The new Steamboat Springs School Board will meet Monday night under its brightest public spotlight yet to decide not only about the high school's controversial mandatory Senior Odyssey program but also about a proposed high school elective course that would teach the Bible as a historical and cultural document.
The meeting will be held in the high school commons area, a venue chosen to accommodate an expected large number of people with a lot to say.
Although Odyssey program has been the subject of scrutiny and debate for several months by the public and a Graduation Requirements Committee created by school district administrators, the Bible elective will come before the board on much shorter notice.
Parents Michelle Diehl and Roger Johnson submitted a proposal for the class to a district curriculum committee in December. As recently as two weeks ago, some board members said they had not fully reviewed background information about the class, which is designed as a yearlong elective by the National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools, based in Greensboro, N.C.
Superintendent Donna Howell said although the district's curriculum and instruction committee -- of which she is a member -- reviewed the class proposal, the decision was entirely up to the School Board.
"This is a policy issue that the board needs to deal with," Howell said.
A foundation document
Supporters of the class "The Bible in History and Literature," say it is nonsectarian and not intended to indoctrinate students in the Christian faith.
"The central approach of the class is simply to study the Bible as a foundation document of society," reads the proposal submitted by Diehl and Johnson. "The Bible was the foundation and blueprint for our
Constitution, Declaration of Indep--endence, our educational system, and our entire history until the last 20 to 30 years."
The class consists of 18 units covering the Old and New Testaments, according to the proposal. Unit titles include "Moses in Egypt," "The Passover," "Literature Highlights," "The Four Gos--pels," "The Final Week of the Biblical Account of the Life of Jesus," "The Bible in History" and "Biblical Art."
Diehl and Johnson say in the proposal that 60 students signed a petition expressing interest in the class last spring, when the two initially brought the proposal before the School Board but did not meet curriculum deadlines for this school year.
"This course has many objectives not currently covered to any depth at the high school," the proposal reads, citing the course's focus on "the importance of religion on world and national history."
High school Principal Mike Knezevich said the school has a required class for juniors that integrates world history and literature. Students in the class study parts of the Bible as well as other religious documents, such as the Koran.
"We don't look at them as religious documents, we look at them as historical documents," Knezevich said. "A purely comparative look at different religions in history is not a violation of (the separation of) church and state."
A singular point of view
Tom Miller-Freutel, president of the School Board, said earlier this month that although he was looking forward to the proposal from Diehl and Johnson, a class that singled out one religion would concern him.
"I don't want to favor one religion over another," he said. "I don't think that's fair, even if (the class) is an elective."
In a report released earlier this year, a biblical scholar said a singular focus makes the class inappropriate for public schools.
"This curriculum on the whole is a sectarian document, and I cannot recommend it for usage in a public school setting," wrote Dr. Mark A. Chancey, who teaches biblical studies at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.
In his "The Bible and Public Schools: Report on the National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools," Chancey presents an extensive review of the class curriculum and concludes that though "it nowhere explicitly urges students to become Christians," the class does not do enough to acknowledge other faiths.
In teaching the New Test--ament, Chancey wrote, the class disregards Judaism, which does not include the New Testament in its Bible.
"The fact that the Jewish Bible is different is not even mentioned," Chancey wrote. "Much of the course appears designed to persuade students and teachers that America is a distinctively Christian nation -- an agenda publicly embraced by many of the members of the NCBCPS's Board of Advisors and endorsers."
As part of their background material about the class in preparation for Monday's meeting, School Board members received a document prepared by PLATO Publisher Solutions that analyzes how the class aligns itself with standards set by the Colorado Department of Education.
Knezevich said such an analysis is crucial to his opinion of the class.
"I think the issues are really around the curriculum and how the class would be aligned to state standards," Knezevich said. "That's the biggest question I have."
In reviewing the document, which itemizes the content of each unit in the class and compares how that content relates to state standards of high school history instruction, one phrase stands out.
"Interpreting oral traditions and legends as histories" is used nine times in the document to describe how the course teaches events such as the Lord's Prayer, the life of Abraham and "Noah's Flood."
To meet a state standard that requires that, "Students know that religious and philosophical ideas have been powerful forces throughout history," the proposed Bible in History and Literature class teaches Unit 4, titled "Moses in Egypt." The focus of the unit that meets the standard, according to the analysis, is "tracing the history of how principal world religions and belief systems developed and spread."
The document gives no determination as to whether the class units meet the standards -- it simply compares the standards to class content.
Deciding whether that content is appropriate for a public school is a question the School Board is scheduled to answer Monday night.
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