LifeWise academies bring religious instruction to public school youth

Jul. 28—ELIDA — Parents of students in Elida, Delphos and Pandora-Gilboa schools can now sign waivers for their children to attend religious classes during school hours, thanks to a little-known exemption allowing public schools to release students for part of the school day for religious instruction.

It's part of a movement to make religious education more readily available to public school students, led by LifeWise Academy.

The Christian-character academy maximizes Ohio's release-time religious instruction (RTRI) exemption by opening privately funded academies near public schools, creating a streamlined process for parents, clergy and others to start petitions to bring LifeWise academies to their communities.

LifeWise is not affiliated with the school districts whose students attend its academies, although the programs often work closely with local churches and may seek permission from a school board before launching new sites. In all cases, students need parental permission to attend.

The teachings focus on how a Christian should live, surveying the Bible as a source for character instruction and "personal transformation," tailored for each age group.

Program offerings vary by school, depending on class schedules and student participation.

The program is expanding rapidly in Ohio.

Already, LifeWise Elida has enrolled 112 first through fourth grade students from Elida Elementary before the academy opens in September.

Participating students will walk to the Sunnydale House, located behind the elementary school, every day for two weeks each quarter, replacing a library period.

Another LifeWise Academy is in the works for Columbus Grove.

And at Delphos schools, students in grades 1-4 will have the chance to exchange a library period two days each week to attend class at LifeWise, which will be held in St. Peter Lutheran Church starting this fall.

The program is already available for students in Pandora-Gilboa and Van Wert schools.

Only a dozen or so students enrolled when the Pandora-Gilboa LifeWise program started last fall. But months later, attendance grew to around 95 students, or 61% of Pandora-Gilboa students who were eligible to enroll, said Sandy Steiner, director of LifeWise Pandora-Gilboa.

The program became so popular that Steiner decided to offer classes for junior high students in its second year.

Incorporating religious instruction into the school day has made it more socially acceptable for students to talk about their faith, Steiner said.

"When I was in high school, it was weird if you talked about Jesus," Steiner said, "because everyone was like, 'You can't pray in school. You can't talk about it.'"

Sharyn Cline made a similar observation at her church in Van Wert, one of the first communities to partner with LifeWise in 2018. Children who didn't normally attend Sunday school were knowledgeable of the gospel because they were taking classes at LifeWise, said Cline, who is now director of the forthcoming Elida program.

"That was the fruit of it for me to see that these young people's lives were impacted by LifeWise," Cline said.