Patrons give opinions on LifeWise Academy

During the Prairie Hills USD No. 113 Board of Education meeting on Monday, Aug. 8, members of the public came before the board to speak their feelings about the LifeWise Academy program that was presented to the board members during the July 11 meeting.

LifeWise Academy is, according to its website (https://www.lifewiseacademy.org/), “a Released Time Religious Instruction (RTRI) program which provides Bible-based character education to public school students. Under RTRI laws, students can be released from public school during the school day to attend religious classes, provided the program is off school property, privately funded and parent-permitted.”

Tina Hughes, a teacher at Sabetha Elementary School (SES), started off the public’s time to speak by sharing her concerns about LifeWise Academy affecting teaching standards and the school’s already tight schedule.

“…[It] has long been understood to me that government and all else – Federal, State and Local – should involve itself as little as possible in religious institutions,” Hughes said. “And through the federal mandate in the state curriculum, these are the principles that I’m expected to instruct our students on.

Now, I won’t spend too much time diving into a long history lesson on the separation of church and state, however, I would like to discuss the concerns that I see for the elementary school and staff with the LifeWise Academy proposal. As I stated, I and all the other teachers have a set of standards that are set forth by the state and are meant to be covered each year for the students. The district has adopted and purchased programs to assist the teachers to accomplish the teaching of these standards. I don’t believe that it is stated anywhere that some classes or courses are more or less important than others, such as physical education, music, art or library.

Also, as always, time is an issue. We have a schedule that is so tight, there is little wiggle room. In addition to the already stated district programs and the state curriculums to teach, we also have a federally funded program, MTSS, and both of these requires to stay on the schedule in order to have the fidelity that is expected. One more thing wedged into our school day for the week is not what our students need, and after nearly 40 years of teaching experience in this district, I can tell you firsthand that moving and instructing students will rarely fit into such a tight schedule that has been proposed by the program.

However, doing something like this as an after-school program could fix many of these problems. For these, I ask the board not to vote to introduce the LifeWise Academy program as proposed.”

Sarah Snyder then spoke to the board, asking for the members for their approval to continue working out the details of the LifeWise program.

“The LifeWise steering committee is asking the members of the school board to approve LifeWise as an optional release time religious instruction class for students as the Sabetha schools,” Snyder said. “This approval allows the LifeWise steering committee to begin moving forward with logistical details around volunteers, hiring teachers, fundraising and coordinating schedules with the school, so at this time, I’m just asking approval to move forward to continue work with the school, so we can work out those details that we don’t know the answers to.”

Lori Baumgartner spoke of her experience touring the first LifeWise Academy in Van Wert, Ohio, and shared her support of the program.

“…I’ve been a substitute teacher for 20 years, 10 years in the Bern district and after it closed, I transferred to Sabetha, and I’ve taught 10 years here,” L. Baumgartner said. “I have the utmost respect for all you teachers that teach everyday and positively influence our youth, and I say with all sincerity that each teacher in our district is a hero in my eyes.

A local Sabetha teacher recently asked me this question, ‘Have you noticed an increase in negative behaviors in your years of teaching?’ My answer was, ‘Yes, I have.’

She posed the question, ‘What more can we be doing to help our youth?’ I said, ‘I don’t have a direct answer, but I do go home from many subbing jobs and I pray about situations I see, and I pray for specific students.’

It was not long after this conversation that I became exposed to the LifeWise program. I personally feel that LifeWise is a proactive way to help shoulder the load that our teaching staff carries. The more I learn about the program, the more convinced I am…”

Michelle Keim, a teacher at SES, shared her concerns about the program taking students out of school.

“I am not completely against LifeWise,” M. Keim said. “All the teachers at SES care for these kids tremendously, and we all know that they [the kids] need, especially the ones that struggle most, something else in their life. I can tell you now that all the teachers at SES are Christians and they want the best for the students.

What I’m going to tell you now is I don’t agree with taking these kids out of the school, especially since I feel like it degrades our special teachers. Because they are a teacher just like me, they have a curriculum and I feel like their classes are not being treated as important, like P.E. is not that important, music is not that important, but they are.” 

M. Keim also was concerned about students not wanting to go to LifeWise if their parents signed them up to attend the program.

“These kids look forward to P.E.,” M. Keim said, “the students look forward to music, and when parents are setting their kids up for LifeWise, do the kids really want to be pulled out of school? When the parents are signing them up and the kids are told to go, what if the kids don’t want to go? I’m kind of worried is this going to cause more behaviors. We do have a lot of struggles with behaviors and when you’re not in the school, you don’t see it all the time.”

Maggie Kaeb let the board know that she appreciates the teachers and their hard work with students.

“On behalf of LifeWise and myself, I want to thank the school staff and officials for caring greatly about the students in our community,” M. Kaeb said. “Our steering committee is great for the many staff that attended the meeting to learn more about LifeWise, and we’re thankful for your willingness to visit with us individually and to share your thoughts and experiences.

If we get permission to move forward, the LifeWise director will work closely with the school on the details of the program, so it will be best to serve the students. Thank you again for your hearts and for your efforts for the students. We appreciate you.”

Paul Kaeb expressed his want for the board to give LifeWise Academy a chance.

“I would like to publicly say that I’ve been communicating with the [LifeWise] steering committee. I think their hearts are right trying to present what I think would be a good opportunity for us to at least give [LifeWise] a chance,” P. Kaeb said. “I know that any time something like this comes in, especially to the school district, it’s understandable that staff and others wonder how it will benefit the students and the school district. But I would hope that our school district, USD 113, would at least give this program a little bit of a chance to work.

I see opportunity, I see that it does do some character building. It does help us and helps the kids, gives them an option, it’s completely volunteer. I really don’t think if any child does not want to go, I don’t think parents are going to force them to go. I don’t think that’s the intention at all, but I do know, as a grandparent, I see this generation, these kids, as the next leader in this country, this world that we have. I would just encourage us to at least be open-minded and give [LifeWise] a shot.”

Maria Edelman voiced her support for the program.

“I want to voice my support for starting the LifeWise Academy in our district as a parent and emphasize it as an attraction to the district as a class that specifically teaches character traits and the gospel,” Edelman said. “As a former Sabetha elementary teacher, LifeWise is the answer to the struggle that I experienced. Character traits and morals are exactly what I wanted to instill in my students. However, there was never enough time or space and standards to devote as much attention to the subject as I felt was necessary, and as a public school teacher, I knew I had to be careful when talking about the gospel.

I know our teachers have character building programs and that these traits are taught throughout all classes, but LifeWise provides a designated time for these kids to learn exclusively about character building traits and morals.

Lastly, and most importantly, as a Christian, I think the opportunity to present the gospel to the kids in our community is one that we can’t afford to pass up. More and more kids in our towns don’t know the gospel and we are seeing the effects of that. Our teachers and staff are excellent, but they aren’t allowed to share the story of salvation through Jesus, and these kids have eternal souls that must be given the chance to hear the hope of Christ.”

Elysia McGill, music teacher at SES, shared an email she sent the board about her thoughts on LifeWise Academy.

“After the meeting that the LifeWise group and the teachers had, I truly feel that I need to share my thoughts and feelings with all of you,” McGill said. “I understand that what I say might not make a difference, but I feel the need to stand up for myself, my music class, my students, and if I don’t, I will probably regret it. 

As a Christian woman, I feel so very torn about [LifeWise]. I know that this is a worthwhile thing for our children, but I also worry that this could cause other problems. But that’s why I leave that to God and I pray for his will to be done, not my own agenda. 

On the teaching side of life, I do have a lot of concerns about this program and how it will directly impact my class. As I stated, I was able to attend the teacher meeting prior to the presentation and heard so many concerns from our staff that we didn’t have time to get into that day. I tried so very hard not to be upset or offended by the presentation, but as it went on, it was truly hard. I kept praying that God would give me strength to not break down crying and to not take it personally that my class, as well as my colleague’s class, was being targeted. 

I walked out of that meeting feeling not heard, not appreciated and quite frankly, very dejected. It just breaks my heart that the idea of losing a day each week with my kids. I guess that’s very selfish of me, but music is such a way for our kids to shine and be seen in different lights.

…It was mentioned that the goal was to reach students that have behavior issues. These are the students that need the release that only specials can give. I’m not trying to sound conceited, but I really believe that students enjoy music and coming to my class for the relationships that we build.

…Our specials are so important for students, and I feel like it is being discredited and offered as an option for the Academy to take place. We have a tradition of excellence here at Sabetha when it comes to athletics and the arts, and that starts with Mrs. [Julie] Kuckelman and instilling those values and love. We give grades just like the classroom teachers, and to imply that those students would be exempt from grades is a nightmare, quite frankly, to wade through when I’m trying to input grades, and again made me feel as if what I do is not important, and I felt left feeling dejected.

I have no doubt that the material offered is amazing through the LifeWise Academy. In my opinion, an after-school program would be a great and much-needed solution to reach the families that they are trying to reach. I know LifeWise indicated that they don’t offer an after-school program, but with God, all things are possible, and maybe Sabetha can be a launch site and help other communities.”

John Baumgartner spoke about LifeWise providing something to children that the schools can’t provide.

“Lori and I did tour that LifeWise facility in Van Wert, Ohio,” J. Baumgartner said. “The only reason LifeWise is being suggested is because they have a very premiere program. It’s considered to be the gold standard of public education, religious education release time. If someone here has a better program, that’s great, but that’s why LifeWise was selected.

I just want to point out as we make this decision, that the real focus should be on the children. That’s the whole reason you’re here, that’s the whole reason we have the school, that’s the reason that education exists, is for the children. So if we really focus on that and we think about maybe the one piece that the schools can’t give to the children because of the laws, it would be the part of the LifeWise Academy. Teachers can only go so far. 

So, as I address you, I’m thinking in the eyes of the community, which this will also benefit. If someone walks into your business, or this school, for a job, what character traits would you look for?

…If someone comes in and wants a loan, what character traits would you look for in that person? Perseverance? Financial abilities? Honesty? Hard work? If someone comes in, maybe they’re in jail and we have to represent them, what character traits are missing? Honor? Respect for authority? Respectable? What was missing?

You’re going to sell your car, you’ve got a lot of money tied up. What kind of a person are you going to want to buy your car? As an education teacher, what kind of students do you want in your class? Someone with enthusiasm? Initiative? Self-starter? Respectful? Someone with gratitude? Someone that’s going to treat others like they want to be treated?

Just a few things to think about. In our community, if you want involvement, you want someone with a giving attitude, you want someone that’s going to show gratitude. These are the character traits that LifeWise emphasizes. Let’s think about our kids, let’s think about the focus – it’s for them. Who do we want in our community? Who do we want in our schools?”

Calvin Copeland thinks LifeWise is an excellent opportunity for Sabetha and wanted the board to try the program.

“…I think it [LifeWise] is an excellent opportunity for that to happen in a way that does build character,” Copeland said. “I’ll share briefly that I’m new to the community. I’ve been here for about a year. I came from Kansas City in a very large school district with about 10,000 students graduating high school each year. It’s a moral cesspool.

I love Sabetha, I love that we are a community of faith in our own varied way. I would love to see that fostered and continue to grow, and not see that cut off. For that reason, I would ask the board sincerely, in a very heartfelt way, to approve or at least try this program. I think it has potential for a lot of good for our children.”

Later during the meeting, the board members discussed their opinions about the LifeWise Academy program.

Jim Scoby voiced his total support for the program.

“I would like to voice my support for this program,” J. Scoby said. “And to the teachers, nobody is targeting any one of you or classes. I don’t feel like that is the intent of the program at all. I think what they’re trying to do would support your character building program that’s already in place in the schools.

From the standpoint of where we are, according to some of the important rulings that we have to be careful about why we supported a character, we can’t say ‘because God has instituted this in scripture,’ or from any standpoint. Here, we have an opportunity that LifeWise can say ‘this is good and this is why this is good.’ It’s a very positive aspect of being able to say why we don’t go up and hit somebody, why we don’t steal their pen or pencil.

With [LifeWise], we can tell kids why, whereas in the government system, it’s difficult but not impossible. From that standpoint, I am 100 percent behind what LifeWise is wanting to do.”

Anissa Bloom shared her concerns and questions about the program. She did not feel comfortable approving anything until she understood more about LifeWise Academy.

“I’ve been a 20-plus year religious education teacher in my community, so I do see the importance of the faith-based education component, but I do have some questions,” Bloom said. “Before I can wholeheartedly vote yes or no, I just have some questions that I still don’t have answers for.”

Bloom shared aloud some questions she had about the LifeWise program, including how will special education students be supported if they attend the program, how will the off-site program affect the minutes that teachers have to report to the state, what will happen if students become injured or sick while attending the off-site program, etc. 

Superintendent Todd Evans answered as many of Bloom’s questions as he could, based on his understanding of the program.

Kent Saylor shared his thoughts on LifeWise Academy from a legal point-of-view and how he was concerned about the board approving the program at this time.

“I’m looking at this [the LifeWise program] from the view of a businessman with some legal background,” Saylor said. “I look at things pretty mechanically, and I’ve been through new systems, new products, new things, and what bothers me right now is we had one month saying, ‘hey, we’ve got this great idea…’ My concern is, at this moment, we heard about where we are in our elementary school. We’ve got a mess. I think the timing’s not quite the best right now [to introduce LifeWise]. We’ve got enough pressure to try to keep things as normal as we can right now.”

Stan Keim was in support of the LifeWise program and believed the board needed to vote on the LifeWise Academy program during that meeting.

“I think we have an opportunity to make a great, great impact on preparing our students and to therefore save the future,” S. Keim said. “This is something that I would say I wish I had when I was in school. I never had that opportunity. I feel strongly that we could table this thing forever, but it’s time we make a decision now one way or the other, so the folks that have worked really hard on this program know which avenue they can take.”

After their discussion, the board wanted to make a motion to approve LifeWise Academy, but some were unsure about what they were making a motion for.

Superintendent Evans let the board know that USD 113 will not offer this program. He said the board would be voting for or against LifeWise Academy working with USD 113 teachers to work out details of the program and possibly offer a pilot program at Sabetha Elementary School in 2023.

Leslie Scoby spoke her thoughts about LifeWise Academy in the discussion period before the board voted on the motion.

“Our mission is to prepare kids and shape the future,” L. Scoby said. “Teachers must do this as they deal with societal issues that have spilled into and in some cases, nearly have spoiled a disciplined classroom environment. From what I have read and researched, the lessons taught through LifeWise would help fulfill our mission and might quite likely be the exact message to change the life of a student or even a family.

If this program is approved tonight and it’s moved to the next stage of development, I trust that Mrs. [Rusty] Willis and the SES leadership team will work in cooperation with the trained program director to come up with a schedule that preserves and protects music, art, physical education, library and computer classes, recognizing that each class has value and worth in completing the whole child…”

S. Keim made the motion to approve LifeWise Academy members to work with SES school officials to work through the details of the program and possibly offer a LifeWise pilot to SES in 2023. The board approved the motion with all in favor.

To listen to the entire discussion about LifeWise Academy, visit https://youtu.be/oPRgpwtXROs.

Erin Herrmann91 Posts

Erin Herrmann is a reporter at The Sabetha Herald. She specializes in school board reporting, features and advertising design.

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