Knox County School Board approves ‘released time course’

By Bill Howard

Thinking about the classes kids take in school probably brings to mind, among other things, English, Math, Science and History.

There’s another class some kids take in some districts called a “released time course.” According to the Tennessee Code, a released time course means “a period of time during which a student is excused from school to attend a course in religious moral instruction taught by an independent entity off school property.”

The parents must sign off on the child taking the class, the class must take place off school property, and the independent entity must maintain attendance records and provide them to the LEA (Local Education Agency).

Last Thursday at its monthly meeting, the Knox County Board of Education heard a request for such a course from Knoxville attorney Michael Shope. Shope began by telling the board that he currently serves on the board of “an entity in Campbell County that offers a released time course.”

“Released time education is a Constitutional right,” Shope said. “What this policy would do, in accordance with a recently amended state law, is offer one elective credit for such a course so long as it meets certain requirements.”

“What we’ve seen in Campbell County and what we’d like to see in Knox County are the results in the students who have taken these classes,” said Shope. “They have better academic performance. We have a tendency to focus solely on our mind and our body in the school system, and that’s the place of the school system. But it tends to cause us to ignore the spiritual needs of students who spend the majority of their waking hours in the school system.”

“A policy like this would allow parents to direct the education of their kids in a way that part of their daily life revolves around their spiritual health and spiritual development and their moral development.”

Shope told the board that the amendment that recently passed in the General Assembly allowed the class to be offered for a full credit – increased from a half credit – but that in some schools the class brings no credit.

Board member Jennifer Owen expressed concern about who had the authority to approve the curriculum. “It says (in the General Assembly amendment) ‘the board shall approve the curriculum,’” Owen said. “In the (Knox Co. Board of Ed.) policy it says it will be the Curriculum Supervisor’s approval. But I don’t think that aligns with what the law says.”

Board member Susan Horn replied that the board would have to be involved. “The way we approve new courses is through a course code,” Horn said. “It would have to go through that process. There would be multiple steps before any course would be offered in a school.”

Keith Wilson is Assistant Superintendent of Academics for Knox County Schools. He told the board that if the class was offered for credit, the board would have to give its approval and make sure the class met standards for curriculum content, instructor licensure, methods of assessment, and other things.

“When it talks about the board’s responsibility that ‘the board shall’ review for this course, it’s really outlining that around the ascribing the credit,” said Wilson. “When we get to offering the credit there is that call for that (board approval).”

There was considerable back-and-forth between various board members about both the language of the document, and trying to reconcile the potentially conflicting roles of the state’s authority versus local.

The board voted unanimously to approve the course, subject to possibly tweaking the language in the local document that authorizes it.

Earlier, board member Susan Horn recognized Grace Deckard, the board’s student representative. Decker recently graduated as valedictorian from Hardin Valley Academy.

“Since this is her last meeting, the board and Superintendent (Jon) Rysewyk wanted to take this opportunity to recognize Grace Deckard,” said Horn. “Grace has been very dedicated to attending not only board meetings, but also Student Advisory Council and student government meetings.”

Some of Deckard’s numerous accomplishments Horn read included president of the HVA Student Council, state vice president of the Technology Student Association, executive board member of the National Honor Society, president of Mu Alpha Theta, STEMbassador, and Keeper Ambassador.

The next regular meeting of the board is July 13.