Editor’s Note: This story was written in response to a reader question submitted through our Open Source platform. Do you have a question you want our reporters to answer? Click here to submit it.
MANSFIELD — If you’ve driven around Richland County recently, chances are you’ve seen a red sign advertising LifeWise Academy.
Maybe you’ve even seen a red school bus with the company’s logo.
We recently had a reader ask for more information through our Open Source forum.
“What is LifeWise Academy?” she asked. “What are the core beliefs? Do the staff/volunteers have background checks?”
We did some digging on LifeWise and here’s what we found out.
LifeWise is a free program that provides Bible education for public school students during school hours.
LifeWise was founded in Ohio in 2019. It currently operates in 12 states, according to Buddy Workman, the organization’s northeast Ohio advancement representative.
According to the LifeWise website, its curriculum is designed to take students through the entire Bible, beginning in Genesis and ending in Revelation, over the course of five years.
Each lesson reviews a Bible passage as well as a “Living LifeWise” character trait.
Workman, whose career with LifeWise began as a local program director, said the organization emphasizes traits like responsibility, empathy, love, kindness and respect.
He said the program has helped develop character and bring hope to today’s children, who face unprecedented struggles and higher rates of suicide and depression.
“LifeWise allows kids to know that they’re loved by the God that created them,” he added.
Multiple local school superintendents told Richland Source it’s too early to comment on the program’s impact. Many local LifeWise chapters launched just last year.
“There does appear to be some enthusiasm for the program within the Madison community,” said Supt. Rob Peterson of Madison Local Schools.
“When I spoke with other districts about LifeWise, the reviews were very positive.”
Programs like LifeWise are legal under Ohio’s released time for religious instruction law.
Both Ohio law and U.S. Supreme Court rulings allow public school students to receive religious instruction off campus during the day with parental consent.
Under Ohio law, students can be excused from school to receive religious instruction from a private entity off school grounds with parental consent.
In 1952, the Supreme Court upheld a New York City program that met similar guidelines.
The Ohio Revised Code (ORC) states that students who participate in released time religious instruction will not be counted absent from school, but students assume responsibility for any missed work.
Additionally, the law requires private entities like LifeWise to maintain attendance records and make them available to the school district the student attends.
LifeWise has active chapters in almost every Richland County school district.
LifeWise has active chapters in every Richland County school district except for Mansfield City Schools. Some are well-established, others are just getting started this year.
In each district that releases students for religious instruction, school board members must vote to approve a policy that aligns with Ohio law.
Workman said he has had conversations with Mansfield City Schools administration and hopes to have a program operating there soon.
Workman also said Richland County’s existing programs all have at least 100 students enrolled so far. In Shelby, LifeWise serves 270 elementary school students.
“We’re seeing big growth,” Workman said. “We just thank parents for giving us the opportunity to teach the Gospel.”
Most local programs focus on elementary-age students, but a few have expanded to include junior high students. In Lucas, LifeWise offers programming for students in grades K-12.
“We offer a high school credit class where kids receive credit for taking a semester course through LifeWise,” Worman said. “The high school teacher has to be certified or have a bachelor’s degree.”
Workman said older high school students can also take an online college credit course through Ohio Christian University. LifeWise covers the cost of these courses.
Students receiving off-campus religious instruction can’t miss core classes.
Under Ohio law, released time religious instruction can’t take place during a “core curriculum” subject.
Students who attend LifeWise often miss a “specials” class like art, physical education or music.
Ontario supt. Keith Strickler said the district has worked to avoid that this year. Instead, LifeWise students will take a sack lunch prepared by Stingel Elementary’s kitchen staff to the program and miss lunch and recess.
“I’m very happy that we’re able to pull this schedule off,” he said.
LifeWise does not use public school funds or resources.
Ohio law dictates that no public funds can be used on the religious instruction, including the cost to transport students. No public school personnel can be involved in the instruction.
LifeWise provides its own transportation in the form of a red school bus with its logo on the side.
The law also requires private entities like LifeWise to assume all liability for students during their off-school instruction. LifeWise carries liability insurance that covers all local programs, according to its website.
LifeWise is funded and run by community members.
Local LifeWise programs are initiated by steering committees, which coordinate with school officials and identify a local director and board. Local boards and employees receive resources and coaching from LifeWise.
Each local program is staffed by a director, teachers and volunteers, who help transport students and assist in classrooms as needed. Students either walk or ride a LifeWise bus; no public school buses or drivers are used for the program.
LifeWise is free for participating families. Individual programs are funded by private donations through local fundraising efforts.
LifeWise employees go through a vetting process.
Workman said all LifeWise employees must pass a background check, be “plugged in” to a local church and receive a positive recommendation from their pastor. Employees must also agree with the organization’s statement of faith.
Students, on the other hand, do not have to have a “home church” or religious affiliation.
LifeWise’s statement of faith affirms orthodox Christian beliefs and a ‘high view of the authority of Scripture.’
“We believe the storyline of Scripture that climaxes in the central gospel message, that Jesus Christ died for our sins and was raised from the dead,” the organization writes on its Statement of Faith page.
The organization’s website also states the curriculum does not delve into “secondary doctrines” — beliefs that are considered non-essential to salvation. These doctrines are often disputed among various Christian traditions.
“We seek to avoid discussions about denominational differences in the classroom while keeping the focus on what’s clearest in Scripture,” the website states.