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Bible Breaks at Public Schools Face Challenges in Rural Virginia

Some parents say that time is wasted.

"The children left behind in the classroom have nothing meaningful to do," said Heather Ward, who moved to the area from New York City and has decided not to enroll her young son and daughter when they start attending school. "It's busywork. Coloring or drawing. There are some who choose to send their child simply because the alternative is to be ostracized and just sit there."

Amy Diduch, who teaches economics at Mary Baldwin College in Staunton, said she felt fortunate that one-third of the children in her daughter's first-grade class do not attend.

Jack Hinton helps third-graders Brian Smith, left, and Noah Balsley with an assignment during their Bible class in Staunton, Va. (Katherine Frey -- The Washington Post)

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"We happen to be Christians, but we do not want her to be a part of excluding other children," she said. "They get worksheets to do. She tolerates them, but they're not advancing her education. What bothers me is that the ones left behind are at a loss for additional instruction."

Supporters say the classes encourage model behavior that benefits everyone.

"The basis is definitely Christian, but it's not fire and brimstone," said Andrea Oakes, who has enrolled two of her three children in the classes. "The teachings are more history, geography and character-building. It's about learning to be a good person, a good citizen, even good manners. It teaches children not to lie, steal or cheat, and to abide by the law. It's a program that has worked well for our city."

David Cook, who enjoyed the classes as a child and now has enrolled his son, said the program is not so time-consuming that it hurts academics.

"It equates to six minutes a day of school time," he said. "How that would be detrimental to standards of learning, it's hard for me to fathom."

Charles C. Haynes, a senior scholar at the Freedom Forum's First Amendment Center in Arlington, said schools attempting to follow the spirit of the law need to ensure that children who opt out are not neglected.

"Parents ought to pressure the school to make sure their kids get the attention they deserve," he said. "It's not time off for teachers. If teachers are doing their job, the parents should be celebrating because their kids get extra academic help."

James Harrington, an education professor at Mary Baldwin College who is head of the Staunton School Board, said he believes the status quo is not working.

"If we were talking teenagers, it would be less of a concern to me," he said. "The system requires a 6-year-old child to occasionally defend his or her belief system to teachers and classmates. It doesn't happen often, but the system is vulnerable to occasional lapses. We don't have the luxury of leaving it up to our best hopes."

The third-graders just think the lessons are fun.

Most are now attending Bible classes for the third year. They said they never have heard anybody say anything mean to the students who do not attend.

"They're missing a lot of good stuff," said Olivia Pyanoe, who gave a short speech to the School Board in support of the classes. "I told them it's good to go. Some kids don't attend Sunday school classes."

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