It's 6 a.m., and for a group of Mormon students, class is already in session.
Twenty students, most high-school sophomores, sit in a wide horseshoe and giggle as their teacher, Bryan Searing, pulls a dirty, pitiful looking stuffed lamb from a plastic bag. It's a memento from Searing's childhood: Today, it's also a launching pad for a spiritual lesson.
"I loved it to death," he says, and with that, he sends the high schoolers flying through Scripture, searching for Jesus, the sacrificial lamb of God. He directs his students to a prophecy in the Old Testament's book of Isaiah, then to a passage in the New Testament's Matthew, and then a third in the Mormon book of 3 Nephi.
The students read passages aloud and discuss the meanings of the verses with one line answers. No eye rolls. Few yawns. For these students, who belong to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, these early morning seminary classes are a way of life.
"It's an awesome way to start the day," sophomore Chris Claflin said.
These students are among the 360,000 Mormons worldwide participating in the church's high-school seminary program. The four-year program drills deeply into the Bible, the Book of Mormon and the church's doctrines and covenants.
The formal spiritual education of most Christian children begins and ends with Sunday school, but Mormon kids are expected to study their faith just as they would study English or algebra. The result, say experts, is an educated, motivated core of young believers who have helped make Mormonism one of the world's fastest-growing faiths.
A recent study by the University of North Carolina indicates that Mormon teens are more likely to avoid risky behaviors, do better in school and have a more chipper outlook on life than teens from any other Christian or Jewish tradition. Some believe that these early morning seminary classes are a big reason why.
"It would be nice if all religions took advantage of this kind of thing," said Rusty Woodruff, the church's education system director for Colorado and parts of Kansas and Oklahoma.
It's serious stuff, but spiritual lessons are often taught through crafts, games and student discussions. Peer-to-peer teaching is encouraged.
"We really try to get them involved with the Scriptures, instead of me being a talking head," Searing said.
The seminaries have been a part of the Latter-day Saints since 1912. Classes are designed to set the framework for lifelong faith, guarding against the doubts and skepticism that may surface in adulthood. They also lay groundwork for the faith's traditional two-year mission trips, in which believers are expected to share their faith with others. Many men go on missions as young as age 19, women at 21.
LDS seminary programs vary by region. In states such as Utah that have big Mormon populations, schools set aside time for religious education during the school day.
On the East Coast, where few Mormons live, LDS students work through church-sanctioned workbooks, often meeting with teachers once a week.
In states such as Colorado, early-morning seminaries are the norm. In Colorado Springs, where Woodruff says as many as 13,000 people are connected with the Mormon church, 40 seminary classes coach about 600 teens on the faith.
Students meet for 50 minutes most school mornings, then walk to school. Mormons often build their churches near high schools for that reason: Searing's class meets in a church across the street from Liberty High School, where 143 LDS students attend.
"Location, location, location is the church's philosophy," Woodruff said.
The teachers are volunteers. Searing, who works at sign maker Skyline Products, has been a teacher for four years.
Woodruff says nearly 80 percent of local LDS students participate in these early morning seminaries. He says attendance, while not mandatory, is strongly encouraged in most LDS households. For many Mormon families, these seminaries are as "voluntary" as breathing.
Many of these students are involved in sports or other extracurricular activities: Some are at school, essentially, from 5:55 a.m. until 6 p.m. or later.
Most say getting up for seminary can be a bear.
"But those are the mornings I need it (seminary) the most," senior Cathi Lutz said. The seminary classes help her focus on the day ahead and concentrate on being a better, nicer person.
In fact, they're something of a mood-altering experience: When she doesn't go to seminary, Lutz says, she just feels grumpier. It's a sentiment most of the class echoes.
"School's great and everything," Claflin said, "but here, we're learning to be better people."