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Americans are divided but many agree on teaching this at school

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I don't have to remind most Americans there are countless polarizing debates about what kids are taught in public school. Heated arguments and sharp divides have emerged on various hot-button issues ranging from gun violence to mental health to racism and sexuality.

But what do parents, teachers, and superintendents nearly universally agree on? Released time religious instruction – a revolutionary phenomenon affirmed as legal by the Supreme Court — is great for public school children.

I have the privilege of spearheading the country’s fastest-growing released time religious instruction program, and I regularly meet with parents, teachers, and school officials. Not long ago, I had breakfast with a local superintendent. He had a reputation for being opposed to religious programs in his district, so I was intrigued by his request.

At breakfast, after some very brief small talk, he shifted abruptly to his point. “Joel, what is your vision for LifeWise Academy in my district?” I told him we don't have any hidden agenda. LifeWise is a tool we offer to all communities, and if his community wants it, we're ready.

His response left me stunned.

“Well, we're ready,” he said without missing a beat. “Our students need values, Joel. Other administrators I know have nothing but good things to say about LifeWise and its influence in their districts. I'll do whatever I can to get it running in my district.”

While I was not expecting that particular administrator's response, I was not at all surprised that this was the feedback he had gotten.

Teaching the Bible to public school students, off school property, with parental permission, during school hours has made a tangible impact on these students’ outcomes. I’ve devoted my career to this opportunity and have seen remarkable results with overwhelming approval from parents and school administrators.

In a 2023 survey of 1,123 parents, a resounding 96% of parents say they recommend other parents enroll their children in our released time program. Furthermore, 77% of these parents also say our Bible classes help their children make better decisions.

Educators also look favorably upon our religious instruction. Seventy-six percent of teachers surveyed agree their school and students have benefited from it, while only 8% disagree. Moreover, 65% of teachers say LifeWise positively impacts their students’ outlook, attitude, and motivation.

One school district we serve recently reviewed the data on students most frequently referred to the principal's office for behavioral reasons. The students who did not attend released time Bible classes had increased numbers of office referrals from the first to second semester, while the office referrals for students who did attend released time dropped by more than 60%.

Education researchers almost unanimously agree that religious education has a clear, significant, and positive impact on students. This clear, significant, and positive impact appears in the four major areas that communities are already deeply concerned about — character education, mental health, academic outcomes, and community involvement.

My friend Omar, a Muslim, is an attorney and sits on the city council where I live. If you can believe it, he is also a big proponent of our Bible classes for public school students.

Why does a Muslim support a Christian program? Omar tells me it’s because kids need roots to anchor their lives. He wants to see us succeed because he believes it will help give students roots to grow a stable foundation on which they can thrive in life.

Omar is like all of us in that we all want our students to thrive. But to do that, they need to develop good character. As Thomas Lickona writes in Character Education: The Heart of School Reform, “Character … provides the foundation for everything else. Without qualities such as good judgment, responsibility, the ability to overcome difficulties, and self-discipline … students will be handicapped in all areas of their lives.”

Character is essential in today’s digital society where our kids face opportunities and dangers that have never existed before. In our fast-paced, online world, where both information and decisions are presented to students at top speed, character is what will anchor them and help them cope — wisely and effectively.

A critical component downstream from character is mental health. In a review of 68 separate studies that examined the relationship between suicide and religion,84% found lower rates of suicide or more negative attitudes toward suicide among the more religious.

As noted in the International Journal of Applied Psychoanalytic Studies, religious instruction can even help “ease dread and anxiety, reduce personal and group tension and aggressiveness, allay fears, and moderate loneliness, depression, anomie, and/or feelings of entrapment and inferiority.”

When it comes to gun violence, bullying, and anxiety, or discussing controversial issues in the classroom, I don’t get bogged down in polarizing debates. Instead, I’m laser-focused on providing the foundation of Biblical education to help get at the root of these issues for all public school students.

The evidence is already overwhelming. For the issues currently ailing our students, both parents and educators agree that the Bible offers timeless solutions we can depend on.

Joel Penton is the Founder and CEO of LifeWise Academy, a nonprofit that provides Bible education to public school students during school hours. Joel lives in Columbus, Ohio with his wife, Bethany, and their five children.

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