Fostering a safe environment for students to learn to respect different cultures and religions must start at the top, with the administration, a group of educators said during a conference last week.

Last year, Brighton High School teacher Jodi Ide taught a comparative world religion class, with the blessing of her current administration. But it was only two years ago that a different principal told her he wouldn't touch the class "with a 10-foot pole."

Ide was one of the participants in a three-day seminar at Westminster College, hosted by the Utah 3R's Project, which seeks to incorporate teachings about different religions and cultural diversity in public schools.

Ide's class was offered as an elective, approved by the State Office of Education, and had 60 students enrolled. The class included a guide to religion in public schools, provided by the First Amendment Center in Washington, D.C., that made it clear to students and parents — who were also offered the guide — what was permissible to teach.

"In order for it to really grab hold, it needs to be a school climate," she said. "I can have my own climate, and my kids can talk about the climate in my room, but that doesn't mean that five doors down in another teacher's classroom that they feel safe."

Despite its barriers, the 3R's Project has had an impact on schools, panel members said. Rosemary Baron was principal at Northwest Middle School, where students and their families spoke 27 different languages. One move she made in her school was to create a Religions of the World wall, representing the 12 most common religions, with a description of each.

"Teaching about religion in public schools is what we are about," Baron said. "Teaching religion is not what we're about."

While religion is a frequent topic, rights, responsibility and respect apply to all facets of life.

"I think that part of the 3R's helps us understand that our differences don't have to divide us, completely," Ide said. "Part of being American is being able to move beyond that divide and seek the common ground."

Utah and California offer the most extensive 3R's programs in the nation. School districts in Texas, Pennsylvania, Oklahoma and other states also have implemented the 3R's Project in their schools.


E-mail: amacavinta@desnews.com