Discover this hidden, legal opportunity you may be missing to reach kids in your community: Released Time Education.
It’s 10 in the morning in Pennsylvania, Georgia, Alabama, or California. School doors suddenly swing open, and exuberant children spill out to skip their way down a sidewalk to a nearby building or hop aboard a waiting bus for a quick ride to a quiet church.
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Minutes later, they scurry into a church. Jennifer hurries excitedly across the room to tell an adult that today she can say all three of her Bible verses without any help. Jason, timid as always, flashes his teacher the first small smile she’s seen in weeks. When she asks what he’s happy about, he shares that his father is back with the family again. As the children find chairs, the teacher notices that Annette looks a little sad. Is she feeling ill, or is her mother not doing well again?
This scene occurs hundreds of times every school day across the United States. Children from kindergarten through 12th grade leave their public-school classrooms for off-school sites where they receive “released time” religious instruction. All that’s required is a signed statement of permission from the child’s parent.
Released time, a largely untapped provision for reaching public school children with the gospel, isn’t a new idea. In 1914, William Wirt of Gary, Indiana, came up with a plan for off-campus religious education, and more than 600 students attended. Some 50 years ago, the Supreme Court upheld the released-time concept in a court case. The case the court heard, Zorach v. Clauson, dealt specifically with the legality of the program. The court’s only stipulations were that instructors hold classes off school grounds and use no public funds. Despite swirling church-state issues in years since, that decision stands today.
An accurate interpretation of the law is “schools have the discretion to dismiss students to off-premises religious instruction, provided that schools don’t encourage or discourage participation or penalize those who don’t attend. Schools may not allow religious instruction by outsiders on premises during the school day.” (State laws do vary. Go to www.releasedtime.org and click on your state to learn more.)
MEETING NEEDS IN RELEASED TIME EDUCATION
Why the fresh interest in released time? School personnel are scrambling for answers to issues such as bullying, truancy, and a lack of respect for authorities. Released-time programs seem to be working, and many schools are glad for the positive influence. It seems that school officials are admitting that Christians have some good solutions, and released time is the means they use to instill values in students.
The need is huge. Researchers estimate that of the 53 million children in the United States, at least half are unchurched. A recent survey of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, revealed that only 17 percent of the county’s residents attend a religious service on a given Sunday. Given that this county is in a traditional, Bible Belt area known for its strong Amish subculture, church attendance may be even more dismal in other parts of the country. Parents, pressed by other commitments and stressed by circumstances all week long, simply don’t take their families to church. These same parents, though, when offered the option for religious education during the school day, often enroll their children.
We know we must reach them while they’re young; a high percentage of commitments to Christ come between the ages of 4 and 14. For seven hours each day, this age group is assembled in the public schools of our nation. And they’re available to us.
“Okay, I’m convinced. What do I need to do?” It’s possible to implement a released-time program in your community. The following guidelines present the overall picture; released-time organizations will gladly help with details.
- Pray. Ask for God’s help and gather other prayer partners. Pray specifically for open doors and good relations with your local schools. Pray that God will raise up the volunteers you’ll need to pull this off.
- Do good public relations. Talk up this program every chance you get. Share the vision with moms, dads, grandparents, pastors, teachers, friends, and others. Explain the potential benefits to children, families, schools, your church, and your community.
- Prepare. Gather data you need to get things rolling. Call your local school districts and ask for the superintendents’ and principals’ names, direct phone numbers, and email addresses. Many school districts have Web sites where this information is publicly available.
- Target. Decide which school will be your focus and what grade(s). If you’re targeting a specific grade, find out how many students are in that grade. You can anticipate about 25 percent enrollment. So if there are 100 students in the third grade, you can expect 25 students. A 25-percent enrollment for the first year of a released-time program is excellent. If you expect 25 students, recruit one volunteer for every three students. So with 25 students, you’ll need eight or nine volunteers.
You also need to think about what kind of program you want to offer: weekly, monthly, or a three-day retreat. Weekly released time provides regular contact with students where you can nurture high-impact relationships. Monthly released time is less taxing, but it also offers less contact with the students. A three-day retreat can offer a high-touch with a short-term — although intensive — commitment on the part of the volunteers. You also need to check state laws at the released-time Web site (www.releasedtime.org), as each specifies different parameters. Establish a timeline. When will you start your program? Obviously, there’s value in waiting for public schools to get into swing before starting. Many existing programs find that waiting until the end of September or the beginning of October works best.
Talk to the school administration. Be professional with public school officials; you want to be taken seriously. Educators take their jobs seriously, and your professional demeanor will help pave the way.
Check your attitude before you approach school officials; see the public school as a friend, not an enemy. Make it your job to keep the lines of communication open with the school at every step. This program is probably new to them, as well. Resist the temptation to be demanding or demeaning. Use words such as “partners,” “cooperation,” and “working together” to help forge your relationship. Even in states with very favorable released-time laws, schools can thwart your efforts at every turn. You need a good relationship; certainly, you’ll build that over time, but it starts with your initial impression. Anticipate needs and offer solutions to the school. Be prepared to talk about how you’ll get permission forms to the students and how you’ll collect them.
- Train. As your starting day approaches, provide training for your volunteers. Work out the logistics of the first day. Think through each step to be ready for anything. What if students are disruptive? What if a group of students picks on an individual? Invite teachers from the school to talk with your volunteers about managing the classroom. While released time will be different from school — more of a one-to-one setting — teachers’ advice will be helpful and will strengthen your relationship with the school.
- Practice. Have a practice run a week before you actually start, including picking up children. This will help work out as many glitches as possible. Remember to pray each step of the way.
- Start. You’ve prayed, planned, notified the school, trained your volunteers, and recruited students. Now take a deep breath and let the fun begin. Watch God work through your efforts.
- Praise. Praise God for answering your prayers and begin to pray about the future. What happens next year? Will you add more grades or additional schools? Will you need more volunteers? The cycle begins again, but you’ve now got a year of experience under your belt.
Unquestionably, God wants us to introduce Jesus to another generation of children. Certainly, God wants us to awaken spiritual awareness in our schools. Beyond that, it will certainly please God if our students are catalysts for national social change and deep personal hope. Released-time religious instruction is one tool God can use to accomplish all that and more. cm
Jim Roberts is the former director of CBM Ministries of South Central Pennsylvania, Inc.
FILLING A PUBLIC SCHOOL NEED
It snowed the week Janet Magee launched her character education series. Her goal was to bring 200 children with disabilities from a local public school to her church for a special Christmas program. But in Texas, snow’s a big thing. It was bigger than Magee anticipated. With the school closed, the principal sent all 2,000 students to her church!
Fourteen years later, Life Vision is thriving with 32,000 kids attending in Harlingen, Texas, and a startup with 3,000 students in neighboring Brownsville. Magee, a children’s ministry veteran and retired executive director of Life Vision, is writing a workbook so communities across the country can use this program under the protection of time-release education.
“This is a fabulous way to bring children into God’s house,” she says. “Instead of being someone they fear, we have an opportunity to be their best friends.” Magee describes Life Vision as “an umbrella.” Several ministries, including a Christmas program, drug prevention programs on school campuses, and character education, take place under the same outreach. “We may have events where we never quote a Bible verse, but we’ll certainly present biblical principles,” she says.
Slowly establishing trust with local schools, Magee strove to be a blessing to the public system. Feedback that Life Vision requests from school authorities keeps its leaders aware of how they can support the school. “Find out what the needs are and build a program around it,” encourages Magee. For example, she wrote a lesson plan on character development after a school requested one.
Not only is Magee working within a public system, secular groups support her financially as well. The local hospital and newspaper as well as attorneys, doctors, and plumbers sponsor Life Vision’s annual Christmas program.
“They know they’re giving to something good that they can have some confidence in,” Magee says. “They know that they’re giving to something that benefits children.”
“Our lowest expectation for our program would be that children are able to go inside a church building, have a wonderful experience, and know that church is a happy, fun place,” says Magee. “Even if they don’t go to church as a family, they’re going to have good memories. We hope that when it’s up to them to get themselves to church, they’ll want to go.”
“Our highest expectation,” Magee continues, “is that the students will go home with an element of character education, and that they’ll also go home with the real meaning of Christmas.”
Magee attributes her program’s success to paying strict attention to the law’s limitations and the will of the Holy Spirit. Instead of looking at partnering with schools as a one-time opportunity, she worked on building a good relationship with the schools. She says, “The downfall for a lot of ministries that have lost favor with public schools is that these ministries have gone in with their guns loaded. They think, Well, this is our one shot, so I’m going to give them a big dose of Christianity. Really, you’re there to plant seeds. Someone else is going to water, and someone else is going to reap that.”