Effort promoting Bible education during school day growing locally: Here’s how it works

Credit: Bill Lackey

Credit: Bill Lackey

A Columbus-based nonprofit that facilitates religious instruction for public school students during school hours in lieu of electives or during lunch is rapidly growing in the region, a Dayton Daily News analysis found.

Supporters of LifeWise Academy say it’s an opportunity to provide Bible-based lessons for families who want it. Critics express concern it’s religious indoctrination facilitated by public schools.

For this story, the Dayton Daily News spoke with organizers, critics and school districts to help parents and taxpayers understand how the program works.

Of the 57 school districts in Montgomery, Miami, Greene, Warren, Clark and Butler Counties, LifeWise Academy works with 12, including Clark-Shawnee, Northridge, Brookville, Tipp City, Piqua, Bethel Local, Vandalia and Springboro. Most of those districts say the program is offered to elementary school students.

More school districts are being added. A group in Huber Heights, whose school district already has a policy allowing released time for religious instruction, is assembling a team to facilitate the program next year. A Miamisburg group is also recruiting a team, according to the LifeWise website.

Groups in four districts — New Lebanon, Northmont, Miami East and Springfield — are seeking approval. In recent weeks, groups affiliated with LifeWise have met to discuss expanding into Centerville, Dayton Public and Kettering. One area school district did not agree to host the program.

In Ohio, LifeWise said 181 districts out of roughly 600 work with them.

As it grows, the controversy surrounding it has increased, with some questioning if religious organizations should be able to reach students during school hours.

Dayton Daily News reporters attended two public meetings about this effort: a Jan. 25 session at First Baptist Church in Kettering where organizers talked about bringing the program to Kettering and Centerville schools, and a Jan. 30 meeting at Linden Avenue Church where they discussed working with Dayton Public Schools.



How does LifeWise work?

The modern idea of released time for religious instruction came after a pair of U.S. Supreme Court cases in 1948 and 1952, which resulted in the ability of school districts to let their students leave during the school day for religious instruction off-campus.

LifeWise started in 2019 in Ayersville in Defiance County and fewer than two years later had expanded into four other rural school districts, LifeWise CEO Joel Penton said in a video promoting the program shown at the community events.

Under Ohio law, released time for religious instruction is permitted if the public school is not funding any of the religious practices and no public school personnel are providing the religious instruction. The student cannot miss any core classes, and by law, the religious instruction is limited to one hour per week.

“There’s a lot of students, who for whatever reason — family issues, transportation issues, extra-curricular issues — simply can’t attend before or after school. Often, (they’re) the students we most want to reach,” Penton said.

LifeWise representatives said during the Jan. 25 meeting the initial steps included Centerville and Kettering district organizers raising $500, as local efforts are privately funded.

Then, members of at least three different churches in each school district would form steering committees, and those committees would form a plan to present to school administrators in their respective districts.

Recent changes to Ohio law were aimed at making it easier for parents to afford a religious education instead of sending their kids to public schools.

In the summer, Ohio passed a state budget that allowed anyone making less than 450% of the poverty line — which is $135,000 for a family of four — to receive the full value of a voucher to attend parochial school. Most Catholic schools in the Miami Valley accept vouchers, but not all private religious schools do.

Element of evangelism

In addition to helping families who may have a hard time accessing religious education, a stated goal of the organization is to reach kids not routinely exposed to Christian teachings.

Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost in 2019 issued a legal opinion supporting the ability of school districts to allow released time for religious instruction.

Yost further stated that schools generally can’t prohibit students from inviting fellow students to join them in religious instruction, or from distributing literature promoting it as long as it doesn’t interfere with school work or infringe on others’ rights.

Community members can likewise encourage students to recruit their friends, and school employees can encourage students to attend or not attend such programs with limited restrictions to their free speech, Yost wrote.

LifeWise “is unapologetically gospel centered,” Penton said in the video. “We don’t simply want to teach Biblical morals. Surely the Bible does have morals. However, we understand that the fundamental message of the Bible is a story of the good God whose redeeming of all his creation through … the work of his son, Jesus Christ.”

Penton said the program has a focus on character.

“We think we have the best character education program in the nation because it’s character transformation brought by the gospel from the inside out,” he said.

LifeWise curriculum

The curriculum follows The Gospel Project under a licensed agreement, LifeWise field representative Tara Schwartz told Centerville and Kettering audiences.

The Gospel Project “is a weekly Bible study that helps kids dive deep into the big story of the Bible — God’s plan to rescue His people through His Son, Jesus Christ,” according to the LifeWise website.

It helps “kids see how the whole Bible points to Jesus and the gospel … unites the big story and themes of Scripture” and helps “kids avoid moralistic thinking through gospel-soaked discipleship,” the website states.

Credit: Bill Lackey

Credit: Bill Lackey

Teachers must be certified and the program can start in elementary, middle or high school, Schwartz said.

Schwartz declined to answer questions outside of the Jan. 25 meeting for Centerville and Kettering school districts, which drew more than 40 residents.

An example lesson plan teaches that God created the Earth in six days, and to show gratitude and treat all things with respect and appreciation.

“LifeWise believes the faithful teaching of the Word of God is spiritually effective and fruitful. We expect the results to vary in magnitude and visibility. We plant and water, but it is the Holy Spirit who brings true inward growth and change,” says a portion of the plan on their philosophy.

“While many tools to mark spiritual conversions have been used, such as altar calls, recited prayers and commitment cards, we will avoid using formulaic methods and defer to families and local churches to authenticate and celebrate spiritual conversions. Our continual appeal to students will be to believe the gospel, repent from sin, trust in Christ and get connected with a local church.”

Teaching staff certification

LifeWise teachers and volunteers undergo a background screening before they can work with the program, said Derek Stemen, vice president of advancement for LifeWise, in an email.

Teachers also must have two years of classroom experience in either a school or church setting, he said, and must “have a mature personal Christian faith consistent with the LifeWise Academy Statement of Faith.”

The statement of faith on the LifeWise website reads, in part, “We believe the story-line of Scripture that climaxes in the central gospel message, that Jesus Christ died for our sins and was raised from the dead. We believe this gospel is true, essential and announces the way by which sinners are reconciled to God.”

Stemen said the program isn’t directly related to any specific denomination of Christianity. But local churches are the ones running the program and usually provide monetary support, he said.

“We believe that students have better access during these time periods when we work with the school to accommodate schedules,” he said. “Also, many parents like that it’s during school because they value the Bible education as much as they value other subjects. It’s a great option especially for parents who can’t afford private religious school tuition.”

School policies, participation

Several of the school districts which either already have the program or are being approached about adding a program have existing policies about released time for religious instruction.

Centerville, Huber Heights, Kettering and Vandalia all have policies allowing released time for religious instruction, with some parameters.

When the schools do release their students, the program assumes all responsibility for the safety of those students, including taking them to and from the site where they’ll be learning the religious instruction.

The school also can’t release a student without a permission slip signed by their guardian.

LifeWise launched in Piqua last summer, said district Superintendent Dwayne A. Thompson. The program is offered to grades first through third, and he estimated fewer than 1% of students in those grades are attending the classes each week.

“Parents only sign up through them and students only attend if their parents sign them up for the classes,” Thompson said.

Credit: Bill Lackey

Credit: Bill Lackey

Springboro is seeing a similar participation rate, said Scott Marshall, spokesman for Springboro schools. This is the first school year LifeWise was offered, and Marshall said 13 first grade students and 11 second grade students attend the program weekly, which is less than half a percent of the student population. Those students miss special classes — like art or music — on a rotating basis once per week.

Northridge has one of the longest-running programs in the area, approved in April 2022. The program is run by a church that already has a relationship with the district. Andrea Townsend, the districts’ spokeswoman, said about 39% of the K-6 students in Northridge participate.

“Students who opt in to LifeWise in grades K-5 miss their library time,” Townsend said. “Those are given the opportunity to check out books at other times. Northridge 6th grade students who participate in Lifewise take their lunch to Lifewise and eat while at Lifewise.”

Controversy, criticism

The program’s Ohio expansion is being questioned both locally and nationally. The announcement of a meeting to explore adding the program in Centerville and Kettering drew dozens of social media comments, the vast majority either skeptical about the program or opposing it.

“As a child, I went to church Sunday morning, teen church Sunday night, Bible study Wednesday night, and when I was out of school I went with my mom to her Tuesday morning Bible study. Isn’t there enough opportunity at your church for ‘Bible Education?’,” one person wrote. “Let the kids have the opportunity to use electives to learn something new like art or computer programming.”

The Freedom From Religion Foundation last year issued a document urging all Ohio’s public school district not to allow release time Bible study.

LifeWise “seeks to indoctrinate and convert public school students to evangelical Christianity by convincing public school districts to partner with them,” FFRF Anne Nicol Gaylor Legal Fellow Sammi Lawrence wrote. “All too often, districts not only authorize LifeWise’s classes, but they proceed to inappropriately and unconstitutionally devote public resources to helping promote, organize and encourage student attendance at an overtly evangelical Christian Bible study class.”

At least one school district locally who was approached about LifeWise didn’t agree to host the program in their school. Troy’s board of education discussed the program at a work session in 2022, but the program didn’t move forward, said Chris Piper, Troy’s superintendent.

The board had two concerns at the time, Piper said. One, they preferred that sort of instruction was done outside of the school day and two, they worried the instruction was not for all students and only for some.

‘A positive influence’

Kristen King, a parent in Carlisle schools, said she is interested in bringing the program to her daughter’s friends.

“I work in children’s ministry myself,” King said. “It’s always been a goal of mine to bring her friends to church with us. And this is our way of flipping that on its head and taking the church to the kids, as opposed to hoping to bring them all to the church with us.”

Carlisle’s meeting is Feb. 13, King said. She attended a meeting on Jan. 30 at Linden Avenue Baptist Church, where a group discussed bringing the program into some of the Dayton Public elementary schools.

Centerville’s Esther Martin, who was at the meeting at the First Baptist Church of Kettering on Jan. 25, said she hasn’t had children in the school district in more than 20 years.

“I just have a desire to see the community kids be able to have a good Biblical education that might not have it otherwise — to be a positive influence on the community,” Martin said afterward.

“I thought it was a great program,” she said. “They have a good solid foundation, experience in how to do things and provide lots of good guidance for the local people here who want to start a program like that.

“So, they have the support, experience and the plan and everything we need,” Martin added. “We’ve just got to plug in, put in our own footwork and provide our own financing. It’s a good plan.”

Kettering’s Noah Cagle said he attended for his pastor at Grace Baptist Church.

“I think it’s got a lot of potential to reach kids that don’t normally get the gospel,” Cagle said. “So, I’m inspired about that.

“I don’t know how much of it would work in my church. We’re an independent Baptist church. And independent Baptists like to be independent,” he added. “I definitely understand LifeWise’s point of view about making this a community effort and not just one church’s effort. So, I’ll take the notes back to my pastor and we’ll talk about it.”