so he or she could return to the colony and teach elementary school.

“If children have reading, writing, and they know numbers and can measure, what more do they need to know?” asks one Hutterite woman with three children in a K-8 school.

But now, some Hutterites are asking if those basics will be enough to sustain them in the years ahead.

Unlike the Amish, Hutterites use sophisticated technology, including computers and the latest farm machinery, to run their agricultural operations, and they have modern plumbing and electricity in their homes.

But such technology needs to be maintained, notes Waldner, 34. “Either we have to educate people to use it better, or we have to back up.”

Tim’s father, George Waldner, the minister and top elected leader of South Dakota’s Hutterville colony, near Stratford, says Hutterites need more English skills to read journals to keep up with the best farming methods. And they need more math to operate computer software and become better managers.

“Do you know what it does to their brains when they do story problems?” the elder Waldner, 63, asks. “They learn to think, what to do, how to figure things out in their daily life.”

Such talk worries some Hutterites, especially in the South Dakota colonies, which tend to be more conservative than some in other states and Canada. And even the Waldners, who have led a push in Hutterville to offer more education, recognize that it carries risks. If Hutterite young people have to leave their colonies to go to high school or college, it might expose them to customs and values that could conflict with—and possibly destroy—their current way of life.

“We have to put forth a lot of effort to keep separate—not to assimilate,” says Tim Waldner. “We want to keep it so we’re a light in the world.”

That’s why they’re hoping to find a delicate balance: more education, but on their own terms.

It’s hard to comprehend just how different most Hutterites’ view of education is from most other Americans’.

First and foremost, they place no priority on encouraging individual students to use their time in school to discover what particular aptitudes they may have or what careers they may want to pursue. Instead, they think of education—as they think of everything else—as a communal enterprise.

Hutterites draw no wages and have no personal possessions, believing that God commands them to have “all things in common,” as the Bible says the early Christians did. Individuals are assigned to jobs according to the needs of their colonies, which usually consist of about 90 people made up of a few family clans. For most students, high school—not to mention college—would not only be unnecessary, but also would keep them from performing other duties that keep the colony running.

There’s a reason “experience is the best teacher” is a common saying among Hutterites. After girls and boys stop their schooling at the end of 8th grade, or age 16, whichever comes first, they work full time alongside adults.

The students carry out most of their practice teaching in colonies, but also teach for a stint in a non-Hutterite setting before certification.

Girls toil in the home and garden. They learn how to grow and can vegetables, cook, butcher chickens, knit socks, weave rugs, make soap, and sew their own clothes. Boys work in the livestock barns and metal and wood shops; they learn how to grow crops and raise livestock, to operate and repair machinery, and to build wooden furniture as lovely as any that can be bought in a store.

Colonies depend so much on young people’s labor that it would be difficult to free them up during the day for further study.

And Hutterite youngsters, apparently, are happy to stop school when it comes time to do so.

“I know all I want to know,” says 14-year-old Lorena Hofer, an 8th grader at the Pembrook colony near Ipswich, S.D.

“Eighth grade is enough because I don’t want to be in school,” agrees Lorena’s 15-year-old cousin Tony Hofer, whose responsibility at Pembrook is to work with a carpenter.

Even 16-year-old Mike Waldner (Tim’s cousin), one of four Hutterville boys taking part in a pilot 9th grade curriculum, seems to prefer the “hands-on education” he receives outside of school.

“You do things—building a house, cementing—instead of looking at this,” he says, pointing to a textbook.

Only if the colony gives its approval— by means of a vote of its male, married members—can a student go beyond the 8th grade.

“It has to be the colony’s bidding,” explains Leonard Kleinsasser, a teacher and member of the Evergreen colony near Faulkton, S.D.

Because the English school is located in the colony, Hutterites have more control over what their children are exposed to than if it were located elsewhere.

In the early 1980s, Kleinsasser was sent by the colony where he then lived to Northern State University in Aberdeen, S.D., to get a degree in elementary education, because the colony was having trouble recruiting teachers from the outside. Kleinsasser didn’t want the task, as he’d been out of school for years. Initially, he struggled through his courses, but he came to accept the work and now enjoys teaching.

Still, Kleinsasser, 44, isn’t one to argue that most Hutterites should attend high school or college, saying his own education was a hoop he had to jump through to get state certification.

He is as concerned as other Hutterites at Evergreen about the possibility of “worldly influence creeping into the colonies and destroying our values.”

When Kleinsasser enrolled at Northern State and commuted there for classes, he wondered if he might rethink his own values. He’d heard of a Hutterite man in Canada who had left his wife and colony after attending a university.

But Kleinsasser says he was turned off by the “greed for money and popularity” in the outside world. “I knew what we had and what we’re working on to keep was more valuable than what was out there.”

Becky Waldner, 17, of the Hutterville colony has worked full time in her home and the community’s kitchen and garden since completing the 8th grade.

Most Hutterites apparently agree. A few quit colony life, but not many, says John A. Hostetler, an expert on Hutterites and an emeritus professor of sociology and anthropology at Temple University in Philadelphia.

To leave means “they would have to go against the values of their family—their mother and father—and community,” Hostetler says. “That’s difficult—but it does happen.”

When young Hutterites do leave, he says, they’re likely to work for a while in industry, typically driving a truck or tractor, but return to the colony to marry and raise a family.

Until 8th grade, Hutterites typically attend public schools that are located within their colonies but run by local school districts. (Hutterville runs its own private school, but that setup is unusual.)

Districts usually benefit from the arrangement because they receive state funding for the Hutterite students that often more than covers the expenses of teaching them. Hutterites constitute many of the students in some small South Dakota districts; in Cresbard, for example, 105 of the district’s 198 students belong to the sect.

A colony usually provides the school building and pays the utility bills, while the district provides the materials and teachers, few of whom are Hutterites themselves. Such a school, which Hutterite children attend for six hours a day, is called “English school.” The children also attend “German school” for two hours a day. There, they learn “high German"—which differs from the dialect they speak in daily life—and the prayers, Bible verses, and rituals they need for religious activities.

Because the English school is located in the colony, Hutterites have more control over what their children are exposed to than if it were located elsewhere. But just how much the educational content reflects experiences in the outside world can vary greatly between schools, depending on the philosophy of the particular teachers or school systems.

In the Pembrook colony, for example, teachers are told by the Ipswich district to present the same curriculum to Hutterites that teachers in town present to children in the regular public school. Neither of the teachers is Hutterite.

Midmorning on a recent wintry day at the Pembrook school, K-3 teacher Brenda M. Risager discusses different kinds of transportation with her kindergartners, while students in other grades work in small groups, drilling each other on spelling words.

In her lesson, Risager introduces new vocabulary for the students while trying not to go too far afield from their experience. “What can we ride in—in a train, in a car, in a bus, in a helicopter?” she asks, looking for signs of recognition on their faces. “Have you been on a bus? Didn’t you go on a bus to the circus?”

One girl says she did. The other girl shakes her head no. The third child is silent; he’s been in school for a few months, but he hasn’t yet spoken in English.

Brenda M. Risager, a non-Hutterite who teaches grades K-3 at the Pembrook colony school near Ipswich, S.D., says her students might not be “book- smart,” but “they sure are farm-smart.”

Risager asks the children to think of a place they could go in an airplane, but they’re stumped. “In the mountains,” one girl says finally.

Pembrook’s teacher for grades 4- 8, Sharol Erdmann, finds herself in a similar situation in the afternoon while trying to make a futuristic article in a children’s magazine relevant to her students’ experiences. She tells them that “a 3-D hologram” is “something you put on your head and can see all around, and you can play with people around the world.”

She soon asks the students to draw and describe in writing something in the future. One boy envisions a tractor that can be controlled by a computer from one’s home. A girl draws a picture of a child in-line skating and writes: “Maybe we will be able to Roller Blade and wear English cloths [sic].”

In the Evergreen colony, the local school system—the Cresbard schools—permits the use of a Christian-based curriculum in the colony’s public school.

Teacher Leonard Kleinsasser, the only Hutterite on staff at the Evergreen school, starts his 4th through 8th grade class on a typical morning by leading the students in reciting the Lord’s Prayer and singing a couple of hymns. The class time before lunch is spent on math lessons; the students work silently from textbooks or workbooks at their desks while Kleinsasser addresses groups of students by grade, each in turn, giving explanations and patiently answering questions.

After lunch he reads aloud two stories offering the moral that children should be “teachable.” In one of the stories, some children feel sorry when they accidentally pull up their grandmother’s favorite roses. In the other story, a boy who carries a Bible around but seldom cracks open its cover learns how important it is for him to read it. A language arts session, with a bit of history in late afternoon, completes the day.

Frank Larson, the Cresbard superintendent, says allowing the Christian-based curriculum is in keeping with a national trend to be more tolerant of religious expression in public schools. He’s OK with it as long as parents are satisfied.

But Jennifer E. Ring, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of the Dakotas, says that while it’s within students’ rights to practice religion in schools on their own accord, efforts by public school teachers to lead students in prayer or hymns or teach academic content from a religious perspective violate the U.S. Constitution.

“It’s news to me if in South Dakota there is a publicly funded school where the school is practicing religion,” she says.

Teachers at Hutterite schools who were interviewed for this story say it’s hard to assess how well their students are doing academically compared with their peers.

They tend to score low on standardized tests, but the teachers say it’s because the tests are culturally biased.

Certainly, Hutterite children get a slower start in the classroom than many American children, because they don’t speak English before entering school. But they make up some ground by working hard, the teachers say.

In addition, teachers point out, the students don’t waste time watching television, riding the bus, or playing video games. And because they don’t participate in school- sponsored extracurricular activities or move from class to class, they spend more time on academics.

“I don’t believe test scores indicate total performance of these people,” says Larson, the Cresbard superintendent. “Is an 8th grade education enough? It apparently is. Look at what they’ve achieved. The stainless-steel sinks, they made themselves. They make farm equipment. They do almost everything themselves.”

“If they’re not book-smart, they sure are farm-smart,” says Risager, the Pembrook teacher.

Some Hutterite parents, meanwhile, are asking whether they should expect more from their schools.

“My girls are out of school, and they know next to nothing,” says Kathleen Waldner, Tim’s sister, who was interviewed while visiting Hutterville from the nearby Fordham colony. She was shocked to find her teenage daughter didn’t know how to read measurements on a ruler, even though the girl believes she’s been well-educated.

Others wonder if they have relied too much on “outside” teachers, saying they don’t always appreciate Hutterite culture.

Eileen Waldner, an elementary teacher who graduated from a Hutterite teacher-training program at Brandon University in Brandon, Manitoba, and moved to Hutterville when she married one of Tim Waldner’s brothers, says she’s met some teachers who feel that Hutterite children are deprived and “forget about the rich things we have.” She points out that Hutterite children get to see their parents on breaks during the school day, and can roam throughout the colony in their free time rather than just a little backyard.

But it was Sharron Swanson—an outside teacher—who made the difference for one girl in the Evergreen colony. Swanson pushed for the child, who is legally blind, to be tested and made eligible for special education benefits, something the colony hadn’t taken the initiative to do. The teacher obtained a special device from the state school for the blind to help the girl in reading and borrowed a teachers’ aide from the school system.

Scattered efforts by colonies to train their own teachers have expanded into full-fledged partnerships with universities.

In 1994, Brandon University started the first teacher-training program designed especially for Hutterites; it has graduated one class, with 19 teachers. Participating students gather at a colony in Canada for fall and winter courses. During the spring and summer, they take courses on the university campus. The students carry out most of their practice teaching in colonies, but also teach for a stint in a non-Hutterite setting before certification.

This past fall, Southwest State University in Marshall, Minn., began a similar program for Hutterites in that state. Southwest State professors are giving college courses to 30 students gathered at the Starland colony near Gibbon, Minn., who plan to become elementary teachers.

Word of those programs inspired George and Tim Waldner to set up a partnership this school year between three South Dakota colonies and Northern State, located about 25 miles from Hutterville. Northern State instructors began with developmental math and English, and currently are teaching English 101 and German 101.

Hutterite Tim Waldner is teaching four Hutterville 9th graders himself so they won’t have to leave the colony to attend a public high school.

But the Hutterites in South Dakota have more catching up to do to be ready for college courses than many of their counterparts in Manitoba or Minnesota, where colonies have provided high school courses by interactive television or, in rare instances, sent their children to public schools.

South Dakota Hutterites, in contrast, take a non- negotiable approach to high school. Some want their young people to attain more knowledge, but only if they don’t have to leave the colony for it.

Pembrook leaders asked last year if the Ipswich district could offer high school courses at the colony. District officials said the teenagers would have to attend the regular high school, which put an end to the matter from the leaders’ point of view.

Henry Decker, the business manager of Pembrook, says the colony couldn’t risk the possibility of exposing youths to drugs or sex education in the public schools. “If people are taught these things—they eventually try them,” he says.

But the colony will permit its high-school-age children to take home-correspondence courses in their free time in the evenings, Decker adds.

Hutterville is taking a different tack. This school year, the colony began offering private 9th grade classes to four boys. Leaders hope the Northern State partnership will eventually produce enough certified high school teachers to staff the colony’s own private high school. Tim Waldner, who has a degree in elementary education from Northern State and is now working on a master’s degree in elementary education administration, plans to become the principal.

The colony couldn’t risk the possibility of exposing youths to drugs or sex education in the public schools.

In the meantime, he imagines other professions, besides teaching, that Hutterites might pursue if they received more education.

When asked if Hutterites would consider training a veterinarian, he answers, “Possibly.”

What about an artist?

“Maybe,” Waldner says, noting that some of his European ancestors were potters.

It would be good to have a Hutterite writer, he volunteers, to provide accurate information about Hutterites to the wider world.

“I could see use for an architect here,” he adds, surveying the sheds and dwellings of his colony.

And, as he told his daughter, even becoming a physician is a possibility.

“In the fear of God, if someone wants to go to school to become a health nurse or a doctor,” Waldner says, “I’m sure it would be considered, especially at Hutterville.”

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A version of this article appeared in the March 08, 2000 edition of Education Week as A World Apart


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