Here on Maryland's rural Allegheny plateau, the traditions of the area's Amish and Mennonite settlers are deeply rooted.
In a land of farms with neat, clean fence rows and picturesque vistas, parents want those traditions of simplicity and spirituality instilled in their children's education. And many of them consider the Yoder School -- a four-room, white-frame schoolhouse near here that was founded in 1882 by the Amish and Mennonites -- to be a special place that provides the proper environment for today's 62 students.
They note that the school, which has classes in the first through eighth grades, has among the highest test scores in the county, despite the fact that its per-pupil expenditures are the lowest. And although none of the students is Amish and only about half are Mennonites, the parents laud the heritage of the former parochial school that became public around the turn of the century.
The parents argue that in the small-school setting, more akin to a family than an institution, students are more motivated and excel. "There is a real love and caring for the children here," said Jim Horning, a father of 14 who has one daughter at the school.
"What's different here," said parent Del Proudfoot, "is this school has a Mennonite influence. This is a Christian school [in its attitude]. That means an awful lot to most of the people here."
Nonetheless, Garrett County Superintendent Jerome Ryscavage, a crew-cut former military officer, is disturbed by the school's fuzzy attendance boundaries and its lack of physical amenities. He says it has outlived its usefulness, and he has proposed closing it in three or four years.
That death knell has raised questions here about the equity of education in this rural county with only 5,100 public school students. And it has focused attention on the ethnic and religious traditions that mark the high country 170 miles from Washington.
Although the school was founded by church groups, the Old Order Amish and some Mennonites in the area now believe it has deviated from its former philosophy, and they send their children to church schools in nearby Pennsylvania. The shift has occurred during the past 12 years, causing a gradual decline in the enrollment at the Yoder School.
Bishop Bennie A. Yoder, an Amish elder who attended the Yoder School here half a century ago, said the place is no longer fit for children "on account of corruption in the public school. Things were being pushed on further at Yoder . . . . They were coming to the point where they were teaching about sex," a reference to the school's family life course.
But other parents from throughout the northern section of the county bypass their local schools and opt to send their children to the Yoder School. For them, the superintendent's recommendation to close it has been devastating.
Last week about 60 Yoder parents crowded into a classroom at the school a mile and a half north of this town of 500.
The five school board members listened intently as the parents tried to tell what was unique about their school. It was, they said, an attitude.
"I thank the Lord that He allowed my twin boys to go here," said Dorla Buckel. "It's just special. It's been such a blessing to our family."
Asked Vernon Yoder, whose eight children had attended the school, "Did you ever hear the saying, 'If it ain't broken, don't fix it?' "
But, Superintendent Ryscavage said, the school has no gymnasium, no music, no art room, no cafeteria and few other physical amenities, so education may be unequal. The parents said that they did not care about such things, that the education was superior.
Ruth Yoder, who taught there for 22 years, said that while supervising recesses she had been thankful "hundreds of times we have grass to fall on" instead of asphalt. The school yard is enclosed with a white picket fence and contains such play equipment as five large tractor tires embedded in the earth.
But the superintendent countered that while anyone in the northern half of this vast county technically is allowed to forgo their own community school to attend Yoder, those in the south, who are not in the school's district, could not. Therefore, he said, the county could not offer equal opportunity to all, as required by law.
Nobody had threatened to sue, he acknowledged, but he said a few parents in the northern area had complained that the school was too far away for their children to attend.
Ryscavage noted a projection that the Yoder School's enrollment will decline to 30 in 1993. The parents produced their own survey showing that enrollment will grow. They said the problem is that getting into Yoder requires permission for a transfer from the Grantsville Elementary School principal, who often discourages them.
Indeed, Grantsville's principal, Matthew Stieringer, said enrollment at his brick schoolhouse built in 1980 is threatened by Yoder's continuation. The school has 258 students but was built for 360. "The last three years, I've said no to a majority of transfer requests," he said.
"When they say the program is better there. It's not," he said. "That's what most say. I don't agree with that."
At Yoder, combined grades are taught by four teachers, including Principal Carolyn Tice. The educational approach is different, she insisted, because teaching of basic skills and of empirical facts go together at her school.
For example, fifth and sixth graders one day last week were cooking -- and eating -- a special lunch for diabetics as part of their science curriculum.
The Yoder teachers said they understood why some Mennonites had moved to the Mountview Christian School in Springs, Pa., for what is known as accelerated Christian education. Of the 62 Mountview students, 27 are from Maryland.
As for the Amish, who leave school after the eighth grade, the Yoder School teachers had tried to accommodate them, refraining from requiring a pledge of allegiance to the flag, a practice still followed in deference to beliefs of Mennonites attending the Yoder School.
Why, then, had the Amish left for their own small schools?
Bennie Yoder, 62, knew, but he sat silently on his tractor for several minutes before responding to a reporter's questions.
"We went along with the public schools as long as we could sort of get a compromise," he said. "We had to plead with them to accept us. It came to a place where there were too many books not fitting for our spiritual lives . . . . To bring children up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, we have to shield them in what they're taught."
The students at Yoder have their own view of things. If the school closed, said 9-year-old Clarissa Cannon, "It would feel kind of different like. I would miss some of my friends and teachers and stuff."
The county school board is to vote on the Yoder closing Thursday.
"It's going to be a hard decision to make," said board member William M. Goldsboro. "By all practicality, it should be closed, but then you've got an element that claims the school is such a good quality place."