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School Atypical for Hutterites

Rogers, Melinda. "School Atypical for Hutterites." Forum, 9 September 2007, A1 & A12.


SPRING PRAIRIE COLONY, Minn. The yoga positions proved briefly cumbersome for the 13 students in Cheryl Gottenborgs elementary class.

The kindergarten through third-grade students giggled with arms stretched wide as they tried exercises dubbed "the waterfall," "the pretzel" and "the windmill."

The first lesson of a new school year at Spring Prairie Colony School northwest of Hawley brought a concept foreign to most of the Hutterite children gathered in the two-room schoolhouse.

For Gottenborg, the yoga lesson was a chance to give her students something they rarely see: a view into elements of life from the outside world.

Teacher Cheryl Gottenborg helps Tamara Wipf work on a poster project recently during the first day of school at Spring Prairie Elementary near Hawley.
"You're bringing the world to them," said Gottenborg, who has taught at Spring Prairie for nine years.

"Everything is really exciting to them."

Classroom life at Spring Prairie Elementary looks like any other Minnesota school at first glance.

Brightly colored carpets adorned with numbers and letters decorate the classroom. Popular chapter books line the shelves of a small library.

But it doesnt take long to realize Spring Prairie Elementary students are different from many who attend traditional public schools.

Students chatter energetically on a small playground in Huttrsich, a version of a German dialect known as Tyrolean.

In class, they sit quietly, girls clad in hand-sewn dresses with prim black caps and boys dressed in black pants and suspenders traditional dress in the Hutterite community.

The Hawley School District is charged with providing education for the
Hutterite community, which favors a communal life where all personal
materials are shared and believes people work together for the "good of
the colony."

Students listen to their teacher during class at Spring Prairie Elementary near Hawley.
Hutterites study sermons written in German in the 1500s. Theyre devout in their religious beliefs and steadfast in maintaining traditions, some of which shun technology like television, radio and cell phones.

The Spring Prairie Colony School joined the Hawley School District in 1981.

The school follows all grade-level and education standards required by the Minnesota Department of Education.

There are no extracurricular activities outside of core subjects.

From 7:30 to 9 a.m., students attend "German school", where theyre taught Hutterite traditions, religious beliefs and customs. They resume German school after theyre dismissed by Hawley public school teachers at 3 p.m., said Corny Wipf, a colony member who oversees the school and works with high schoolstudents.

Students study at German school until about 5:30 p.m., Wipf said.

While little has changed on the outside of the colonys two-room school house, daily instruction is different from years ago, Wipf said.

Several computers line the classrooms' walls. Although the Internet is prohibited, students use computer learning programs to develop skills.

Students are exposed to technological advances in agriculture, which the Hutterites have embraced, unlike other colony communities such as the Amish and Mennonites.

"We are probably up front and foremost in technology," Wipf said.

"As far as computer technology, in all of our enterprises, technology is at the top level."

Wipf, who earned a degree from Minnesota State University Moorhead in order to teach at the colony, coordinates a distance-learning program with North Dakota State University that connects the colonys high schoolers with curriculum.

Most Hutterite students finish school at 16 or 17, Wipf said.

While in high school, students "migrate to their interests" in the colony in industries such as livestock, a mechanic shop, print shops or other jobs.

Some go on to earn GEDs. Few travel on to higher education.

Womens roles are relegated to the home, Wipf said.

Vicky Grondahl, Spring Prairie Elementarys English Language Learner instructor, said the school presents a unique challenge. Each one of the schools 30 students is considered to have limited English proficiency by the state Department of Education.

Hutterite children speak no English when they arrive in kindergarten. By the end of their first year, most are tri-lingual in English, high German and Tyrolese.

Helping students master English grammar, pronunciation and other language skills is part of Grondahls role as a teacher.

She said the children learn English quickly despite rarely hearing it around the colony.

"These children are in the most difficult position for learning English, because the only place they speak English is here at school," Grondahl said.

"They don't listen to TV, they don't listen to radio, they dont listen to music, they dont have that outside influence from the world. It makes their language learning harder."

Grondahl and Gottenborg feel blessed to teach at Spring Prairie Elementary.

Each has taught at other school districts in the area, but they say theres extra enthusiasm in the appetite among Spring Prairies students to learn.

"It's like a family environment. We know the families, we know the kids and everybody knows us," Grondahl said.

We're part of the community.

Teacher Ruth Christianson, who oversees the colonys 22 fourth- through seventh-graders, said the environment makes for a fun teaching experience.

"It's a two-room schoolhouse. There are not a lot of them out there anymore. You hear your grandparents talk about going to school in a one-room schoolhouse," Christianson said.

"That makes it special itself."

Reprinted with permission of The Forum.

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