SIDNEY — What better way to prepare our children for what is to come than by giving them a solid foundation of morals to stand on?
For the past 100 years, many Sidney area parents have chosen to give their children a spiritual education alongside their normal school education via the “released-time” program put forth by the Council of Religious Education, Inc. (CORE) at Sidney City Schools. CORE’s mission since 1921 has been “to reach children throughout Sidney who have not had the opportunity to learn God’s Word” and to reinforce lessons they have learned at home. They have succeeded in their mission for a century now with hopefully many more years to come!
After World War I, many educators saw the need for reform in the way students received an education in the United States of America. Professor Walter S. Athearn wrote the book, “A National System of Education” in 1920, that included the idea for a system of weekday religious education available to school-aged children. A Board of Religious Education was established here in Sidney composed of ministers and lay persons from multiple religious institutions in the city to implement its first “released-time” program for the 1921-1922 school year, which has been in almost continuous operation since. The first teacher was Miss Elsie Smith (later known as Mrs. Mullen) and children in grades one through six were taught for 20 minutes at each of Sidney’s Ward schools as well as the elementary schools in Port Jefferson, Maplewood, and Orange Township.
By 1956, longer class periods were recommended by the state director for Weekday Religious Education, resulting in a 20 minute extension. Unfortunately, this extension also meant that religion teachers were no longer able to reach the same volume of students as they had previously. Grades one, five, and six were suspended, along with classes taught outside of Sidney, until the consolidation of the outlying elementary schools with Sidney City Schools. A dinner at St. Paul’s United Church of Christ in 1964 celebrated the 50th anniversary of Weekday Religious Education in the United States as well as the 42nd anniversary of released time classes in Sidney. The following year, however, Moore vs. the Board of Education, which involved religious education in Fort Recovery after the consolidation of parochial schools with the public school, ruled that any weekday released-time education must take place off public school grounds, not be taught by a public school teacher, and be non-denominational in nature. This resulted in several changes for Sidney’s weekday religious education program.
As a result of the 1965 court case, a mobile office trailer was custom built by the Branstrator Corporation out of Fort Wayne, Indiana, to be used as the new “mobile unit” for weekday religious education in Sidney City Schools. It was shown off at the Shelby County Fair before its implementation in the fall as the first mobile classroom in the state of Ohio. Charles Bertsch and Tom Brubaker were the first men employed to transport the unit between Central, Emerson, Longfellow, Lowell, Parkwood, and Whittier Elementary Schools. At this time, 93% of students from grades two through four were enrolled in released-time religious education classes at a cost of $30 per student. Funds for the program were raised by the CORE through donations via churches, organizations, private individuals and entities, and beginning in 1994, a yearly chicken dinner fundraiser to provide a salary for the religious education teacher, materials, and the upkeep of the mobile unit.
As class sizes began to grow and costs involving the mobile unit increased, it was decided that a newer unit was necessary and in 1982, a 28-foot Argosy motor home was secured by Airstream, Inc. for CORE to use as their new mobile classroom. Furnishings from the previous trailer were transferred to the freshly painted new unit which was also outfitted with a heater, carpeting, and storage cabinets for books and educational materials. Members of the community volunteered to drive the motorized van from one school to another, which helped cut costs greatly for the organization. It was estimated the new van could have paid for itself in three years when compared with the cost of transporting and setting up the previous trailer. A small victory for CORE was celebrated in 1988 when the Ohio Attorney General ruled that it is indeed legal for students to be released for a short period of time each week for religious education off of school property so long as they have written permission by a parent or legal guardian — a ruling that is still upheld today under Ohio Revised Code section 3313.6022.
Almost 30 years ago, the present mobile classroom was put into operation by Bob Elliott and David Fleming. The new traveling classroom was converted from a 40-foot Gillig metro bus used as an airport shuttle bus with funds received from Mary Heft, local churches, and other individuals under the direction of Scott Dorsey. A dedication ceremony was then held on March 15, 1992, at the Sidney First United Methodist Church under the theme, “To God be the Glory.” In 2006, a second bus was acquired and the interior was renovated to meet logistic needs with Sidney City Schools. Despite a vandalism attempt in 2016, the newer bus still remains in use today in coordination with Sidney City Schools and the original first bus was retired in 2018.
Throughout the past century, there have been many enthusiastic teachers ready to spread messages of God’s love and kindness to local school children. Elsie (Smith) Mullen, Helen (Nourse) Norton, Charlotte Sears, Jean Wandry, Annabel Fisher, Marie Cowell, Cheryl Styles, Lori Cooper, Tina Hottle, and current teachers Shavon Puckett and Brenda Thompson will probably always hold a special place in their students’ hearts. Although enrollment rates were lower than normal this year due to COVID restrictions and new school policies, CORE has seen enrollment rates upwards of 97% student participation in past years. Their curriculum consists of teachings on basic Christian principles taken from the Bible and Christian living not based on any single Christian religion. Students discuss important topics such as loving one another, forgiveness, sharing, and helping one another. Examples are given of men and women throughout the United States’ history whose faith and concern for others’ well being has helped them to accomplish their dreams and goals.
According to CORE President Scott Dorsey, “I believe this program helps to make better citizens in our community. We’ve been in service to the community for 99 years, and there’s a lot of new programs coming up, but we’re still the oldest.”
This year, CORE has just implemented a new trailer classroom to use along with its mobile unit, one of which is currently serving Emerson Elementary School. Changes throughout school policy, such as its restructuring of the elementary schools, have made it progressively more difficult for CORE to remain a viable aspect of student education. To keep up with the changes, there are now two teachers, Shavon Puckett and Brenda Thompson, who serve in each of the units owned by CORE and now teach the first and second grades at Sidney City Schools. Despite past hiccups, religious education has persevered in Sidney for 100 years and will hopefully be around for many more, spreading the word of God’s love to the youth of our community!
The writer is the curator of the Shelby County Historical Society; the article was written from information submitted by the Council of Religious Education, Inc.