Opponents of Revere’s off-campus religious initiative mobilize

by Sheldon Ocker

A serious backlash has begun over the Revere school board’s decision to allow students to leave class to take religious instruction.

On April 16, the board of education unanimously approved a policy that enables students in grades 1-12 to miss school (but not a core curriculum course) and travel off campus for religious training, as long as they have parental consent and no school personnel, facilities or modes of transportation are used.

Persuading the board to take this action was an organization called LifeWise Academy, based in Hilliard, Ohio, near Columbus. LifeWise has taken advantage of a 2014 law passed by the state legislature to permit such religious activity within a public school context.

LifeWise Academy has drawn criticism in other school districts, and now the organization has raised the ire of hundreds (maybe thousands) of Revere residents. A seven-member group called Residents of Revere Local School District against LifeWise Academy says they have gathered 816 signatures on a petition whose purpose is to persuade the school board to rescind its decision.

LifeWise has been targeted because presumably students would have nowhere else to procure religious training during a school day and because of LifeWise’s teachings.   

“The curriculum that’s being taught – there are some scary values being taught to students,” said Emily Jimerson, a Bath resident who, along with three other women, decided to circulate a petition in the school district.

Jimerson and her group also are wary of children as young as 6 being proselytized by LifeWise.

“I think there’s a great concern about recruitment,” she said. “The participants are encouraged to return to school with prizes to recruit other students. Teachers are encouraged to hand out information about LifeWise, and this is from the LifeWise web site.

“LifeWise volunteers are encouraged to come in and have little parties for the teachers and reward them with donuts and lattes and other things.”

Travis Singer, who has two children in Revere schools, has other objections.

“I feel this changes the culture of Revere,” he said. “What you’re doing by allowing this to happen – by sanctioning an organization like LifeWise or any other religious organization – you’re creating an us versus them situation, and you’re further dividing the district, like in the school building.”

Singer also worries about the cultural tenets being taught by a conservative religious entity.

“You are basically putting kids on a bus to send them to a place to learn that other children’s families in the district aren’t as equal or as valid as theirs,” Singer said, “whether it is LGBTQ families or co-habiting couples who have no children, or divorced people, anything like that.”

The bottom line for Singer, “I don’t understand how this furthers the mission of the Revere school district to educate the students with the curriculum they’ve been employed to educate them with.”

 What about residents who signed an online petition provided by LifeWise to support the organization?

Superintendent Michael Tefs said that he was informed that about 150 residents signed the “community interest list” on the LifeWise web site.

“We have that petition because I requested it,” Singer said. “It’s about 97 signatures. It was not over 100, I can assure you of that.”

There is no contractual arrangement between Revere and LifeWise, but according to Singer there has been discussions between LifeWise and the district concerning logistical details that indicate LifeWise will be the dominant – and probably the only – provider of religious instruction for Revere kids.

“LifeWise is significantly pushing the superintendents, and that’s plural,” Singer said. “First, they’ve tried with Dr. Tefs, and now they’re trying with Mr. White. They are pushing for an email that says, ‘Yes, we agree to allow you to come in and do this.’”

Tefs resigned in January but is serving out the rest of his term, which ends July 31. Dan White is the incoming superintendent and currently an adviser until Aug. 1, when his contract begins.

Singer made a public records request from the board for every email pertinent to the new policy. According to him, he received about 900, however all but about 300 are original emails copied to others.

“Not one of the emails involved discussion among board members,” he said. “But Dr. Tefs has had interactions with LifeWise folks as well as with some of the people who signed the petition on LifeWise’s behalf.”

Singer said that as far back as Feb. 20, 2023, Tefs received an email from LifeWise that said district residents were interested in supporting LifeWise.

One “email” was a voice message from Tefs to a LifeWise supporter, which said, in part, “Hi Taryn, Michael Tefs here. Yes, yes, I’m sure youth are applauding. We got the board to approve the policy.”

In the rest of the message, Tefs explained to Taryn that because he would not be employed by Revere during the 2024-25 school year, he was leaving further decisions to White.

Said Singer, “When there is a policy like this, perhaps they [the board] should be proactive and ask for feedback from the community before they enact it.” ∞