Religion class gains popularity in some schools

Weekly study at church requires OK from parent

A hundred Hephzibah Elementary School pupils received some of their schooling at church this year.


Once a week, for about an hour, they walked to a nearby church and learned about the Ten Commandments, ethics and morals.

"They're teaching the kids about appreciating others," said Dianne Heffner, whose 11-year-old daughter, Mandy Dyer, attends Hephzibah Elementary. "They're showing them how to love their families, and it's about learning about God."

The class is part of a "Christian release program" started this year for Hephzibah's fourth- and fifth-graders. The program also was offered this year at two other Richmond County schools -- Monte Sano and Glenn Hills -- and it appears to be growing in popularity.

Next year, the program will be started at Terrace Manor Elementary and expanded at Hephzibah Elementary.

"I think the parents have been happy and the children have been happy," said Dr. Frances Ellison, Hephzibah Elementary's principal. "We're going to add the third grade next year, so we're going to expand a little bit."

Students in the release class, which held its graduation at Hephzibah on Thursday, must have a parent's permission to participate. The program is initiated where a school's principal, staff and parents are supportive.

At Hephzibah, students are released once a week during "specials time," when students participate in music, physical education and a computer club.

"So they're not missing any of the core curriculum," Ellison said, noting that students still get their required PE time.

The students walk across a parking lot to Hephzibah United Methodist Church to take the class.

"This year, they focused on the Ten Commandments, so they talked about good ethics and good moral standards," Ellison said.

The class doesn't occur on school grounds because of the required divide between religion and public education.

Ellison said she agrees with that separation, but adds, "I think we have a responsibility to help children build character as well as academics."

Richmond County school board member Helen Minchew said the program began about eight years ago at Milledge Elementary. Minchew said the program there has been temporarily halted because of a move when Milledge merged to become Lamar-Milledge.

"We don't force anybody to do it. ... It helps give children some guidance. I think it's helped in discipline," Minchew said.

Asked whether other faiths had such an offering, Minchew said that to her knowledge there had been no such request from the public and no recent complaints about the Christian-based program.

Heffner said she wishes it would be available when her daughter moves to middle school next year.

"The whole program I think is just great," she said.



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