‘I don’t trust them’: Free church-based tutoring service recommended on Pennridge school website raises concern

Pennridge School District (6abc)

Pennridge School District (6abc)

Parents and students in Pennridge School District, Bucks County, are concerned over the relationship between the district and the First Baptist Church of Perkasie resource center’s tutoring program.

Laura Foster, a district parent, reached out to the program, Re:vivals Resource Center, to inquire about assistance for her daughter, Camille, with her AP Biology exam.

In an email response to Foster, Donna Tindall of Re:vivals, wrote that a tutor could help Camille understand evolution through a “biblical worldview… meaning that we believe that God created the world in six literal days.”

“Although we accept this through faith, there is evidence pointing in that direction,” said Tindall. “I think our tutor would welcome the opportunity to help [Camille] understand what is being presented and perhaps to examine the presuppositions as well as the supporting facts for both conclusions.”

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The program is listed on the district’s website in the “Community Flyers” page. Pennridge Superintendent David Bolton said the district will also “provide information to families who request it.”

Re:vivals Resource Center did not respond to WHYY’s multiple requests for comment.

Bolton said the district has multiple options for students in need of tutors, “the majority of these are provided directly by the students’ teachers, through additional school-based professionals, or through additional school-based services available after school hours.”

But the Re:vivals tutoring program is the only free tutoring program and the only program that supports Spanish-speaking students that is recommended by the district.

Foster was partly initially interested in Re:vivals because it would save her money. Camille also needed support with her AP course after transitioning from in-person learning to virtual this year. Because of her switch, she missed the evolution section of her AP biology course.

After learning about how Re:vivals handles the teaching of evolution, Foster swiftly decided not to engage with the program.

“This is not an appropriate source for my child,” said Foster. “It should not be listed as a tutoring service for any children for the district. Regardless if your kid’s going to college or not, we want to make sure that we’re providing them with the best foundation to succeed in life.”

Foster said she was concerned that the program would attempt to explore Christian fundamentalism with her daughter.

“I don’t trust them,” said Foster. “What else are they going to try to indoctrinate into these kids?”

According to a report from 6ABC, some Re:vivals volunteers are known as “Seed planters” and “make themselves open to conversations with each guest. They listen to their needs and inscribe them on a wall in the prayer room for spiritual support.”

Alex Luchenitser, associate vice president and associate legal director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said it is not uncommon for religious programs to present programming to school children that initially appears to be non-religious, but then to use that programming to draw the children into the religious groups’ religious activities.

“If a program is presented as a tutoring program, but what it really turns into is a prayer program or spiritual counseling program or something that focuses on trying to get the children into the religious groups then that presents serious concerns,” said Luchenitser.

Luchenitser said that concern heightens when parents perceive that the district has approved of the tutoring program.

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In an email to Foster, Superintendent Bolton said he had “spoken directly with Re:Vivals about the tutoring program before it began and [had] personally visited multiple times and [had] received feedback from multiple families who have used the service.”

That review process raises some red flags for Luchenitser, “just because the superintendent may be saying to to the press that the school is not endorsing this particular religious program, if the superintendent or other school officials are taking actions that communicate to parents or students that the school district does endorse or promote or approve the content of this particular religious program, then there would still be a violation of the U.S. Constitution and the separation of church and state.”

Foster said she hopes the district will ask the program more questions about how they teach or do not teach about other tenants of Christian fundamentalism. She said she is worried about how the center may view LGBTQ identities.

“Especially given the climate in our school towards LGBTQ+ kids, you have to be asking those questions now,” said Foster.

The concerns over Re:vivals come after a wave of new district policies that impact LGBTQ students and students of color.

In December, Pennridge released a new policy to school officials involving the removal of books about “gender identity” from elementary school libraries. The district administration also sent new guidelines to elementary school faculty to not  “discuss or use terms related to LGBTQ.” Students must also gain parent permission if they want to change their gender pronouns or names. Over the summer, the Pennridge school board voted to pause the district’s diversity equity and inclusion initiatives.

Peter Zwirble is a senior at Pennridge High School and the co-leader of the Gay Straight Alliance. As a transgender and gay student, Zwirble also has worries about the relationship between the school and Re:vivals.

“It doesn’t take a lot of thinking to extrapolate to ‘what else would they try and push?’ Historically the Catholic Church and Christian denominations don’t bode well with a lot of queer identities,” said Zwirble. “They try and use the Bible and reword it to say prejudicial beliefs that are very harmful towards queer people.”

Zwirble said they hope the district can share more LGBTQ resources on their website and share resources about LGBTQ identities starting at the elementary school level.

“Just kind of like normalizing queer experiences and to teach kids what some of these words mean,” Zwirble said.

Sara Rose, Deputy Legal Director of ACLU Pennsylvania, said schools cannot discriminate on the basis of religion, so if there’s a forum like the “Community Flyers” on the district website, religious groups have the right to share their information. But other groups must have the right to share their information as well.

“The bottom line is they have to treat all the groups equally,” said Rose. “They have to have the same rules that apply equally to all the groups. But they can’t have a rule that says no religious groups.”

While the district has a range of resources on the “Community Flyers” page, including “Bucks Embrace,” a community group focused on discussing racial equity, one Pennridge middle school teacher, who wished to remain anonymous in fear of retribution from the district, said she has observed the district limiting the sharing of information around diversity in her school hallways.

 

In September 2021, she said she witnessed district administrators remove a poster with a quote about the beauty of diversity on her school’s wall.

“It said something to the point of ‘the beauty of our world lies within the diversity of its people,’” said the teacher.

According to the teacher, Assistant Superintendent Dr. Kathy Scheid instructed the school’s principal to remove the poster.

Foster, whose daughter is a member of the Gay Straight Alliance, added that the district needs more support systems for LGBTQ students. She said this is about wanting all the district’s children to “feel loved by their school.”

“There’s always this piece of me that’s hoping that it’ll get better, hoping that they will take my concerns as seriously as the concerns of wanting to ban books,” said Foster.

“I’m waiting for there to be a response to the whole community, not just one subset of the community.”

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