STAUNTON — Twelve years ago, Becky Cox began volunteering for Weekly Religious Education classes.
She helped walk students from Bessie Weller and Ware elementary schools to the classes.
In 2014, Staunton School Board decided to halt WRE briefly and six years ago eliminated the program from Staunton Schools over concern for not enough parental decision and the fact that Bessie Weller Elementary was not accredited.
“They decided that the WRE was something they could eliminate,” said Cox.
Cox said the program allowed students, with parental permission, to learn about stories from the Bible without missing out on vital parts of a public school education. Volunteers walked students from Ware Elementary to Bethany Presbyterian Church, McSwain Elementary School to Memorial Baptist Church and Bessie Weller to a trailer set up for WRE.
“They wanted to go,” Cox said of the students. “We didn’t have trouble getting them to go.”
Students left the public school environment for 30-45 minutes, according to Cox. In order to maintain separation of church and state, public school teachers were not allowed to walk the students or enter the WRE classes, and Bible teachers were not permitted to enter the public schools.
Cox said WRE does not teach a doctrine of religion, and the city does not pay for anything regarding the program.
“It’s all stories of the Bible,” she said. Students had access to a Bible and a storybook, and discussion of each story from the Bible would follow reading the story. Students learned about principles such as honesty and integrity. At Christmas, they saw a video about the birth of Jesus. At Easter, they saw a video about the death of Jesus.
Students are not forced to attend WRE. A program in Virginia for 90 years for kindergarten-fifth grade students, Waynesboro and Augusta County Schools still offer WRE classes. According to Cox, 500 students from Riverheads Elementary School, an Augusta County school, attend the program. The program was available for students in kindergarten-third grade in Staunton and was celebrated with a graduation ceremony upon completion.
Before a public meeting by the Staunton School Board in July 2016 to vote on WRE, Cox said fliers were handed out and word spread about the vote. Six members voted to eliminate the program. Council member Amy Darby voted to keep it.
Afterward, Cox said that some community members returned to school board meetings and pleaded for the board to reinstate WRE. Eventually, discussion on the topic decreased.
Cox is now gathering a petition of signatures from Staunton residents to have the WRE reinstated. She said she feels called by God to do so after studying a lesson in Sunday School in January about Judges from the Old Testament. The chapter talks about honesty.
“The WRE was not treated like that,” she said she remembered. The situation was not handled fairly. “I felt so strongly, God said: ‘You do it,’” she said of the petition. She began speaking at local churches and raising awareness of the situation.
“The majority of people did not know there was no WRE in Staunton,” she said.
She has also spoken with Staunton Schools Superintendent Dr. Garett Smith and at school board meetings. Cox said she set a goal of 1,000 signatures and, as of Tuesday, June 28, she has more than 900.
Members of City Elders, a local group of pastors and business owners who meet weekly to pray for the community, have spoken at school board meetings in favor of WRE. Cox said a community member recently spoke at a board meeting about growing up in a non-Christian home. She told the school board: “I met Jesus at WRE.”
“We need people to go to the school board meetings, and we need bold speakers,” Cox said. Speakers do not have to be Staunton residents to share their story about WRE at school board meetings. Staunton School Board meets every second and fourth Monday of the month. The next meeting is July 11.
Cox said she wonders why Staunton would not want to offer the program for Staunton students.
“This is not my story. This is God’s story,” Cox said. Until the program receives a yes from Staunton School Board again, Cox is working on getting facilities, volunteers, Bibles and teachers ready to support the program.
When the program is reinstated, Cox said parental permission will be necessary again, which must be mailed to parents because of separation of church and state. But she would like to hold a public event also to obtain permission slips.
Cox said she can picture in her mind the graduation ceremony for the first WRE class in Staunton after the program is reinstated.
If you are a Staunton resident and would like to sign Cox’s petition to have WRE reinstated in Staunton Schools, call her at 540-255-9773, or attend a Staunton School Board meeting.