EMES: A History

Lynette Mast '84 writes about the beginnings of the elementary division of Eastern Mennonite School, which opened in 2005 with Lynette as peacebuilding teacher. This was written in 2008.

It is hard to say how new ideas sprout.  But sprout they do as one small conversation over dinner happens, a fleeting comment during a phone conversation is shared, one phrase ignites a spark in another’s mind.  Connecting ideas, dreams and resources within community allows for an idea to sprout into a growing, living and thriving thing.  

Indeed that is how the elementary division of Eastern Mennonite School began, as a very small seed.  The educational climate in 2003 was one of controversy for many educators and parents alike.  The Standards of Learning were driving everything from teaching styles to distribution of funds to outside playtime for children.   The world climate was equally unsettled as it reeled from the aftermath of 9/11, environmental issues escalated, the world of technology sent us into change at neck-breaking speed, and wars began.  We were fast becoming a global society and one with some serious crisis developing.  

Parents' vision
It was within these contexts that a few parents began asking if there could be a better choice for their children and their education. Preparation to live in a very different world seemed critical.  They were looking for an environment where children were able to use critical and analytical thinking skills and where they were encouraged to use their natural inquisitive nature to discover and explore and come to conclusions.  They were looking for a place where children’s developmental needs were carefully considered and the opportunity for connecting with the awesomeness of creation was given priority.  They were looking for an environment that took time to work on creating positive, respectful relationships with others in the classroom, in the community and in the world.   They were looking for an educational setting that saw each one as a unique and gifted child of God with opportunity to seek Him and the furthering of His Kingdom.

This small group of parents from various walks of life saw in Eastern Mennonite High School that kind of learning environment.  Ernie Martin had done significant work with The Gifted Behaviors Program there, developing a philosophy that was counter to general society and encouraged all to find their giftedness rather than ranking and sorting students according to ability, so often measured in narrow ways.  Paul Leaman gave leadership to the school and brought experience that provided vision for high academic standards within a setting that held Mennonite and Anabaptist tradition close thus encouraging global awareness, embracing diversity and service to all of God’s creation.

In the spring of 2004 Ruby and Larion Hostetler, Yvonne and Brian Boettger and Lynette and Chris Mast, approached the Board of EMHS with their desire to see the same educational choice available for children ages Kindergarten through Grade 5. 

Board involvement
Jackie Hartman and Karl Stoltzfus, Jr., Chair and Vice Chair of the Board and Don Steiner, board member, were also in favor and gave leadership to the advancement of it.  It was with enthusiasm that the newly formed Eastern Mennonite Elementary Committee now having grown in numbers (it included many of the above mentioned as well as Lori and Greg Trissel, Dan Bender and Linda Miller), worked on defining a clear operational plan to present to the board while also surveying the Harrisonburg/Rockingham population, finding interest in such a school being formed. The idea was met with excitement and caution.

In May of 2004, the EMHS Board of Directors passed a motion to reaffirm its intent to open the elementary school in the fall of 2005.  

The committee, under the council of Paul Leaman began the process of firming up a location for the school, an administrator and funds for the start-up.  The most obvious location, on campus, was explored.  Recent building projects had allowed the existing Grades 6-12 to spread out into the expanded space but low enrollment was causing financial struggle.  However, that idea was met with considerable opposition from the high school community so other options were considered.  The final decision was to partner with Lindale Mennonite Church where the school would provide leadership through Chris Mast and partner to finish their lower level and be housed there.

A school is launched
In late August 2005 the doors opened with a Kindergarten and Grade 1 classroom, a Grade 2 and 3 classroom, a Grade 4 and 5 classroom, an art room, a small office and a large multipurpose space in the center.  The Kindergarten program partnered with Eastern Mennonite University’s Early Learning Center; these students joined the new elementary school at Lindale Mennonite Church.

Maria Archer was hired as both administrator of the school as well as the teacher for the 4/5 classroom.  Heidi Bowman Byler taught in the 2/3 classroom and Barbara Miller taught the Kindergarten and Grade 1 children. Susan Stoltzfus served as the 2/3 classroom assistant and would later assist in the 4/5 classroom as well. Volunteer educators Ruby Hostetler taught music twice a week to all students,  Jesse Hamilton taught the Spanish class, Laura Stoltzfus and Amy Depoy taught art twice a week,  a partnership with JMU’s physical education department provided teachers in training for physical education every day, and Lynette Mast taught peacebuilding once a week.  With 24 students entering that first day, a school had sprouted.

The school was a unique setting; lead with expertise by Maria Archer, in providing a place for children to thrive.   The elementary students interacted with the middle and high students sharing plays, musical performances, and reading together.  The school shared space and community with Lindale Mennonite Church members with Duane Yoder meeting with the children occasionally, the woman’s group quilting with the children, and many resources being shared daily.

The larger community contributed on a regular basis with storytellers and speakers visiting to enrich the program even further.  Each passing month meant making deliberate and thoughtful choices that would be congruent with the goals and objectives created when the seed sprouted; a school where Anabaptist and Mennonite core values were being upheld and students would be carefully lead in finding their unique passions, their giftedness.

Many met the school with a great deal of support. Many that visited could feel and see the atmosphere of mutual caring, encouragement of creativity and leadership skills and the desire to create a safe and accepting place for children to grow. It was also met with some concerns and questions.  

Within the school at large, many asked if the elementary would be financially draining.  Within the larger community some asked if Mennonite education was important at this level.  While a variety of opinions formed, the school grew each year.  It grew until there was no more room at the current location and a new site was needed if the school was to continue.

The Elementary Committee and the Board of Directors went back to work considering many options that had been looked at before, asking questions about a larger long-term vision for Eastern Mennonite School, and entertaining new ideas.  The next step for the elementary was to move and lease land owned by John Hall, an EMES parent, on North 11 in 2009 and 2010.  There, modular classrooms, later known as cottages, were placed, one per grade and one for Art and Spanish.  An existing building was renovated to provide office space and a large multipurpose room.  The school hired teachers to move to one grade per classroom with the hopes of growing to approximately one hundred students.  The school enjoyed a great deal of unique green space in that temporary location with woods to play in, hills to toboggan on, and space to create a new garden.  They continued to work to let the larger community know of its distinctive educational qualities, grew capacity, and developed a vision for a permanent home on the EMS campus with the renovation of an historic building. 

Growth as seeds bud and blossom: An Update from EMS Advancement Team

The third temporary location for EMES was in the middle and high school building. The students and teachers were generous with their space and gave us classrooms to use until this building was finished.

What did we learn during the last year and and half? That we are a k-12 community. That we need each other, that when relationships are formed across grade levels, our students benefit, and when teachers of different divisions come together as a community, we are stronger….our vision can become reality.

In December 2019, EMES moved into its first permanent home in the newly renovated MennoMedia building, which was dedicated in January 2020. Teachers said "We thank those who came before us…who had the vision…and those who have given generously to complete this project. We love our new home." EMES thrives in a building with: access to outdoor learning spaces, spacious; naturally list classrooms; and dedicated spaces for kitchen, library, music, and art. There is one piece missing that has been the heart of each space they have inhabited:  a gathering space. Imagine a home without a dining room, living room, or family room. Or a school without a chapel, dining hall, or gym.

Looking forward

And so the story continues. EMES look to our next phase when a Gathering space, for the elementary school, will be built, connected here to this building. The Gathering space will be the center of activity at our school. A place where we can meet – K-5 students for weekly Gathering, for all-school events. It will be a place for grandparents and parents to meet together for activities, where dessert theater can happen, where we can hold our international dance event, and we anticipate that many more school and community activities will take place when the Gathering space is built.

The seed that has sprouted and grown is continuing to bud and blossom with waitlists in every elementary grade.  It will, by necessity, always be seeking new ways of responding and equipping our children to live in the world that is being handed to them.  Many have said of late that the Anabaptist Mennonite tradition has been rather quiet in the past but that the world needs its message.  Is it possible for children ages 5 and 10 and 14 and 17 to be empowered to make a difference?  Many stories proclaim a resounding “yes”.  Is it possible to be providing opportunity for our children to be thinking outside of the box and lead generations before them to finding God’s Light in a broken world?  It is imperative. 

Eastern Mennonite School continues to grow into a place where our youth are encouraged to resist seeking prosperity within the empire but instead to seek making a difference in the building of God’s Kingdom.  The seed that has sprouted continues to blossom, inviting all those to join, opening our doors wide to share in its’ vision.