Local school districts offer released-time religious instruction

WEST MILTON — Milton-Union Local Schools held the first day of its new LifeWise Academy program on Nov. 1, joining a growing number of local districts that now offer students Released Time Religious Instruction (RTRI).

“It was an amazing start to the program,” Milton-Union LifeWise Academy Program Director Julia Circle said. “Students were so excited and engaged.”

Approximately 50 students in grades K-5 participated in the new program on its first day. Like other RTRI programs, LifeWise Academy allows students in the program to leave school grounds during designated times to receive religious instruction.

“Organizers worked with building personnel on their initial planning and scheduling over the course of several weeks,” Milton-Union Schools Superintendent Dr. Brad Ritchey said. “Parents and families choosing for students to participate understand Lifewise instruction is delivered during an individual child’s “specials” period (i.e., Art, Music, STEM, etc.).”

Local churches helped get the program started in the Milton-Union district.

“The Milton-Union LifeWise Leadership Board represents three different, area community churches and has been the main driver in terms of planning, funding, and fundraising,” Dr. Ritchey said. “Hoffman United Methodist Church, additional local congregations, the Milton-Union Council of Churches, and other faith-based organizations have been very supportive of our students and staff members.”

RTRI has been allowed under federal law since 1952, allowing students to be released from public school during the day for religious instruction, if the program is held off of school property, privately funded and parent-permitted. Inspired by an existing RTRI program in Van Wert, LifeWise Academy was founded in 2018, and since then has grown to include over 125 school districts in four different states.

“LifeWise Academy will have 125 programs this school year,” LifeWise Acadamy spokesperson Derek Stemen said. “Another 250-plus communities have expressed interest, and are working towards establishing a LifeWise program in their school district.”

In Miami County, Newton Local Schools and Covington Local Schools also offer the LifeWise Academy program. Newton was the first local district to start the program, in 2020; Covington started their Lifewise Academy program this school year.

“Newton was the first district in this part of the state that launched the Lifewise Academy,” Newton Local Schools Superintendent Pat McBride said. “At that time, LifeWise Academy was really just getting started. It had a total of four or five districts providing Lifewise Academy in northern Ohio.”

“We just implemented it at the beginning of the school year,” Covington Local Schools K-6 Principal Josh Long said. “It’s been a really good experience so far for us. It has taken off; we’ve got a lot of kids in it and excited about it.”

“Our volunteers and directors at LifeWise are doing an awesome job,” he said. “I keep hearing kids say they truly love it, and they’re having fun while they’re there and learning some good stuff too.”

“I couldn’t be more pleased with this program and the benefits it provides to our kids,” McBride said of Newton’s experience. “The program has been received by both students and parents with a lot of enthusiasm and positive feedback. Kids are excited to attend each and every week; parents are increasingly wanting to volunteer and help with various events.”

The program’s curriculum focuses on the central messages of the Bible. More information can be found online at www.lifewiseacademy.org.

“We believe all students, regardless of religious background, can benefit from a greater understanding of such an influential book,” Stemen said. “The LifeWise curriculum is designed to take students through the entire Bible, beginning in Genesis and ending in Revelation, over the course of five years.”

The program is optional, and must be funded through private donations. “The program is provided to students free of charge, and organizers have secured funding through donations and local sponsors,” Ritchey said.

“It’s no cost to our parents or to the school district here,” Long said. “I just think it’s a great opportunity for our kids.”

The program is growing steadily, both in student participation and in the number of districts it is available in. At Newton, 71% of K-5 students are involved in the program, and in Covington approximately 100 students are currently participating.

“There has been a steady increase in participation in the LifeWise Academy since we began,” McBride said. “Students who attend are great ambassadors in promoting the program to the kids that didn’t initially opt in.”

“Going from five districts to more than 100 in a year is quite a testament to the power of this program,” he said. “Parents and the community are starved for wholesome values, and a world rooted in truth. With all the craziness that we see on a daily basis, this program provides hope and light in an increasingly dark world.”