When the Amish first moved into the Jamesport, MO, area in 1953, it was at the schools where their old-fashioned clothing and foreign language soon lost its strangeness. Amish youngsters were readily accepted into the public school system, but when enough Amish families moved into the area they established their own schools.
Amish children were usually taught by unmarried Amish women similar to the country schools that dotted the countryside in the early 1900s. A wood stove heats the one-room building. Girls in black bonnets and unadorned dresses closed at the neck and boys in plain blue shirts and trousers walk to class.
The number of schools operating in the Jamesport community varies (now six). A larger school may have two teachers while the smaller ones have one, usually assisted by a younger girl just out of school who is gaining experience so that she may one day teach. Subjects taught are the basics except that no science is included. English is used in the classroom although a Pennsylvania Dutch dialect is often used in the home. German is also taught since it is the language of their Bible.
The eighth grade is probably the highest level of formal education that Amish children get. The discipline during school years is important; it’s when pupils learn obedience and respect for their elders. In 1972, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a case originating in Wisconsin that Amish children were exempt from laws requiring attendance in school to age 16. The decision noted that the Amish opposed high school education because it placed Amish children during adolescence in a competitive atmosphere with pressure to conform with their peers.
Most Amish complete eight grades of schooling and then join their families in such trades as farming and carpentry. Schools are financed by a “head tax,” church membership tax and by land valuation which a family owns. Schools are dismissed in mid-April as older boys help with spring planting.
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Down a dirt road running through recently harvested farm fields stands a link to the past — a one-room Amish schoolhouse that church leaders say is vital to maintaining values.
Without such schools, leaders say, the Amish religion would die. The Amish reject materialism and seek a return to a simple family-oriented life without electricity, telephone or cars.
Students receive an education through the eighth grade in the frame schoolhouse on the outskirts of Jamesport, a town 68 miles northeast of Kansas City. But more important to the rigid Amish code of conduct, the students learn obedience and respect for their elders.
The eighth grade probably is the highest level of formal education these children will receive.
In 1973 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a case originating in Wisconsin that Amish children were exempt from laws requiring them to attend school to age 16. The decision noted that the Amish oppose high school education because it places Amish children in a competitive atmosphere with pressure to conform with their peers.
Before the ruling, the Amish sometimes tried to keep their children away from high school by enrolling them late or encouraging them to flunk. That way, the children would be no higher than the eighth grade when they became 16.
“The ruling saved us,” said a teacher in one of the six schools serving the 150 Amish families living near Jamesport. “Our children are attracted to evil things, just like other children are. To put our children out there, in high school with the drugs and all that, there wouldn’t be any Amish, or Amish would become so liberal they wouldn’t really be Amish.”
The teacher did not want to be identified because he feared that some members of the Amish community would resent him for speaking to a reporter.
The one-room schoolhouse has no electricity and is heated by a wood stove. The teacher comes to class by the traditional Amish mode, a horse-drawn buggy. The students — the girls in black bonnets and unadorned dresses closed at the neck, the boys in plain blue shirts and trousers — walk to class.
If a student were to gaze outside, he would see rolling farmland, grain silos and a barn if looking past the boys’ and girls’ outhouses. But students are not permitted to gaze outside. “I won’t tolerate them looking around; then everything would come apart,” the teacher said. He also said unruly students are brought before the “board of education” — a wooden paddle hanging on the wall next to the blackboard.
The Amish schools have earned the respect of Joe Dyke, the supervisor for the public school district encompassing Jamesport.
“I think some English-speaking people laugh at their schools and say they are a joke,” he said, “but they haven’t been in there. Their schools are sometimes more quiet and tightly disciplined than our schools.”
The Amish, who speak German at home, refer to Americans outside their church as “the English.” Classes are conducted in English, and it is at school that many Amish children first are exposed to the language.
The Amish have communities in about 23 states. In 1953, attracted by cheap farm land, they began settling near Jamesport. About 3,500 Amish live in Missouri in some 16 counties.
One of the six bishops in the Jamesport area said radio and television have lured some youth away from the church but most return. Some Amish also believe their church is threatened by the influx of tourists to Jamesport. More than a dozen antique shops operated by non-Amish merchants have sprung up in the four-block downtown area in recent years. There is also an Amish-owned shop on the outskirts of town.
Non-Amish merchants have begun sponsoring craft fairs. On weekends when the fairs are held, tourists — many attracted by the Amish — flood the streets. “It’s getting to be a regular nuisance,” the bishop said. “It’s a matter of amusement (for the tourists), like going to Worlds of Fun.”
— The Kansas City Star published Nov. 8, 1987