Bethany Sanidad, a mom from Ohio, credits LifeWise Academy with changing her son Christian’s life—and by extension her whole family’s outlook on faith.
“I imagine Christian and his family sitting in church one day and thinking it all started with LifeWise,” Sanidad told The Daily Signal. “If we didn’t have LifeWise offered, we wouldn’t be regularly going to church and making God the center of our house. It’s kind of crazy to think about that this one program has completely changed our family.”
LifeWise Academy is a Bible-based program that offers public school students religious instruction during the school day. It is growing not just in Ohio but also communities across the country. Under the direction of founder and CEO Joel Penton, a college football national champion and motivational speaker, nearly 14,000 students are benefiting from the program.
But how is it possible for students in public school systems to receive religious instruction during school hours? Penton is often asked the question, and just wrote a new book, “During School Hours,” to explain how and why LifeWise Academy is using released time religious instruction laws to improve the live of families like the Sanidads and thousands of others.
Penton joins “The Daily Signal Podcast” to share more about LifeWise Academy. He also encouraged The Daily Signal to speak directly to a parent whose family has benefited from the program.
“We’ve always been people who prayed before school or before bed, but now God is really at the center,” Sanidad says. “Your kid is learning these great character qualities and learning about God, building that foundation and then, in our case, leading his whole family to church. Now, we love going.”
Sanidad and her son Christian feature in one of the video testimonials on LifeWise’s website.
Penton takes inspiration from people like them as he seeks to grow the program’s reach. Listen to our interview or read the transcript below to learn more.
Rob Bluey: You introduced LifeWise Academy to me—an idea that I had, frankly, no concept of. Having been through public school education myself and now having kids who are in school, I didn’t even know this option existed. What is LifeWise Academy?
Penton: You are not alone in not knowing about what LifeWise is or even the strategy we use. Very few people are aware of this opportunity. In fact, we believe it’s the single greatest missed opportunity to reach the next generation with the word of God. And so I’ll tell you what it is.
LifeWise is what’s known as a released time religious instruction program. Little do most people realize that in 1952, the Supreme Court ruled that public school students can be released from school during school hours, that’s the key phrase, during the school day, they can be released to receive religious classes as long as the program is off school property, privately funded, and with parental permission.
So this has been around for 70 years, but it has just been under the radar and we discovered that this was possible just a few years ago, really, in 2018. And we said, “Boy, what if we put a program together that could be plug-and-play so that any community anywhere could launch a program to reach their local students?” And it was off to the races.
Bluey: I want to come back to talk about LifeWise, but I think it’s always important for our listeners to know who you are. And you have quite an impressive resume yourself, having played five years of football for the Ohio State Buckeyes, being a national champion, and also receiving a prestigious award, which is known as the Humanitarian Heisman. So how did that journey in your life lead you down this path to where you are today?
Penton: Oh, sure. Well, it’s certainly by God’s grace. I’m from a small town in Northwest Ohio, and I came to faith when I was in high school, upon hearing about who Jesus is, about how he died for sin and rose from the dead. And upon hearing the Gospel, my life was changed and it became very important to me to share the good news of Jesus with anyone who would listen.
And so before I even left high school, I found myself speaking in front of groups and even filling in for my pastor and other pastors in town from time to time, and part of that was because of the platform I had as a football player. I did play for the Ohio State Buckeyes, and that opened up the door for me to go out and speak to groups.
And I spent the first 12 years of my professional career after college doing full-time speaking, and primarily in public high schools and middle schools all around the nation. I founded a speaker’s bureau and now we have a team of speakers that we’ve been in over 3,000 schools, in front of more than 2 million students, and that’s one of the reasons it was so natural.
Me having all this experience working with public schools, it was very natural when we learned about the opportunity of release time to say, “Wow, this strategy is incredible. This could change our nation. We need to jump in and give this thing a shot.”
Joel Penton won a national championship with the Ohio State University before founding LifeWise Academy. (Photo: Joel Penton)
Bluey: It’s truly life-changing. I’ve spoken to a family that has participated in LifeWise and it has, I know in their case, been a transformational experience, not only for them as parents but for the student as well.
So let’s talk logistics and just the practical nature of how it works. You’ve explained the reasons behind it and the Supreme Court’s decision. When it comes to actually implementing this, how have you built these communities, worked with local schools to make sure that students have an opportunity to participate?
Penton: There are many practical questions that arise, and that is, in fact, when we first got into this, we were trying to solve the problem or answer the question, “Why hasn’t this thing spread in 70 years?” It’s had 70 years to take root, but it hasn’t spread.
In the state of Ohio, there’s over 600 school districts, and when I started researching in 2018, I found that only a couple dozen of them had release time programs, and we found that it was because of all these practical issues.
There’s so many barriers to entry for a community to get started. You got to basically start a private school by finding a facility and the transportation and the curriculum and the payroll and the—the list is endless.
And so what we do is provide all of that infrastructure, all of the systems and the processes and resources and training to local communities. And so they follow, to get one them off the ground, they follow a proven 10-step launch process that starts with building grassroots community support and interest.
On our website, every school district is listed. And anybody who’s listening right now could go and you could find your school at LifeWise.org. You could find your school district and you could start, what we call, a community interest list, which is basically a signature campaign. After 50 names, then we move on to the next step.
But it’s through that process that we find local community leaders, we form a steering committee, and they work with our team to go to the school to start asking and answering those logistical questions of, how are we going to fit this into the school day? How are we going to coordinate transportation? What grades are we going to serve? And we just work through the list to launch a local program.
Bluey: If we have parents listening right now and they go to your website and they find that perhaps their school district is there, how do they get involved? What’s the actual steps that they would need to take in order to enroll their child in LifeWise?
Penton: If there’s already an existing program, there should be a way that you could enroll right now. You could sign your student up. You could sign the permission slip.
Now, we are currently serving 132 schools across four states, and so nearly most school districts don’t have a current program, but you can start one of these in any school district across the nation, and it does start with that signature campaign. And so you can add your name to the list, you can send the link of your school district’s page on our website out, and you can collect 50 signatures, which begins that 10-step launch process.
Bluey: When a student participates, what is the curriculum? What are they learning through the program and how does it compliment perhaps their other educational and academic interests?
Penton: We teach students the Bible, and so our programs tend to start at the elementary level. Students get one class each week. In the same way that a student would get art class once a week, they have a chance to have a Bible class once a week.
And we teach students through the entire Bible, Genesis to Revelation, over five years. They start in Genesis in first grade, study all the way through to Revelation, and finish up in fifth grade.
Every class talks about the head, heart, and hands. Meaning head, what’s the Bible story say? Heart, how does it tie to the bigger picture of the Gospel that changes our hearts? And hands, how does that then transform our character and what we do?
And so they study through the entire Bible, and it really does, as you said, compliment what they’re receiving in their other classes because they grow. Students grow in their character development.
Studies show that kids who receive religious instruction improve in mental health. In fact, studies show that their overall academics improve when kids have religious instruction. And so we’re able to go to schools and say, “Hey, do you want kids who perform better on tests? Do you want kids who behave better and have better mental health? Well, then you want them to have an opportunity to have a Bible class as part of their education.”
Bluey: I think it’s so critical. We would probably solve so many of our country’s problems if students had the exposure to the type of curriculum that you’re talking about. And so, really, thank you for what you’ve done. Who do you rely on to teach these programs? Who are some of the instructors who step forward?
Penton: It’s local communities who take the tools that we provide and they’ll post jobs, and so we give them the templated job descriptions and job postings, and then they put it out there. And so we have, oftentimes it’s retired teachers. It’s people who have experience teaching in churches. But it’s local people from the local community who simply step up and teach.
And our office here, based out of Columbus, Ohio, we just provide the tools. Local communities band together to provide this for their local students.
Bluey: Why do you think that more schools haven’t, in the course of the 70 years that you mentioned, been more willing to embrace? And maybe not schools, but communities. What is holding them back? Is it simply a lack of awareness that exists about this opportunity to do release time? Or are there cultural factors that perhaps tend more toward the secular society that those of us who are Christians need to address and confront?
Penton: It’s probably a complex answer. I do think awareness is a huge piece right now. Now, as people hear about LifeWise and release time, they tend to get very excited, and that’s why we seem to be growing so quickly. And people simply don’t know.
That is, in fact, what we believe is our greatest obstacle, is that people don’t know you can do this. In fact, oftentimes when they hear about it, they say, “You must be lying,” or, “You must have made this up that. Well, what about separation of church and state? How could this be?” And after we’re able to answer some of their questions, they basically often say, “Well, just tell me what I need to do.”
But I do think what I said earlier, that there are so many barriers to entry when you first learn that you can do this, that you can take kids out of school during school hours, you can teach them the Bible. When you start to think through all those practical implications of facility and transportation and how do you raise donations, it can become overwhelming, which that’s the problem we are trying to solve.
We’re trying to provide all those tools in one place that are entirely plug-and-play so that finally communities can take advantage of this opportunity and hit the ground running.
Bluey: Let’s go back to 2018 when you were just getting started. You had an incredible participation rate among the public elementary school students in the community of Ohio. What led to that? And can you share any examples from that specific experience that others who want to start a program like this might be able to replicate?
Penton: I’m glad you asked because when we talk about the concept, people are usually not along. They think, “OK, this sounds good,” but then when they hear some of these numbers, they tend to be blown away.
LifeWise was inspired by an existing program in my hometown. That’s how I got connected. People in my hometown started a release time program and they saw such an incredible impact.
They saw that Year One, even though only about 30% of kids attend church in my hometown, Year One, 60% of the public elementary school signed up and enrolled. And by Year Three, 95% of the public elementary school was enrolled and this Bible education started to have an incredible impact on families.
And so it was my hometown that reached out to me to say, “Hey, Joel, could you help us figure out why there aren’t more communities that have a program like this?”
So it was through that process in identifying the barriers to entry that we decided to launch this new program, LifeWise Academy. And we’ve seen other somewhat similar results in many communities.
We have a community in Northwest Ohio, a different community, that they have a thousand students in their elementary school, and the very first year, they had over 850 students enroll in the program. And so they bus students to the local YMCA less than a mile down the road. They have a full-size LifeWise school bus and they take two classrooms at a time, five times a day, five days a week. And they cycle through now this year over 900 students, and they teach them the Bible every week.
Bluey: And remarkably, you’re doing this without charging a fee for families that are participating or anything to obviously the schools where this is taking place. How are you able to do that and offer such a generous program that is really shaping the character of these kids in a way that will have a lifelong impact?
Penton: You’re right, students don’t pay a penny. The public schools don’t pay a penny. In fact, they cannot by law. And so it is local Christians, it’s local donors who say, “Hey, we can teach our local public school students the Bible? Yes, I’m going to donate to see that happen.”
And we see people stepping up in major ways. You see people who are saying, “Oh, boy, some people had lost hope and I thought we could never be able to do something like this, teach the Bible to public school students.” And when they find out you can, they say, “Hey, I’ll write a check. Just tell me how much to make the check out for.”
So yeah, it’s local people being generous. And yeah, I’ll say that if you’re listening to this and you’re feeling generous, you can donate on our website, because to take this to the nation, which is our intention, why not every school district in the nation, it’s going to take a lot. It’s going to take of people, it’s going to take a lot of resources, but we believe it is certainly worth it.
Bluey: You have been doing this for five years, as we’ve talked about. You obviously have big ambitions for where you want to take this in the future. Tell us about those long-term plans and where you see LifeWise going in the years to come.
Penton: Our first programs launched in 2019. We had the idea on paper in 2018, 2019. We just launched a couple pilot programs. We then launched a few more amidst the pandemic in 2020. And we said in 2020, “Let’s try to serve 25 schools by 2025.” That was our goal. But then in 2021, we found ourselves serving 36 schools. And so we said, “Oh, boy, this thing’s growing faster than we ever imagined.” And so we said, “Let’s try to serve now a thousand schools by 2026.”
We’re already well outpacing all of the targets to get there. We have nearly 14,000 students enrolled, and our intention is to go coast-to-coast. We see no reason why public school students from Maine to California shouldn’t have the opportunity to learn the Bible as part of their public school day. And so we’re scrambling like crazy to put the systems and processes and resources in place so that every community can offer this for their students.
Bluey: Are there any particular states where you think there might be fertile ground in the immediate future? If, again, we have listeners who are eager to get involved, what is on the horizon in terms of the states that you’ll be looking to expand?
Penton: We have approval in programs scheduled to launch next year in several additional states. So we’re currently in Ohio, Indiana, Iowa, and Pennsylvania. We have approval in West Virginia, in Georgia, in Illinois, and some other states that I can’t even think of off the top of my head.
The Supreme Court case in 1952 clarified that this is constitutional and therefore legal in all 50 states, and yet there are 26 states that in fact have state laws on the books about release time. And Ohio’s one of those states.
There are some states that have may language and that “students may receive this,” and there are some states that have shall language and that “students, if they request it, they shall have this opportunity.” And so we’ll be pursuing those states, for sure. However, it’s legal in all 50, and so we don’t see any reason why we shouldn’t have programs pop up in all 50 states.
Bluey: Is there a particular family or a story in your time working at LifeWise that it really touched your heart and you saw somebody perhaps be transformed in a very positive way from the experience of participating in a LifeWise program?
Penton: Oh, boy. How much time do we have? I can go all day. We get stories now just about every single day of lives being transformed. And that’s what this is all about. I just gave you a bunch of numbers, but the only point of those numbers is that they represent students.
And so just some of my recent favorites, I just heard about a girl that came to class for the first time just a couple weeks ago in a large suburban school district here outside of Columbus, Ohio. She was handed a Bible and they showed her how to turn to John 3:16, and her comment was, “The pages are so thin,” talking about the Bible, because she’d never held a Bible in her hands. And so learning about that.
I just heard, in fact, a week ago today, we were visiting a class and there was a boy who was part of a Muslim family and he really wanted to go to LifeWise. His friends were going to LifeWise, and so he literally forged his parent’s signature on the permission slip to be able to go to LifeWise because he didn’t think his parents, being Muslim, would allow him.
Well, the school caught this and noticed this, and they said, “Hey, we can’t take this forged permission slip.” So he did go to his parents and he did ask them, and they agreed. And so they signed him up.
He was in the first class when we visited and he was nonstop asking questions about, “Wait, so you’re saying you can be forgiven for everything you’ve done wrong? What if you’re forgiven by Jesus and then you do something wrong in the future? How does that all work?” He was just asking questions.
One more. There’s a boy in inner-city Columbus, and a rough part of town that, at the end of the school year, the teacher asked, “What is your favorite thing about LifeWise?” And he said, “I love LifeWise because my parents don’t fight anymore.”
And the teacher said, “I don’t understand. How does that connect?” He said, “Well, after going to LifeWise, I asked my parents why we don’t go to church, and so they started taking us to church and our family’s changed. My parents don’t fight anymore, and I know it started with LifeWise.”
So we just hear these stories every day. And on one level, they don’t surprise us because we know the word of God changes lives, and it’s a blessing to be able to take it to kids who don’t have it.
Bluey: I was able to speak with Bethany Sanidad, whose son, Christian, is part of the program. And she talked about how it has changed their family in so many positive ways. And so I appreciate you taking the time to share some of those experiences with our listeners. And for those who are interested, I hope that they do visit LifeWise.org and learn more.
Joel, one final question for you. What keeps you ticking? Obviously, this is hard work, building something new. The entrepreneur that you are, I am sure that there are days that are challenging, but what is it that motivates you? And what parting words of advice do you have for our audience?
Penton: I guess maybe the answer to both those is one and the same. And that’s, if the mission is important enough, then you’ll keep going.
And I did play football at Ohio State, and that did teach me a lot about work ethic, and it was important to me to wake up early and work hard to perform on the football field and represent the state of Ohio.
That was important, but not nearly as important as the mission that we have now to represent the king of the universe and to take his word to those who desperately need it. And so keeping, even in the day-to-day that can seem so far from the front lines at times, if I’m working on policies or if I’m working on HR or whatever it is, keeping in mind the big-picture mission that we are a part of.
If you can’t get excited to share the word of God with kids who don’t have it, then LifeWise probably isn’t the project for you. And I’ve got five kids of my own, ages 14, 12, 10, 8, and 5, and I have the joy of sharing the Gospel with them every day and I know there’s a lot of kids that don’t have that in their lives, and so that keeps me going.
And that would be my advice, is to find the mission that will get you up early in the morning and keep you going, because you only got one life, so make it count. And if you’re looking for a mission, I got one for you. It’s called LifeWise Academy.
Bluey: Joel Penton, founder and CEO of LifeWise Academy, thank you so much for spending the time with The Daily Signal today.
Penton: Rob, thanks for the opportunity. It was a real pleasure.
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