SALT LAKE CITY — When high school students leave campus to receive religious instruction or to earn a paycheck, the schools also reap benefits, educators say.
"It's always a benefit as long as we're able to get them the credits they need and move them toward graduation," said Benjamin Horsley, spokesman for the Granite School District. "We feel like it's a win-win."
The advantage lies in the fact that when students take a released time course, they leave school, freeing up seats and teachers' attention in classrooms — all without additional funding from taxpayers.
"That means more one-on-one time for kids," Horsley said. "It spreads out the work for teachers so they don't have as many students at one time."
School boards set classroom sizes and hire teachers based on total enrollment. In Granite School District, the class size for secondary schools is 28.25 students per full-time teacher. The true classroom size works out to be lower, however, because so many students in the district leave school during the day to attend seminary classes of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
"Released time in our secondary system is actually a huge class-size reduction program in our high schools," said Janet Cannon, who has been a member of the State Board of Education for 17 years. "It provides extra classrooms and desks and places to be that don't have to come from the state."
According to a 2011 Seminary and Institute report of the LDS Church, 84,401 Utah students were enrolled in LDS seminary last school year. That figure includes early-morning seminary, private-school students and home-schooled students. That's about 53 percent of all students in grades nine-12 in Utah. Educators say the vast majority of them are enrolled in public schools and take seminary during released time.
Horsley said the amount a school benefits depends on the number of students who participate in released time for whatever reason, be it work release or religious study.
"You have some schools who do have a higher percentage of their students involved in released time," he said. "That is a higher amount of kids coming out of those classrooms, which means that they would have lower (class sizes) overall."
Even high schools with comparatively small released time programs still see significant percentages of young people leaving campus, usually at the very least 20 percent, Horsley said.
"Regardless of the size of the program or the size of the school, there is an inherent benefit," he said.
State lawmakers and local school boards often reduce class sizes by providing funding for additional teachers, but doing so always comes with a hefty price tag. Released time, however, gives schools a similar benefit without the cost.
"I think anybody can come to the logic that a smaller class means more quality time with each individual student," he said.