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EAST HOLMES DISTRICT -- For more than 30 years, Jerry Schlabach has owned and operated Berlin Bulk Foods, a quaint Amish mom-and-pop shop nestled in the heart of downtown Berlin.
His five sons all worked at the store. And each received a traditional Amish education, graduating after the eighth-grade. Despite this, Schlabach recognizes a need for increased technology and computer training in his community, a counter intuitive notion given the belief structures of the culture he was born into.
And though not turning a blind eye to his Amish heritage, Schlabach, along with a core group of supporters, knew a little change would go a long way.
"It's important they learn how technology works," Schlabach said of Amish students. "The workforce is changing so rapidly."
Ten years ago, the late Bill Keim, who owned Keim Lumber near Millersburg, was the pioneer, unabashedly, and using personal resources, purchasing computers for East Holmes classrooms. And to extinguish concerns of uneasy Amish parents, he hired hackers, paying them $100 each to try to crack district safeguards.
They each failed.
"This changed the game for the Amish community," said Eli Hochstetler, owner of Gospel Book Store at Berlin, who along with Keim and Schlabach, led the way to integrating technology into public schools with large populations of Amish students. "It showed that we can educate the Amish without exposing them to crazy, offensive stuff."
At the end of the day, the subject of whether or not to embrace the growing presence of technology in schools is not an Amish thing, or an English thing, for that matter. It's the desire for children to be successful, not just in the classroom, but in life.
And that's an innate aspiration for every parent. One that transcends all cultural boundaries.
"Every parent -- across the board -- has a concern about the accessibility of inappropriate material," Schlabach said. "When that was taken care of, Internet accessibility was limited, and filters were in place, parents became more comfortable with the fact that, 'Yes, this is something we need and we can trust the school system.'"
On County Road 77 at Mount Hope, Amish horse and buggies litter the street, creating a veritable traffic jam at times. But a couple miles away, at Mount Hope Elementary, a public school with an 100 percent Amish population, students are immersed with technology, a by-product of forward thinking administrators, an understanding Principal Advisory Committee and a Ohio Department of Education Straight A Grant designed to place tech in the hands of this culture in hopes of bolstering its language arts aptitude.
Although, integrating technology wasn't exactly a smooth transition. Like any landmark change, some lofty hurdles needed overcome.
Amish parents expressed three major concerns.
First, parents did not want their children to have free rein access to the Internet. Second, they wanted the devices to be used for educational purposes, not as gaming systems. And third, parents were concerned children would be exposed to objectionable materials and images.
"Those are things any good parent would want for their child -- English or Amish," said Mount Hope Elementary School Principal Dan McKey, also the principal at Winesburg Elementary, which boasts a 60 percent Amish population.
Knowing the importance tablet technology can have on education, McKey helped eliminate the concerns.
"So far, it's gone very well and parents have been supportive," McKey said. "Parents see the educational value."
Administrators at Mount Hope and Winesburg have been easing its students into the technological transition. The schools first used computers in each of its classrooms before installing Smartboards a year ago.
Now, every student at Winesburg has a LearnPad, a tablet similar to an Apple iPad. Mount Hope Elementary has one for every six children.
In a culture based upon shunning technological advancements and modernism, Amish students are highly proficient in terms of tablet usage and enthusiastically open to learning via nontraditional formats.
And especially when young, mental pliability is key as the brain can train itself to learn in creative methods. Tablet technology is seemingly tailor-made for education as software developers create a multitude of apps across all gamuts of study, triggering this elasticity and enhancing overall knowledge.
In a third-grade classroom at Mount Hope, students clamor around a LearnPad, challenging each other in a game called "Math Duel," in which they face off against each other, vying to answer the math question the quickest.
"I love challenging them, and getting those 'Ah-huh moments,'" said Kris Kelley, a first-year eighth-grade teacher at Mount Hope.
But it's also important to recognize the multi-tiered safeguards the district and schools have put in motion, making education the paramount focus and nearly impossible for students to seek out obscene materials.
"If they're not doing what they're supposed to be doing, I can freeze individual LearnPads and send them messages saying 'Get busy,'" said Keith Troyer, a fourth-grade teacher at Winesburg. "They know I'm watching them."
Educators can pick and choose which apps are on each tablet, customizing the learning experience. That being said, teachers can be very choosey as to if students even need to access the web.
"I have control over everything they learn," Kelley said. "If I want them to have access to something specific, I just send it to them, and that's all they're able to open. They're not off watching YouTube."
Not far from Mount Hope is Fredericksburg, also known for its large Amish population. The public school, though, offers a smaller Amish grouping at 40 percent as many attend parochial schools that strictly adhere to cultural beliefs.
Stepping into a classroom at Fredericksburg Elementary School, it's clear to see there are no cultural differences. English and Amish students alike are connected ... and technologically proficient.
All students have their own laptops connected to Smartboards, and thanks to a supportive Parent Teacher Organization, most have their own iPads.
The Fredericksburg PTO recently raised $12,000 that was used to purchase 20 iPads and other supportive tablet accessories. The Southeast District provided 18 more iPads. That combination placed a tablet in front of each third-grader.
"We're very fortunate," Principal Christa Frantz said. "It's very impressive."
And Fredericksburg isn't done with its tech expansion.
Thanks to an Ohio Department of Education 21st Century Grant, the school is adding laptops, specifically, ChromeBooks, as the district gears up for online assessment testing.
The grant will place one set of ChromeBooks in each of the lower grades before tiering up to a 1-to-1 ratio in seventh-grade.
Mount Hope and Winesburg also are prepping for online testing through the state.
Although, tablet and laptop technology also allows students to perform quizzes and tests on their devices, then electronically submit to teachers. Once this methodology is fully embraced, taking paper tests will fall by the wayside.
"On the computer, she (Fredericksburg Elementary fifth-grade teacher Sarah Meenan) controlled the slides and gave us a quiz," Fredericksburg fifth-grader Isaak Shetler said. "And on one of the questions, we had to draw a picture of soil, it was pretty awesome,"
At Fredericksburg, the school takes its safeguards one step further, having parents sign an Acceptable Use Policy before students use technology.
"Every once and a while, we will get a family that's cautious," third-grade teacher Shawn Snyder said, "but once we explain to them what we are using it for, that there are safeguards in place, that the kids are monitored, and the purpose, then they become very open."
Author Paul Gaus has studied and been engulfed in the Amish community for 40 years, teaching courses on the culture at The College of Wooster. There is a fine line, he says, between progressive Amish and conservative Amish. And clearly, that's now evident in the classroom.
"It's interesting, Amish will tolerate a lot of modern technology as long as nobody drives it home," said Gaus, who's written eight books, including his latest "The Names of Our Tears."
"They want it to stay at the schools, job sites and marketplace."
Change is in motion, knowing technology will shape their children's future. Many Amish are on board. And while other communities might not alter their viewpoint, the possibility is greater than it was decades ago.
"It's a part of the ongoing change," Schlabach said. "We have to find a way to use it and use it on a level that does not go against our values and principles."