Silverton’s students can learn about the Bible and the Christian faith during school hours through Bible Released Time classes.
“I can get away from it all – like the bad language – and learn about God,” said Maddy Hulett, a seventh grader at Mark Twain Middle School. “It helps me to be more excited about the day; I don’t worry about it as much and have more patience with other people.”
Hulett was one of six middle school students enjoying a Christmas party with her Bible study class at Immanuel Lutheran Church. Most Thursday mornings, they walk to the nearby church while their fellow students spend the period in “AG” – advisory groups. “Normally in AG, all I’m doing is reading,” Rachel Stadeli said. “I like coming here and learning about God.”
The Bible education program began 95 years ago. Today there are more than 1,000 Released Time Programs across the U.S., involving students in kindergarten through high school. Oregon law permits public elementary school children to be released for religious education up to two hours per week – five hours for high school students – with parental consent and so long as it doesn’t involve taxpayer money. While a school board may not arbitrarily refuse to grant the time, it may exercise discretion in approval if doing so may interfere with the school’s regular work.
The non-denominational Christian program began in Silverton 70 years ago. Teachers are selected and hired and lessons approved by the Silverton Ministerial Association.
Competing for teaching time is one of many challenges the Silverton program currently faces. Since classes may not be held on campus, nearby churches provide places to meet. The alternative, using the program’s bus, requires a teacher who also holds a Commercial Driver’s License. Churches sponsor the program, which is free to all.
A further challenge was posed when longtime Released Time director Dale Price withdrew to embark on treatment for cancer. Directorship has changed hands twice in the two years since. Joann and Randy Mitchell are now at the helm. “It’s a great program,” Joann Mitchell said. “I feel really bad it has run into so many problems this year.”
She says attempting to provide students with a grasp of God’s plan in about 30 minutes a week is a daunting task. “With No Child Left Behind you can hardly get kids out of the classroom anymore,” she said.
“At Robert Frost, students give up their lunchtime to participate.”
One day a week, program instructor Tammy Smith leads three successive groups of students – lunches in hand – from Robert Frost Elementary School to First Baptist Church in the span of an hour and a half.
“I understand the school’s standpoint of needing so much teaching time, but I think studying the Bible improves kids’ learning,” Smith said “The Bible used to be one of the major textbooks used.”
“A lot of people in this day and age don’t have a reason for differentiating between right and wrong,” Randy Mitchell said. “Those reasons and God’s plan for the world since the beginning are found in his word.”
In 2002 the National Council on Crime and Delinquency conducted an evaluation of the Released Time Bible Education Program in Oakland, Calif. The program was found to improve overall academic performance and help develop positive moral character. It cited the program’s ability to provide youth with strong adult mentorship and bonding and to reinforce character development “antithetical to engaging in criminal or delinquent behavior.”
“I love these kids,” said Rachel Myers, a recent graduate of New Tribes Bible Institute in Michigan who teaches the Mark Twain Middle School students. “The kids are eager to learn and really participate. They’re also bringing their friends.”
The middle-school students all say they like the midweek opportunity to get together and talk about God.
“We have a chance to pray about things that are happening,” Kiera Johnson said. “I have to give a presentation today; being here first calms you.”
“It’s nice to learn all about God and Jesus and everything they’ve done and said and created,” said eighth-grade student Shane Dibala. Daniel Ross likes how the time spent on Thursday mornings – along with church and youth group attendance at Silverton First Baptist Church – spreads opportunities to touch base with his faith over the week.
Most admit they don’t mind getting out of AG, either.
Forms to participate are available at students’ school office or by calling the Mitchells. Those interested in teaching or supporting the program can find out more by calling Joann or Randy Mitchell at 503-873-7309 or 503-873-5131.