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Can Bible study during public school hours produce better students? A secular group that recently completed an independent study thinks so.

An evaluation by the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, released Monday, indicates public school students can improve academic performance and build character through off-campus religious instruction for one hour during the school day.

School Ministries Inc., producers of a program called Released Time Bible Education, asked the group to examine a program operating in the Oakland, Calif., public school system.

NCCD studied about 75 fourth- and fifth-graders who skipped one class period a week to attend a Bible class taught by volunteers. The students are required to get permission from their parents.

A comparative review of all fourth- and fifth-graders in the schools where the program operates showed the Released Time students perform better than their classmates as a whole in almost every category, the report said.

NCCD said the Released Time students improved after one year – between the academic year 2001-2002 and 2002-2003 – in three categories of literacy skills: comprehension, spelling and vocabulary.

The program also provides youth with strong adult mentorship and bonding, according to the study, and reinforces positive moral and character development in an environment where teachers and administrators struggle with unruly students.

The Oakland Tribune reported last year, citing state statistics, the city’s public schools continued to rank among the most dangerous in the state, with increases in violence, drugs and weapons on campuses.

Released Time Religious Education was started in 1914 by a public school superintendent in Gary, Ind. It was approved by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1952.

“Released time is no panacea, but it is certainly helping these kids,” Barry Krisberg, an author of the study, told the Sacramento Bee.

A regular critic of religion in schools downplays the program’s spiritual impact, however, and believes it poses constitutional pitfalls.

“I expect we would have seen the same results with a secular reading program,” said Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, according to the Sacramento paper.

The study, however, notes a correlation between poor academic performance and a history of delinquent behavior.

Lynn said while some groups have demanded public schools help promote released-time programs, the 1952 Supreme Court decision upheld the program on the condition the schools not be involved in organizing or promoting them.

School Ministries says about 250,000 students in at least 32 states participate in the program, which is taught mostly by Protestant instructors.

The Sacramento paper noted, however, Jewish and Roman Catholic students participate in the program on the East Coast, and Mormons attend the classes in Utah.

Instruction usually is held in a teacher’s home near the school, and some programs are in nearby churches, the Bee said.

The study said 46 percent of the students are African American and 31 percent are Latino. Among teachers in the program, 85 percent are African American, and almost all grew up or live in Oakland. Instructors are almost exclusively female, and about 75 percent are age 55 and over.

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