Monday, November 29, 2004 12:00 PM CST Students learning about God after school By TINA HINZ, For the Courier WATERLOO --- With hands folded and heads bowed, 19 students sat in a semi-circle as Vivian Weimer led the opening prayer. During the next hour, the kids sang spiritual praises, heard the Gospel and learned about God's word. But this isn't Sunday school. It's an after-school club in a first-grade classroom in Lowell Elementary School. This is the first year that four Waterloo elementary schools --- Lowell, Edison, Irving and McKinstry --- are home to Good News Clubs, a ministry of the international Child Evangelism Fellowship. Clubs also have been started at elementary schools in Jesup and Manchester. Students ages 5 through 12 who present a signed parental or guardian permission slip may attend free of charge. Bible lessons, missionary stories, songs, Scripture memorization activities and review games are packed into each weekly session, which currently draws about two dozen students per week. The Rev. David Craig, director of the group's Black Hawk Chapter, said the clubs are growing just by word of mouth. For the six area clubs, 95 kids were enrolled in September and 143 in October. Early November figures tally at least 150. Under the program, area churches with traditional Christian beliefs adopt schools and provide volunteers as teachers and helpers, who attend special training sessions led by Craig and his wife, Jacque. Teachers who started in the fall completed 11 hours of training in August. "(During clubs) you have to get all this stuff in one hour," Craig said. "(We teach) how to keep things moving along, how to do it in the time frame and how to make it interesting. If a child wants to know more about Christ, we have training in how to counsel a child. We spend time just on facility usage and how to do it right. We cover everything." Workers submit to a criminal background check and are trained in child abuse protection and reporting policies. Craig notifies the school administration to seek space for each club. Some schools, he admitted, have been hesitant about bringing religious activities into schools. However, in 2001, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled such clubs can meet in public schools after school hours like other community groups. It's allowed under the free speech clause of the First Amendment. Schools also are lawfully required to distribute Good News Club invitations containing court-mandated information to all students. "Some schools are very, very cooperative, and some schools need a little nudge," Craig said. "They (school officials) are used to thinking churches and religion can't be here (in public schools) at all, and to suddenly say yes is kind of a shock to their system." "It didn't bother me at all," said Phillip Anderson, principal at Lowell. "If we have the space, and it's promoting a positive cause, character-building and good welfare for the kids, it's OK." Rita Kehoe, a first-grade teacher at Lowell and a member of Grace Brethren Church, volunteers for the Lowell club. She said the program has been well-received, and has a positive influence on the students. "When you teach public school, you can't use sin and obeying God in your lesson, and it's frustrating when you see kids being disruptive and can't use the Bible as guidance," she said. "Since it's after school, you can. I really truly believe these kids will become better in their classrooms, better well-behaved and better citizens." Dominique Western, 12, said he attends simply "because it's fun." He is a seventh-grade student at Bunger Middle School and accompanies his elementary-aged brother and sister. "I come every Tuesday, and I like to meet new friends," added Larissa Greer, 7, who is in first grade at Lowell. She said family members often help her memorize the club's Bible verse for the coming week. Six other Good News Clubs are hosted in homes and churches during the school year. CEF's 5-Day Clubs, similar in structure to Good News Clubs, take place during the summer. Like church vacation Bible school programs, 10 5-Day Clubs took place on lawns throughout Waterloo neighborhoods in June, July and August. Craig was hired in 2003 to develop the Good News Clubs and 5-Day Clubs in Black Hawk, Bremer, Buchanan, Butler, Fayette, Grundy and Tama counties. "I would like to have one (Good News Club) in every public school in my seven-county area," Craig said. "What we need to do that is (recruit) more churches (to staff the clubs)." Other Iowa elementary schools with Good News Clubs include those in Ames, Boone, Des Moines, the Ottumwa area and Sioux City. CEF has provided Good News Clubs for more than 67 years and currently has more than 1,300 school-related clubs reaching nearly 37,000 students in almost every state. Anyone wanting information can contact Craig at 234-6364. Tina Hinz can be reached at [email protected].