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Catch & release

Education | Across the country, public-school students are going to Bible studies-and it's entirely legal

Issue: "All-American adoption story," Nov. 21, 2009

GREENVILLE, S.C.-In a small classroom on the second floor of Mount Calvary Baptist Church (MCBC) in Greenville, S.C., eight little girls are learning about God's holiness. A poster on the wall colorfully illustrates the Bible story underscoring the lesson: Moses, the burning bush, and the piece of land that God called "holy ground." A cheerful teacher asks the attentive group of second- and third-graders: "Do you remember what holy means?" With a little help, the young voices answer: "separate."

Though that's more than some adults might know about the biblical term, this isn't Sunday school, and these kids don't go to this church. Instead, these are public-school students who often don't attend any church but leave school early once a week to learn about the Bible from a distinctly Christian perspective.

This is no clandestine effort: The program is thoroughly legal and enthusiastically endorsed by Cherrydale Elementary School and many of the dozens of other public schools-from elementary level through high school-allowing similar programs in several states around the country.

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It's part of a concept called Released Time Education, and the idea is simple: Parents give their children permission to leave public schools for Bible instruction at local churches during the school day. Volunteers arrange to transport the children to and from school, and private donations cover the program costs. Bible teachers can use the curriculum of their choice.

Though the idea is simple, participants say the effects are far-reaching. School officials say the program emphasizes good character traits and provides needed help for sometimes-overstretched schools. Pastors say it's a substantial opportunity for churches to serve their communities and reach young people with solid biblical teaching.

Robert Vincent-pastor of outreach at MCBC-estimates that two-thirds of the 50-plus children enrolled in his church's Released Time program don't regularly attend church. Even so, on a recent Wednesday afternoon, the nine children in Vincent's class of fourth- and fifth-grade boys listened intently as the pastor recounted the story of David fleeing from Saul in the book of 1 Samuel.

The boys have just arrived with the other children from Cherrydale Elementary on a church bus. Some 25 church volunteers help oversee and teach the program's five classes: one for first-grade boys and girls, and separate classes for boys and girls in grades two and three, and four and five.

In Vincent's class, the boys have been learning about David, and they quickly offer details from past lessons: David was born Bethlehem, he had seven brothers, and his father's name was Jesse. The children happily groan when Vincent ends this week's story with a cliffhanger: Saul entering the cave where David and his men are hiding. The suspenseful narrative resonates with these lively boys, but they also listen carefully to Vincent's simple application: "David is a young man who talks to God, and he is learning to listen to God when people around him aren't."

That's a lesson Vincent hopes these children will absorb. Most of the students in the program live in the surrounding neighborhood, a low-income area with high rates of single-parent homes. He says more than half of the children have learning disabilities and need extra help with homework, a service volunteers provide after Bible instruction.

In the nearby classrooms, Bible instruction takes lots of forms: First-graders dress up and act out the story of Moses' birth. Fourth- and fifth-grade girls sing a song to learn the New Testament books. Each grade learns a series of Bible verses that begin with each letter of the alphabet. (A fourth-grade boy recites the first verse: "All we like sheep have gone astray. . . .")

Beka Bixby teaches second- and third-grade boys with her husband, Ben, and says they quickly realized that some students know very little about the Bible. They must explain terms like sacrifice and ark and sanctification. R'Darius-a fourth-grader in another class-talks about what he's learned from the Bible that surprised him: "I was surprised that God came down and got on a cross."

For this 800-member church, Vincent says Released Time fits well with broader outreach efforts. Church members already know many of these children from regular contact through Saturday morning Bible clubs in the neighborhood. Adding the Released Time ministry in 2004 allowed the church to deepen its connections with children and their families, says Vincent: "Little by little, God has knit our hearts to theirs."

It's also forged a connection with the local school, a relationship that began tenuously: Cherrydale Principal Scarlet Black chuckles when she remembers her initial opposition to the program: "Hesitant is an understatement." The principal worried that the program would burden the school's resources and detract from academic programs, but she agreed to try it when Vincent promised the volunteers would tutor the students for an hour.

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