Mennonite Educational Institute (Abbotsford, British Columbia, Canada)
The Mennonite Educational Institute had its beginnings in 1944 with classes for Grades 9 to 11 being offered in the fall of that year. It had been the concern of local leaders that "our studious young people are forced to seek their higher education in institutions that are not in harmony with our principles of faith." According to the early minutes of the School Committee, the school was established for a three-fold purpose, including a desire to preserve the Mennonite faith, and culture and to maintain the German language. Support for the concept was solicited from both Mennonite Brethren (MB) and General Conference Mennonite Churches in the Fraser Valley. Seven churches decided to support the school at the outset. Three men, Cornelius Toews, George Sukkau and Alex Bauman, were elected to obtain government approval in Victoria. Dr. Willis, Deputy Minister of Education, stated that permission would be granted on three conditions: the government would give no financial support, qualified teachers must be engaged, and the English language must be used. With these agreements in place the decision was made to move forward.
Since it was impossible to obtain a building permit for a new structure during the war years it was decided to build an addition to the South Abbotsford Mennonite Brethren Bible School to accommodate the first students. The location was at the corner of Huntington and Gladwin Roads in an area where many Mennonites had recently settled. Franz C. Thiessen, formerly of Winnipeg, became principal and teacher and Isaak J. Dyck of Winkler, Manitoba was hired as teacher. Henry H. Nikkel was added later because the 60 student enrolment was higher than had been expected. It turned out that the student total was trimmed to 44 due to conscription, making it difficult for the $80.00 per student tuition to cover the costs of salaries even though the teachers were paid 50-70% less than in the local school district.
The educational philosophy of MEI had its roots in the desire of the Mennonite churches in the Fraser Valley to maintain their heritage as expressed in faith, culture and language. Initially this was accomplished through religious education courses such as Bible Doctrine, Church History and Mennonite History which were taught in the German language. In addition, German was taught to all students as a compulsory course while other required courses were taught in English. Other cultural aspects were maintained more indirectly by association between teachers and students who came from homes and communities that had similar cultural values. Morning devotionals as well as Spiritual Emphasis weeks were held in German. Mennonite History was a compulsory course for all students in the upper grades. These initiatives were strong influences which kept students in line with their parents' values and helped to ensure that most students became members of their home churches.
However, the forces of assimilation into the general Canadian culture were everywhere. English became universal and French was introduced as a foreign language option in 1978, although German continued to be available. It would be fair to say that in the last decades an urban Canadian way of life has replaced the former Russian Mennonite farming culture noticeable in terms of food, dress, music, sports and entertainment. The school reflects these changes as do the churches in the area.
Strong emphasis has been placed on the importance of teaching all courses from a Christian perspective. Care has also been taken to encourage the home and church to work hand in hand with the school. The students are challenged to put their faith into practice in daily living and also through community service projects and short-term overseas mission projects.
Locations and Buildings
The original school began operations in the rural area of South Abbotsford where the church had already begun a Bible school. An addition of 26 ft. by 46 ft. was built at a cost of $1500 to accommodate the first classes in 1944. In 1945 a two-acre plot was purchased in Clearbrook at the corner of Clearbrook and Old Yale Roads, and by December 1946 six classrooms and an auditorium were ready for occupancy at a cost of $28,530. In 1954 a Junior High extension of four classrooms with a basement auditorium was built and in 1956 four additional classrooms were built with two lower rooms to be used for drafting and sewing. In 1959 an annex was built to accommodate classrooms for home economics, woodworking and music. After some soul searching about the viability of continuing to operate a private Christian school, it was determined to move forward with the construction of a gymnasium in 1970 at a cost of approximately $200,000.
With a steadily growing student population, the Clearbrook campus became too small by the 1970s and with some government funding becoming available for school operations it was determined to build a new school at the north end of Clearbrook Road on an 18 acre plot at a cost of $252,000 for the land and $2,500,000 for the construction. This building, which included a full-sized gymnasium, was ready for the fall of 1980. In 1987 six more classrooms were added and in 1991 a new library, student lounges and classrooms were also added. In 1994 this building accommodated 790 students with a teaching staff of 42.6 full time equivalents (FTE).
There was considerable pressure from parents of younger school-age children for MEI to add an elementary school. In 1993 portables were set up to take care of the first classes of 35 children in Kindergarten and Grade 1. By 1997 a new elementary school was built at a cost of $4,000,000. and with an enrollment of 398 from K to 7. In 2000 the enrolment in the elementary grades was 508 with 21.9 FTE teachers.
Plans are to add another building on a nearby site so that a Middle School can be established which will enroll students in Grades 6 to 8 with 2003 as the projected opening year.
At the beginning the administrative structure of the MEI appears to have been quite loosely organized. A small group of men from South Abbotsford MB Church who spearheaded the project were present at each board meeting" (Froese, MEI Evergreen, 12) but other churches sent delegates and in 1945 this included 45 delegates from 10 churches. During the same year the South and North Abbotsford (now Clearbrook) MB Churches decided to operate the Bible and High School jointly, drawing in as many of the other Mennonite churches in BC as possible for financial support. They were joined by the Matsqui MB Church and in 1946 the Strawberry Hill MB Church also joined the group. Members of the West Abbotsford Mennonite Church were also involved from the beginning which eventually led to that church becoming a full member. By 1957 three other churches had joined, namely: Arnold, Abbotsford (now Central Heights) and Aldergrove MB with each of the seven churches sending three members to serve on the MEI Board.
In 2001 there were 15 supporting churches as listed below:
|Arnold Community||Emmanuel Mennonite||South Abbotsford MB|
|Bakerview MB||King Road MB||South Langley MB|
|Cedar Valley Mennonite||Mountain Park Community||Wellspring Christian|
|East Aldergrove MB||Northview Community||West Abbotsford Mennonite|
|Eben Ezer Mennonite||Olivet Mennonite||King Road MB|
Board Chairmen were elected from among the representatives sent by the churches and below is a list of those who served in this capacity through the years:
|Abram D. Rempel||1944-1948|
|Abram H. Reimer||1950-1952|
|Frank F. Friesen||1954-1961|
|Jacob J. Klassen||1961-1967|
A Ladies Auxiliary was inaugurated in the 1970s to support the school spiritually, morally, and financially. Of course, before this more formal beginning, mothers had been involved in various aspects of school life and continued to participate in devotional, catering, decorating, and publicity oriented activities. In recent years the Auxiliary has donated scholarships to assist students with the cost of tuition. In addition the Mothers Who Care group has focussed on prayer support for teachers and students since 1987. More recently a Parents Advisory Committee has been organized with the purpose of supporting staff and students in the Elementary School.
The MEI teaching staff has grown as the student enrollment increased. Qualifications for a teacher included a commitment to the Lord, membership in a Mennonite church and a BC teaching certificate. Although the latter was not adhered to in every case, this was the goal of the school and it may be said that the results of students in BC Government Examinations and in further studies show that the teaching staff has indeed been well qualified.
The following have been principals of the high school:
|Franz C. Thiessen||1944-1945|
|Isaak J. Dyck||1945-1957|
|William A. Wiebe||1957-1961|
|David H. Neumann||1961-1969|
In 2000 Peter Froese became the Superintendent of both Elementary and High schools.
Principals of the Elementary school have been Peter Froese (1997-2000) and Dave Erickson (2000-) In the year 2000 the teaching staff in the High school numbered 44.75 FTE and in the Elementary school 21.9 FTE.
In the earlier years the financial costs were raised largely through student tuition fees and levies on supporting churches. In 1944 the tuition was set at $80.00 per student while the church levy was set at $1.00 per member. As the enrollment increased more teachers were required and other costs also increased making it necessary for the Board to find more funds. The chart below traces these developments and makes it possible to make some comparisons:
Of course, the tuition fees have risen considerably, beginning at $80 in 1944, ranging from $210 to $335 in 1970 and in 2000 ranging from $2,140 to $3,190 in the High school.
A per member levy to the churches became somewhat of a burden over the years especially for those churches which had a large percentage of elderly members who did not have students at MEI anymore. In the 1960s MEI joined the Federation of Independent Schools of BC and in 1978 the school received the first government grant of $471 per student and consequently the levies could be reduced as shown in the above chart. The grants were calculated on a per student basis and represented 30% of the cost of educating students in the public school system at that time. This percentage has risen and at present stands at $2,797.50 per student which is 50% of the cost in the public schools in the Abbotsford School District.
There were some concerns raised by parents and churches about accepting government grants. Would the churches lose control of the school? Would the government dictate which teachers could be engaged? Would the entire curriculum be prescribed? However the requirements were favorable and included the stipulation that the BC Curriculum be taught and that teachers should be certified in BC.
Another innovation that has worked to the benefit of MEI has been the formation of the Friends of the MEI Society, a group of businessmen with the goal of providing financial assistance to MEI in order to expand its program offerings and to renovate or relocate the school building.
For the first several years of its operation, the Friends contributed exclusively to the school's operational budget. But discussions about moving the school to a new campus burgeoned, and in 1976 the society resolved to begin an active search for a possible new site. It was the vision and drive of the Friends of the MEI that provided the impetus for relocation to the present site. In 1976 the Society purchased an 18 acre site and donated it to the school.
In 1983 a full-time accountant was added to the staff and through the years this role has expanded with the official title now being comptroller (Dan Guggenheimer, 2000) with the responsibility to oversee all of the financial aspects of the school's operation. In 1987 a Director of Development was hired to spearhead the raising of funds for ongoing development of the school.
The modest beginning of MEI near the end of Word War II with only 44 students in attendance changed rapidly during the period of expansion of the post-war period and beyond. The reputation of the school with high academic standards and with its dedicated teachers as well as the desire of parents to keep their children on the right path resulted in a growing enrollment during the 1950s. During the 1960s there was a downturn in enrollment partially due to reorganization of the public system which moved grade 7 to the elementary level and grade 13 to university level in 1967. The school was also unable to offer the same variety of courses for career-oriented students and concentrated on a more limited offering of academic courses. However with renewed vision and the infusion of new funds from the community the school has grown in enrollment and is able to accommodate students with a wide variety of abilities and interests.
The composition of the senior high student body has changed from being drawn completely from the supporting Mennonite churches to 63.6% in 2000. It should be remembered that there are additional students who come from non-supporting Mennonite churches but a considerable number of students continue to come from other Christian churches as well as other ethnic and religious backgrounds.
International students have attended MEI since the 1970s but a more intentional program was begun in 1998 with nine students from Japan and Korea. In 2000 there were 31 students from 8 different countries. These students receive English as a Second Language training so that they can be integrated into the regular curriculum as much as possible and they add another significant dimension to school life.
Academic scholarship has been emphasized with good success with many students doing very well on Grade 12 government examinations. Scholarship winners have been relatively high through the years, often exceeding accomplishments in the public school system.
Student performances were encouraged through the years beginning with literary programs presenting classical literature and going on to full-blown dramatic presentations beginning in1950 with the production of Esther, a Biblical drama. Other notable plays were The Robe, Uncle Tom's Cabin, and a German drama, Glaube und Heimat. Operettas and musicals over the last 20 years have included The Mikado, Oliver, and The Sound of Music. Teacher directors include William Wiebe, Jacob Toews and Larry Nickel.
The choral music program has been a hallmark of MEI since its early years including a variety of male and female groups. The premier performing group has been the Concert Choir performing at many school functions, doing deputation work at local churches and engaging in Concert Choir tours. Notable conductors included Franz Thiessen, C. D. Toews, Henry Wiebe, Rudy Baerg, John Neufeld and Larry Nickel.
Instrumental programs involved fewer students. By 1948 there was a school orchestra but after some successful years, participation dropped. In 1977 a band program was begun at the junior high level and then was expanded to include senior high students to become a full-fledged band program. A jazz band was added along with a junior stage band.
Another area of great interest and good success has been the athletic program. From softball in early years it has moved to a strong physical education program and to inter-school competition. The Senior Boys Basketball team has twice attained the Provincial Championship (1963 and in 1970), coached by Jake Braun. The Junior Boys accomplished this feat in 1965 and 1994, and the Senior Girls in 1999. The girl's teams have been involved at all levels in basketball, volleyball as well as other sports, as have the boys.
Students have been involved in promoting school spirit and a great variety of school activities through the Student Council which had its beginning 1949. Funds have been raised for various school projects and charitable causes such as a Haiti orphanage and the local Christmas Bureau. Students have sponsored events such as the annual Christmas banquet, carnivals and indoor track meets.
Two student publications have provided an outlet for literary creativity. The Student's Call began as early as 1949 and has been produced by student volunteers for most years. The Evergreen, the school's annual, has been published since 1946. providing a great record of school activities. In 2000 it was produced by a journalism class under the direction of Alvin Ens, senior English Teacher.
The curriculum in 1944 consisted of the basic courses in English, Mathematics, Science and Social Studies, augmented by Music, German, Bible and Mennonite History. By 1947 courses in Agriculture, Biology, Chemistry and Physics were part of the curriculum with the purpose of preparing students with the necessary skills to enter various vocations and professions and the ability to understand the world in the context of a strong faith in God the Creator and Sustainer of the universe. Although the emphasis has been on the academic program there were woodworking and sewing classes in the early years as well. In the 1960s and 1970s woodworking was discontinued but in 1981 it was introduced again and is now offered to students on all levels. Since 1964 the earlier sewing classes have developed into courses that include Foods, Clothing and other Life Skills available to boys as well as the girls, spearheaded to a great extent by Nora Martens.
In 1981 Woodworking was given attention with the development of a well equipped shop which eventually made this course available to all students to learn skills in furniture making and building of various kinds. Drafting became an option for boys in 1972 and is now available to all students.
Typing began to be offered in the 60s to give students a skill that would allow them to enter another area of work. From the old manual and then electric typewriters, the school has progressed to well stocked computer labs. In addition, there are numerous computer- related courses as well as academic courses containing computer components.
The development of a library was a concern from the beginning of the school but it was not until the early 1970s that a somewhat adequate library was established, largely through the vision of teacher-librarian Hilda Janzen. Since then others have taken up the task and to-day a full-fledged reference and fiction library exists with computer access and capabilities.
Spiritual (Faith) Component
Bible and related courses have always been a cornerstone of the MEI curriculum, this being one of the primary reasons for the establishment of the school. The desire was that all students would place their faith in God. Many students have made decisions for Jesus at school or have been encouraged to grow in their commitment to Him.
Teachers approach all curriculum areas from a Christian perspective, but there are also structured times within the school day and curriculum when specific attention is focused on spiritual needs. Morning devotionals have begun each day since the school began, originally with an all-school gathering in the gymnasium. Since moving to the new campus, this has been replaced by a brief Bible reading, commentary and prayer by the classroom teachers.
Chapel formats have changed significantly. Earlier fifteen-minute sermonettes were given by classroom teachers, there were weekly testimony times, and there was singing in four-part harmony from hymn books and accompanied by an accomplished student pianist. Today students sing choruses projected onto a screen on the front stage. Piano accompaniment is still common, but in recent years this has been augmented by drums, guitars, and a synthesizer. Teachers are rarely featured as chapel speakers , and guest speakers range from local youth pastors to visiting celebrities.
Since 1956, a Religious Emphasis Week with a special guest speaker has been an annual event at MEI. The Spiritual Emphasis Week, as it is now called, continues to be held each year, usually in October. It has proven to be a strong means of challenging students to make decisions for Jesus and to lay the groundwork for a life of service.
Student prayer groups have also been part of school life as well through the years. These groups have generally been made up of students with a high level of commitment to the Lord and have been a strong positive influence in the student body.
In recent years students have become involved in community service projects. Students can now take a missions course with the aim of becoming part of a team that will be involved in a short term missions project in places such as Haiti, Ukraine, Mexico, Costa Rica or Seattle.
In many ways the MEI story is a story of success. The original goals of the founding fathers were met in large measure and with changing times, adjustments and additions have been made. The mission statement of the school as prominently displayed in its hallways aptly sums up the accomplishments and the ongoing direction of this educational venture: "The mission of the Mennonite Educational Institute, in harmony and co-operation with the home and our supporting churches, is to prepare young people to strive for excellence in all things so they can contribute positively to God's Kingdom and society as faithful disciples of Christ."
Froese, Ruth, ed., MEI Evergreen Jubilee Edition. Altona, MB: Friesen Yearbooks, 1994.
Stobbe, Abe J. South Abbotsford Mennonite Brethren Church: A History from 1932-1982. Altona, MB: Friesen Printers, 1982.
Willms, H. J. Die Sued-Abbotsford Ansiedlung. Yarrow, BC: The Columbia Press, n.d.
MEI Archives: Board Minutes, Annual Meeting booklets and other materials.
Cite This Article
Friesen, Hugo. "Mennonite Educational Institute (Abbotsford, British Columbia, Canada)." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 2001. Web. 16 Feb 2019. http://gameo.org/index.php?title=Mennonite_Educational_Institute_(Abbotsford,_British_Columbia,_Canada)&oldid=138888.
Friesen, Hugo. (2001). Mennonite Educational Institute (Abbotsford, British Columbia, Canada). Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 16 February 2019, from http://gameo.org/index.php?title=Mennonite_Educational_Institute_(Abbotsford,_British_Columbia,_Canada)&oldid=138888.
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