Some of these pupils have never been to school before.

Others may have attended a Bible-based church school or studied at home.

And many have never spoken anything other than Low German.

Bridges, a new Thames Valley District School Board pilot program for Low German-speaking Mennonite school children, has been so popular with parents that it has outgrown two classrooms and will expand into a third.

Forty-nine pupils are enrolled now and more are on their way. Part-time students also pop in from other parts of the school daily to share in the pupils’ cultural traditions.

“Word of mouth has spread (news of the program) well,” said Tim Coombs, principal of Straffordville elementary school. Straffordville is about 20 kilometres east of Aylmer in Elgin County,

The program also has two classes at Summers’ Corners elementary, near Aylmer, he said.

Southwestern Ontario is home to several diverse Mennonite communities, ranging from the horse and buggy Old Order to Conservative to those whose ancestors left Canada a century ago to settle in Mexico. A large number of Mennonites in the Aylmer area are Low-German-speaking Mennonites with Mexican origins.

The Thames Valley board estimates only about 10 per cent of Low German students in east Elgin County, about 1,500 pupils, attend board schools.

At the heart of the Bridges program is the hope that Low German-speaking Mennonites, often reluctant to send their kids to public schools, may change their minds when they see how the program embraces their cultural roots with, for example, school days that open with the Lord’s Prayer and Bible readings.

Isaak Hildebrandt, 12, said his Low German-speaking parents were “super-excited” about him being able to attend public school and still have a Christian-based education.

“I read the Bible and lead the scripture readings (in my classroom),” he said.

The pupils, with help from Low German-speaking teachers and a translator, are celebrating Mexican Mennonite Week. Many of the Mennonites in Elgin and nearby Norfolk County are the descendants of people who emigrated from Eastern Europe to Manitoba in the 1870s and then moved to Mexico beginning in 1922 and, several generations later, returned to Canada.

“We’re trying to honour their living experience, the cultures and talents of our students and family,” Coombs said.

“The parents are seeing the value of learning English and the academic curriculum we have. They are also seeing the value of integration and socialization with other students who are not Mennonite.”

Once participating pupils complete Grade 8, they would be “bridged” to high school, which many East Elgin Mennonites have never attended.

Pupils also can take leave – bringing school work with them – to visit relatives in Mexico or help their families with farm work or other tasks.

They are graded through tests, projects and presentations, Coombs said.

“We’re trying to break down the barriers that have been in this area traditionally,” Coombs said. “We are able to provide public education to them, which our students in Ontario receive, but they are also continuing with their personal culture.

“They are getting the best of both worlds.”

Primary teacher Jessica Dyck, who grew up near Alymer in a Low German family, loves how the program lets siblings stay together creating “little families in our classrooms.”

“I love the community because our culture’s focus is on the family,” she said. “You see the sense of loving and caring for each other.”

For many of her pupils, it’s their first time in a classroom, she said. “Some have never attended school at all.”

The hope is that one day, program pupils will move on to East Elgin secondary school, where they would continue to work with teachers to earn high school diplomas, while still adjusting their learning schedule to accommodate family activities.

“They shift times so the kids can miss a week or two at beginning or at end of year,” Coombs said. “They do some learning online or outside the traditional learning hours if they are needed on their family farms.”

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