VAN WERT — Jeremy Laukhuf wants to show churches how to legally teach public-school students about the Bible during the school day.
As field director for LifeWise Academy, Laukhuf is orchestrating the launch of dozens of Christian character academies in Ohio through a little-known legal exemption that allows students to temporarily leave school for religious instruction. The rules are simple: parents must sign a permission slip to send their students to a LifeWise Academy, which is privately funded and located off school property, often within walking distance of the student’s primary school.
LifeWise already maintains a presence in five school districts, including Van Wert and Pandora-Gilboa schools. That number could quickly grow, as Laukhuf is working to open at least 15 academies by August and is in talks with nearly 60 communities about bringing the program to their schools.
Among those on the list are Elida and Delphos schools, the latter of which is still considering a proposal from LifeWise to utilize release-time religious instruction (RTRI) exemption that would allow students to attend LifeWise for part of their school day.
“We found there are far more communities who just simply don’t know that it can be done, that it is legally possible to teach the Bible during public-school hours,” Laukhuf said. “It’s been going on in our country for over 100 years, but in the past 40 or 50 years, it’s just largely become unknown amongst the Christian community, amongst the churches, that this is legal.”
The Van Wert model
LifeWise Academy-Van Wert enrolls more than 90 percent of students who attend Van Wert Elementary, who are escorted to the Bible school for 50 minutes one day each week to learn how their faith influences their character.
The Bible school was originally founded in 2012 as Cross Over the Hill and later affiliated with LifeWise, helping the RTRI program expand its presence in Ohio schools by implementing a streamlined process to open new academies.
The program is so popular that it’s penciled into Van Wert Elementary’s schedule, instructor Myrna Hamrick said, so students attending the academy don’t miss out on special classes like art or music or computer science. Students whose parents don’t sign the release form wait back in the classroom with their teacher.
Students start their days at LifeWise with prayer and a Bible lesson, sometimes ending with a song or Bible-themed game before heading back to their primary school.
The five-year elementary program surveys the entire text of the Bible, focusing on how those stories should shape a Christian’s character. A lesson on gratitude, for example, draws on Genesis and the Biblical story of creation; another on responsibility looks to the story of Cain and Abel for guidance.
“Each student will hear the Gospel message, the saving grace of Jesus, and how that affects their character,” Hamrick said, “whether it’s honesty or perseverance.”
LifeWise Van Wert also offers classes for middle school students, who attend the academy daily for 12 weeks in the place of an elective, and is planning a high-school program in partnership with Ohio Christian University.
“We feel strongly that our public schools are a mission field,” Laukhuf said.