PREP4Kids draws 62 in Banks and Dilley

by: COURTESY PHOTO: ART HEERWAGEN - During the noon hour last Tuesday, PREP4Kids parent volunteers Cindy Schneider (left) and Roberta Perry (right) work with Dilley Elementary School students at Dilley Bible Church, located next door to the school. It isn’t something that’s widely known, but under Oregon law, elementary school students can be released for up to two hours a week during regular school hours to attend religious instruction classes.

Nationally, public school students still have a wide range of religious freedoms. And for many years schools have dismissed students to off-premises religious instruction — but with the disclaimer that they don’t encourage or discourage participation or penalize pupils for attending or not attending. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which has provided off-campus instruction for high schoolers for years, is a prime example of that.

On the strength of the federal Equal Access Act passed by Congress in 1984 — as well as Oregon statute 339.420 — the Portland Released-Time Education Program (PREP4Kids) was established and now has as many as 400 students a week attending released-time classes in 30 schools in Washington, Multnomah and Clackamas counties.

The classes, which have been taking place in the tri-county area for 25 years, are held each Tuesday in western Washington County.

“Dilley Elementary meets at the Bible Church of Dilley, and Banks Elementary [students meet] at the Banks Community Church,” said tri-county PREP4Kids Director Judy Busch. “Both are within walking distance of the schools.”

Twelve students from Dilley and 50 from Banks are taking the classes, Busch added. The Dilley program has been running since 2000, and the Banks program since 2008.

The PREP4Kids curriculum, taught by parent volunteers, is non-denominational, teaches no church doctrine and uses four biblically-based modules: the book of Genesis, Moses, the life of Jesus and the book of Acts.

“We feel that kids need to receive moral and religious training,” said Busch. “We work closely with school principals, [asking] when the best time [is] for the students to be out of class — we want to be a team with the schools.”

According to Dilley Principal Angella Graves, the lunch hour has proven to be the least disruptive.

“Last year we had some problems finding a good time when kids missed the least amount of classroom instruction, but this year’s release time is running very smoothly,” Graves said. “We’ve had no opposition to the program and have found PREP4Kids representatives very easy to work with.”

Regionally, there has been some opposition to PREP4Kids. Officials at Americans United for Separation of Church and State sent a letter to the State Board of Education in 2010, saying that while the group recognized that the law allows parents the right to exercise their freedom of conscience by releasing their children for religious instruction, it wanted to express concern about the quality of academic instruction for the remaining students.

“We fear that as practiced, released time imposes significant, yet unavoidable disadvantages on those families who give priority to academic instruction, or who feel that their need for religious instruction can be adequately met outside of regular school hours,” the letter stated.

Busch said she had not encountered any opposition in Washington County, and that parents and grandparents have told her they want religious instruction for their children.

She emphasized that attendance at PREP4Kids does not mean students get out of responsibility for their regular classes.

“Students are required to complete any academic work missed while attending released time, and teachers can give assignments outside of class time, so no instructional time is lost for students still in the classroom,” said Busch. “In our PREP4Kids information we point out that each student learns positive attitudes, how to set good moral standards, and how to make wise choices — all based on the Bible.”

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