In August 1989, Somerset Baptist Academy (SBA) — a ministry of Somerset Baptist Church, Mt. Perry, Ohio — opened its doors to fifteen students. SBA was a tuition-free kindergarten-through-grade-twelve, non-chartered private school. SBA did not accept students from outside the church. Parents were required to:
- Pay an annual book fee
- Agree with SBA’s policies and code of conduct
- Agree with SBA’s use of corporal punishment
- Regularly attend church
- Regularly tithe and give offerings
The day-to-day operation of SBA fell to me as the pastor of Somerset Baptist Church. My wife, Polly, taught the younger children, along with teaching the older students English, spelling, and writing. Several church members helped teach subjects such as history and shop. I taught math, science, history, computer, and Bible classes for older students. Physical education consisted of playing games outside and taking hikes. Former students have fond memories of playing kickball in the church’s gravel parking lot.
Our 12’x60′ mobile home was parked fifty feet away from the school/church. A dear older woman in our church cared for our younger children while Polly and I taught our respective classes. Polly was eight months pregnant when SBA opened its doors. She would give birth to our first daughter in September 1989, our second daughter in 1991, and our fourth son in 1993. That’s right, Polly had three babies during the five years SBA was open. Both of us got up early, stayed up late, and spent years “living” on 5-6 hours of sleep a night. Add my pastoral duties to the mix, and Polly and I worked non-stop seven days a week. We worked this way because we sincerely believed God wanted us to train the church’s children in the ways of God. It was our duty to prepare the next generation for service.
SBA was a one-room school. All the students met in a large basement room. The room was outfitted with desks given to us by the local school district, a teacher’s desk, and a large chalkboard. In another room, students had cubbyholes to keep their books and hooks on which to hang their coats. There was no kitchen to speak of, so students were expected to pack their lunches. In the winter, the building was heated with wood and coal. Older students were expected to help stoke the wood stove and, if necessary split wood. The highlight of the one school year was when the well-casing wood stove vent pipe plugged up and filled the building with dense smoke. It took us two days to clean the building and make it ready for the students to return. (For you not familiar with well casing, it is the steel pipe used in drilling oil/gas wells. There were a lot of such wells in the area, so one member found a long section of pipe and adapted it for use with the school’s wood stove.)
Of the fifteen students, only three had previously attended a Christian school — my two oldest sons and one church girl. The other twelve had been public school students. All of the students came from poor working-class families. (The highest paid man in the church made $21,000 a year as a certified GM auto mechanic. None of the women, save one, worked outside of the home.) Many of them had previously not done well in school. Using a one room school approach allowed us to teach students at their academic levels, and not their age/grade levels. For example, I taught math. All of the students were required to take timed mathematics facts tests. Students hated these tests, but they knew the only way out of them was to pass them in the time allowed. There were several high school students who had third-grade math proficiency. They had a hard time with these tests. I didn’t cut these students any slack, expecting them to master the addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division tables.
To this day, I believe that our one-room school approach helped students who were struggling in various academic areas. This approach allowed us to give them one-on-one attention. I determined at the start that SBA would focus on the basics: reading, writing, spelling, English, and arithmetic. My belief, then, and today: teach a child to read and he or she can master anything. According to what former students have told us, we succeeded on this front. Polly, in particular, was mentioned as the one person who helped them the most when it came to reading. She was, and remains, a gem!
The first school year, I decided we would go old-school and use McGufffey Readers for grades 1-6. Dumb idea. Students struggled with the arcane language and illustrations. Older students used Mennonite textbooks published by Rod & Staff. For several classes, SBA used self-directed study programs (PACES). After the first year, we did away with the McGuffey Readers and started using Rod & Staff materials throughout the school. I taught the older students an introduction to computers. This was a hands-on class. In this regard, we were ahead of what local public school students were taught about computers.
Annually, students took the Iowa or Stanford achievement tests. I believed the tests would provide evidence for student progress. Year to year, every student improved, so whatever SBA’s shortcomings were, students were getting a good education. Good, with respect to the things we taught them. Students received a narrow, religiously-defined education, so there were holes in their educations when compared to public school programs. This was especially true when it came to higher math and science.
Religion, of course, was central to the life of SBA. Students were required to memorize passages from the King James Bible, The Westminster Confession of Faith, and the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith. School days were opened with prayer, though readers might be surprised to learn that students did not recite the Pledge of Allegiance. I was opposed to such recitations because I believed our allegiance belonged to God alone, and not the State. While a large U.S. flag hung on the wall in back of the church’s platform, a pledge to that flag was never uttered in the eleven years I was pastor.
As a non-chartered private religious school, SBA was exempt from state regulation. Local schools were required to give us the records of students enrolled at SBA. Outside of this, SBA had no contact with state or local officials. SBA did, however, run into a problem with the EPA. One day, an EPA investigator showed up and told me that since there was a school operating at the church, its water supply would be designated as a public water supply. We had to drill a new well ($2,000, paid by Polly’s parents), and submit water test reports every three months. One time, I thought the testing bottle had some contamination, so I washed it out with rubbing alcohol. Guess what happened next? Yeah, stupid move, Bruce. After submitting our next sample, the EPA notified us that we had a contaminant in our water supply. I explained what happened — silly, stupid me — but the EPA still required us to publish a notice in the local newspaper saying that our water system had failed its latest test and the steps we were taking to remedy that problem.
In my next post, I want to talk about how we handled discipline and what became of the children educated at Somerset Baptist Academy.
Bruce Gerencser, 65, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 44 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.
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Reading about these students makes me want to cry. When I started reading this and you were explaining this was a K-12 school and who was responsible for teaching what, I automatically went to the thought of “how the hell would any of these kids be prepared for college?” And then I got to the part about how many struggled with reading or with even basic 3rd grade math. And that drastically changed my perspective. Those students did benefit from 1:1 instruction.
I still harbor a lot of resentment about my own fundamentalist Christian education, and I know that is a personal problem I have been working to overcome. It’s also true that there were a handful of teachers whom I still respect and who sincerely worked hard to teach us. Both statements can exist as fact. I am still working on my first reaction not being “all religious education sucks/is bigoted/is oppressive”.
I’m glad you never bothered with the ATI and Bekah curriculum systems,Bruce. That definitely would have been bad for your students. Very interesting account of how you ran the school. What do you your students remember from that time ? As a former public school student myself,I saw a lot of indifferent teachers and staff at my respective schools over the years. Now teachers are often more proactive in helping out students from bad home situations,often paying for food, clothes,and supplies. Teachers didn’t do this when I was in that system. One- on- one instructions DO make a difference in the future of kids. Life skills are now being taught as well,as the parents can’t,or won’t.
I suspect the children educated at the “school” would probably be OK. Like you said, reading skills are the most important. One room school house works better than it would seem.
I’d be curious how often you had to get out the “board of education”.
One thing I like about your teaching method, especially with math, children should not move on to the next chapter until they’ve mastered the previous.
I’m a bit surprised that “The Pledge” (written by a SOCIALIST) seems so universally pushed by evangelicals. I would think that more of them would be like “Old Bruce” and not want to engage in flag worship. But people do what they’re told, what’s expected of them, and if nothing else the pledge would get kids to cease chattering and uniformly give attention to the front of the room needed for the day’s lesson.
I will skip the religious stuff.
Sometimes kids need individual attention. It is especially important to be able to use math, not just arithmetic for many jobs. It is also good you got them started on computers when that was not much taught and is a good job skill. Obviously Polly deserves much thanks for helping kids in reading.
Individual attention matters.
I did grades 1-12 in Catholic schools, and know that my nuns tore their hair out, trying to give 1:1 instruction to the few students who desperately needed it. They were fiercely dedicated, but there are only so many hours in a day. I suspect their counterparts in the public school system were even more frustrated, because the city I grew up in had a whole lot of struggling families. No US child should endure those living situations…sorry, getting into politics.
For every kid like me, who vacuumed up knowledge, who had a quiet home life, who had her own desk to do homework at, there were several kids who wasn’t so lucky. I’d love to go back in time and help my classmates, but I don’t have a TARDIS. All I can help are the current crop.
As someone who’s taught, I’d say that your approach to education was good. Anyone who’s taught will tell you that schools should dispense with most special programs and, instead, spend the money on reducing class size. Your school is evidence that it works. Plus, I think that dividing children by age groups doesn’t always make sense because kids develop differently.
If you got the methods right, perhaps the content was lacking, at least in some subjects for the older kids. But I suspect that they learned what they needed on their own because they had the tools and because they spent time with a couple of adults who cared.
Your story makes me think, again, of something I wrote in a new piece: For all of the issues I have with the Catholic Church, in which I was raised, I don’t have a lot of complaints about Catholic school. We had to wear uniforms and the discipline was strict and included corporal punishment (which I experienced only once). But it actually wasn’t as restrictive as, say, the Orthodox yeshiva in which I taught years later. And, I believe I got a good education even if it limited my world-view in some ways.