Good news for Christian students

By Kim Howard
Observer correspondent

One child asked club members to pray for her grandfather to stop smoking. Another requested the safe return of U.S. troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. Another child wanted help obeying “mom and dad.”

Prayer requests fill just a fraction of each weekly meeting of the Good News Club, a bible-based group for first through fifth graders held at Williston Central School. For 90 minutes after school on Thursdays, children play games, eat snacks, sing songs, learn about the bible and pray.

As the country has more stringently defined a separation of church and state, club advisor Beverly Ronco said educators everywhere are afraid to address religion.

“As a result, students don’t talk about it,” she said. “As they walk through the school building, it’s like, ‘don’t mention God.’ It’s like they have to put that part of themselves away.”

A Williston resident who works in the local public schools as a substitute teacher, Ronco felt she could offer support to children of Christian faith by having them meet with others like them. The club’s objective, Ronco wrote in an e-mail, is “to teach and promote love for God, parents, family and friends; love and respect for country and those in authority over them; and to encourage them to do their best in all they do and pursue.”

Before moving to Vermont seven years ago, Ronco held Good News Clubs in her home in Pennsylvania for more than a dozen years. Curriculum materials are provided by Child Evangelism Fellowship, an international, bible-based evangelism organization headquartered in Warrenton, Mo. The organization’s Web site notes that over 3,400 school-related Good News Clubs are held weekly across the country, reaching roughly 119,000 students.

The Williston club drew an average of 15 weekly participants last year, the club’s first; this year roughly half that number attend each week. Parents must sign permission slips for their children to attend.

At the club’s meeting the last week of November, students had relay races rolling pumpkins and played a “human piñata” game in which candy was earned when a child could elicit a smile from a peer in the piñata chair. In between, the children learned about the plagues unleashed on Egypt in the book of Exodus.

In the second plague, Ronco told the children while using pictures on a felt board, “Frogs were everywhere.”

“Cool!” third grader Spencer Bissonette called out.

The only boy at the club that day, Spencer was the first to volunteer his thoughts about the Good News Club when a reporter asked.

“It’s kind of fun and we have parties sometimes,” Spencer said, later adding the kids learn a lot “about the stuff in the Bible.” Spencer had one other addendum: “I support (the club) because my mom wants me to support it because it’s a good thing that they allow them to have it in school.”

A legal right to use the school

Though Spencer probably doesn’t know it, “they” are justices of the U.S. Supreme Court.

A religious group meeting on school grounds might cause some to raise eyebrows, but the court ruled that such use of community facilities is not a violation of the constitution. In 2001, the Supreme Court held (6-3) that Milton School District in New York violated the free speech rights of the Good News Club when it prohibited after school meetings; since the district allowed other community groups access to its facilities, the Court argued, prohibition of the religious club amounted to “viewpoint discrimination.”

In Williston six years later, the Good News Club “can use the space if they put in (the paperwork) just like everybody else,” said District Principal Walter Nardelli.

Club members also may ride the after-school activity bus just as may students attending any other club or activity. The club can advertise on community bulletin boards within the school, but it cannot advertise in “The School Bell,” the school weekly newsletter.

“The Bell is not a public forum,” Nardelli said, noting it’s reserved for school and town-specific information. Requests to be included in the newsletter come “from all over,” Nardelli said. “We try to limit that otherwise we’d have enough to fill pages.”

In the recent club meeting, three students were lying down by the time Ronco was toward the end of the lesson on Exodus. The others were attentively engaged. All perked up considerably when they played two games reviewing the day’s material.

Fifth grader Samara Bissonette said she hopes more people will come to Good News Club. The best thing about the club, she said, is learning “about all the people in the Bible and what great things they did.”

Her younger brother Spencer had a one-word answer for the club’s best feature: “Candy!”