Johnston County school leaders have reservations about a locally-developed religion class that a group of teachers proposed last month.
The class in world religion is among five online offerings created by a team of 25 Johnston County teachers and one administrator. At its August meeting, the school board approved the other four – creative writing, Southern culture, Microsoft Word and PowerPoint and a class called “E-life.”
But after board member Butler Hall voiced concerns about the religion class, the board removed it from consideration.
“You know, we voted to take and keep the Gideons out of the schools, and now we are opening the door for these world religions to come in,” Hall said during the meeting. “Maybe I’m being very narrow. I just don’t understand. I’d like to understand more about it.”
Hall was referring to board action last year that banned the in-school distribution of literature from outside groups, including the Christian group Gideons International, which hands out Bibles.
After Hall spoke out, Superintendent Ed Croom said his staff would pull content from the proposed curriculum for board members to review. That was last month.
Last week, the item was back on the agenda, but Croom asked that it be pulled. He said school leaders are still examining the content and purpose of the course.
Online courses available to Johnston students are developed by either the school district or the N.C. Virtual Public School, a paid, supplemental service that offers classes for both public and nontraditional students.
To save money and in response to proposed state legislation, Johnston schools paid a group of teachers to create more online courses. Teachers applied to take part and followed state and national guidelines when creating the courses, said Dr. Fran Riddick, Johnston’s assistant superintendent for instructional support and development.
“We looked at a variety of different offerings our students used to take through NCVPS and looked at courses they took through community colleges,” Riddick said, noting that some students did take a world religions course at Johnston Community College.
After last week’s school board meeting, Chairman Larry Strickland said he has asked Croom’s staff to review the course further. “I would want to explore and look at the curriculum a little bit myself, before I would give my blessing on it,” he said.
School leaders last discussed religion in the schools in January 2013, when they banned outside groups from passing out books and flyers.
The decision stemmed from requests from several groups to distribute literature that school administrators found inappropriate for students. After the district rejected the requests, the North Carolina chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union warned school leaders they could not allow some groups, like the Gideons, while banning others.
Before the ban, the Gideons had routinely set up tables and passed out Bibles at Johnston schools.
Several school board members, including Hall, had said they were reluctant to ban the Gideons and other Christian groups. However, the policy change was the only way to keep inappropriate materials out of the schools, they said.
In North Carolina, social studies classes teach religion as it relates to history, culture and literature. However, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that teachers cannot alter instruction to promote any religious point of view.
Johnston’s push for more online courses is being driven by cost and the state’s emphasis on digital learning. Riddick, the assistant superintendent for instructional support and development, said the General Assembly has come close to requiring students to take at least one online course before they graduate.
“We wanted to have some material ready to implement in the case that does happen, so we do not have to send all of our students to NCVPS and that we can do some in the district,” Riddick said.
Johnston’s schools pay for Virtual Public School classes on a per-student basis. The school district might still pay for in-house courses, but the costs would be lower, Riddick said. In addition, she said Johnston teachers could oversee some online courses as part of their regular duties, saving even more money.
“There’s a lot more flexibility when it’s in your own realm,” she said.
The district used $7,500 earmarked for digital learning to pay the 25 teachers who developed the five new online courses. Two other locally developed classes – French 1 and 2 – are already available online.