How Marathon County Special Education (MCSE) Reaches Out to Mennonite & Amish Students

Written by Dr. Kelly Kapitz

If you travel in Marathon County at all, you’ve likely seen some of our Mennonite and Amish neighbors — on the road driving horse-drawn buggies, in bulk food stores, on farms, or at community events. Our neighbors are unmistakable with their distinctive plain dress and non-motorized modes of transportation. It’s an interesting life, operating as a community within a community . . .


Amish carriage
Amish carriage in farm country. (Buggy image by Tom Markoski via Pixabay.)

For decades, the Mennonite and the Amish have lived in Marathon County, raising and educating their children. Today, Wisconsin is the fourth leading home of Amish communities — behind only Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana (U.S. Census, 2019) — with 22,020 members. The Wisconsin Mennonite community boasts 94 congregations statewide and 5,206 members (

The two communities are often confused for one another, but there are some distinct differences between how the Mennonite and the Amish live.

Let’s begin with a few of their similarities…

Both the Mennonites and the Amish originated in the early 16th century from a Protestant tradition known as Anabaptism, which translates to “baptized again.” One of the primary reasons for breaking with the Protestant faith was that the Anabaptists believed that one’s relationship with Jesus Christ should be an adult choice, rather than occurring at infancy.

The two communities share the belief that they should live their faith in daily life, which includes their plain clothes manner of dress and living practices that do not embrace modern technologies (for fear of being pulled into the outside world and away from their family or community).

The original split between Mennonite and Amish groups occurred in 1693, when Jacob Ammann, a Swiss Anabaptist leader, believed that the church leaders were not strictly enforcing separation from the outside world and that a spiritual renewal was needed. Those that followed Ammann became known as the Amish.

The Amish traditionally are identified by appearance. Amish men have untrimmed beards and straw hats, and women wear singularly colored clothes and bonnets. Amish members use the horse and buggy as their primary mode of transportation, use horse-drawn vehicles for farming, and have no electricity or running water in their homes.

Amish buggy in Athens, WI. (Photo courtesy of Kelly Kapitz.)

By contrast, the Mennonites are allowed to have electricity, dress plainly but are allowed patterns in their clothes, and may have phones and drive cars.

It is important to know that even among the two communities, there are variances. Some Mennonite members may look and dress very similar to their non-Mennonite community members, and they may be hard to distinguish outwardly. Living practices depend on the order they belong to and the rules of that particular faith community.

Marathon County Special Education’s “Child Find” Outreach

Regarding education, all local public schools are required to reach out to all known private schools within their jurisdiction to inform the families and community of services that are freely available to all children — in particular, children with disabilities. This outreach is known as “child find.” As a provider of special education services for 6 rural Marathon County school districts (Abbotsford, Athens, Edgar, Marathon, Rosholt, and Spencer), the Marathon County Special Education (MCSE) Department conducts outreach on an annual basis to all private schools under their umbrella. Listings go into local newspapers for child find activities.

MCSE connections with the school elders have been in person. For instance, in Abbotsford, we scheduled an appointment with a family and then met them at their home. However, we have also had families ride in to meet us via their horse and buggy. In one school, the family transports their child daily in this manner. This is particularly tricky in the winter when school attendance may fall off a bit due to illness or poor weather conditions. The families we have connected with have been gracious and kind, and our personal visits with them go a long way to develop positive relationships.

Marathon County has approximately 6 Mennonite or Amish church schools hosting nearly 360 students in Grades 1–8. The exact number of students attending the church-based schools is unknown, as formal school censuses in the schools’ jurisdictions have not been conducted. The number listed here is based on Enos Martin’s knowledge of the area. Mr. Martin is a Mennonite father residing in Edgar whom I interviewed, along with his wife, Phoebe, for this article.

The Athens Mennonite School is one such school in Marathon County. They provide education to families in Edgar and Athens. Five teachers support their students at all levels.

Teachers at the Athens Mennonite Schools (left to right): Chilissa Wagler, Sandra Showalter, Christina Mast, Rosanne Weber, Stephen Weber. (Photo courtesy of Kelly Kapitz.)

The teaching staff reported that all of the children receive instruction at their level, including students who may have special education needs. One teacher remarked during our interview:

“We just teach them where they are at. Some students take longer to learn things, but that is ok.”

When necessary, the church leaders will add staff to support students with learning challenges.

The curriculum from the school is created by Rod and Staff Publishers, a biblical studies publishing company, which joins Christian education and traditional educational content. Their faith seeks connections in Christian education, words, and deeds.

The teachers at the Athens Mennonite Schools are selected by the church elders. They do not receive formal training but are mentored by veteran teachers. They learn how to teach the core content and deal with challenging behaviors. When asked about discipline, the staff remarked that it is rare to have significant disruptive behaviors. They had not had a suspension in over 5 years.

On occasion, members of the church community will reach out to Marathon County public schools for evaluations and services for children. In particular, children with significant needs may receive services within the school or home setting. However, this is very rare. In one case, a student had language and physical needs. The student attended the public school from ages 3 to 6 years. The family of the child sent a family member to school every day to support the student and to learn from the specially trained Marathon County Special Education staff. At age 6, the child returned to her family’s care.


Enos and Phoebe Martin shared that families and the faith community believe that it is their responsibility to provide for their children. According to Ms. Martin:

“We believe that God and our community will help us support these children.”

The overall community emphasis is on peace, love, and helping others.

School Boards

The schools are traditionally run by a 3-person board that is either elected or appointed. The men of the community serve in an advisory capacity. These boards make educational decisions, determine building needs, and make policy decisions for their school.

Educational Conflicts

The history of Amish and Mennonite schools’ interaction with public schools has not always been positive. In 1972, the right of the Amish to establish their own schools and educate their children up until 8th grade was strongly contested. In a decision that went to the Supreme Court, Wisconsin v. Yoder, it was determined that Wisconsin’s compulsory school attendance law was unconstitutional because it violates one’s first amendment rights. Essentially, families have the right to exercise their freedom of religion, which includes educating a child in the home.

Life After 8th Grade

The Martin family feels strongly about the importance of education, and they support the apprentice approach to teaching young men trades and skills to use in the community or at home.

After students graduate 8th grade, the boys will typically help on family farms or in faith community industries. Some of these include carpentry, roofing, woodworking, greenhouses, or bulk food stores. The girls will support their mother in the home. Occasionally, the girls will also be employed in faith community industries.

Mennonite plowing fields
Mennonite plowing fields. (Photo courtesy of ArjanneBurger  via Pixabay.)

With our MCSE outreach, we don’t judge; we accept these neighbors for who they are, and we offer our support and educational expertise to help them achieve their own educational objectives for their children. We respect their religious freedom, and we truly enjoy their welcoming and gracious behavior.

Imposition of any teaching methods or content that isn’t consistent with their culture will not better prepare these children in our County for their future. We want ALL students in rural Marathon County to succeed, and we know this is best achieved through cooperation and respect for the Amish and Mennonite lifestyles.

If you have any questions about MCSE or who we serve, I invite you learn more in “I’m Glad You Asked . . . The Top-5 Questions People Ask the Marathon County Children With Disabilities Education Board.”

KellyKapitzKelly Kapitz, PhD

Director  |  Marathon County Special Education Department

Dr. Kelly Kapitz has been involved in rural education for over 30 years. She began her career as a school psychologist and later entered administration as a Director of Special Education and Pupil Services for the Marathon County Special Education Department. She received her PhD in Education Leadership and Policy Analysis from the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Her dissertation and particular area of interest is transition services to students with disabilities. She has served on several state and local taskforces related to providing high-quality educational services to rural students. Dr. Kapitz serves on the Board of Directors for the Wisconsin Council of Administrators of Special Services. She and her husband have three children and enjoy tending their apple orchard and traveling. Email Dr. Kelly Kapitz.

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