Friday, June 15, 2018

Religious Accomodation in Public Schools

Sometimes it's hard to understand how SPS functions as it does.  I know (because I know the people) that SPS has many talented, bright people.  But then there's issues like the current upset over the 2018-2019 school calendar which has kindergarten starting on Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year).
To recall, the district started a policy several years back of having kindergarteners start later than the rest of their school.  The first day of school for all students for fall 2018 except Ks is Wednesday, September 5th, while Ks will start on Monday, September 10th (which is Rosh Hashanah).

From the district's webpage on its calendar:
The school calendar is negotiated between Seattle Education Association and the district. The Seattle School Board adopted the 2018-19 school calendar at the Jan. 31, 2018, board meeting.
It's hard to believe that in those negotiations in 2015 that no one at the table pulled out a computer and looked up major religious holidays.  Or maybe they did and decided it didn't matter. 

There was an editorial recently in the Times about this issue. 
The parents of 5-year-olds should not be forced to make a choice between their children attending school the first day of kindergarten and observing a religious holiday.

But that’s exactly the choice a handful of Puget Sound school districts, including Seattle Public Schools, are mandating this year by scheduling the first day of kindergarten on the Jewish holy day of Rosh Hashana, the Jewish new year.
The Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction should be commended for joining religious leaders in advocating for paying more attention to religious equity in public schools.
Indeed, OSPI has a published list of holidays and important dates for many religions.  The editorial continues:
This is not only a Jewish issue or a Muslim or Hindu concern; it’s about equity. This is another way school districts can demonstrate that every child matters no matter their religious beliefs. The districts don’t need to cancel school because of religious observances, but they should avoid conflicts whenever possible.
What the Times doesn't want to say out-loud - possibly to avoid upset - is that much of American life is geared to Christian religions.

The district is complying with federal legal holidays giving Christmas and New Year's off to their employees.  Yes, somehow these holidays have morphed into a longer holiday so that isn't equitable to other religions.  But it is only Christmas; the district never gives anything off for Easter (i.e. Good Friday).

The Times did ask the district about this concern:
A district spokeswoman said a change at this late date would be nearly impossible. However, Seattle Education Association Executive Director John Donaghy said a calendar change wouldn’t be easy, but it’s not impossible. He came up with two possible ways to fix the kindergarten dilemma and called the district to start considering one of those paths. A school official called the editorial board and updated its response: a calendar change would be difficult but possible.
Oh dear (or maybe oy vey).  First you say you can't and now you say maybe.   I'm sure it would be difficult at this date but if the district wants to be one that does embrace all the diversity in our district, it would seem they could try.  As could SEA.

But I will also say that the district has made efforts in this arena and that cannot be dismissed.  SPS no longer serves pork in the cafeterias - none of them - in deference to Muslim students.  That was a pretty big move.  They could have just offered two different entrees, one pork and one something non-pork and just left it at that.  But they didn't.  So I'm going to give them some credit.

I also note that many schools have had parents' nights on major religious holidays and parents have also been unhappy about that.  But you are talking about 99 schools, all trying to find a date that works.

There was also some unhappiness this year over testing during Ramadan (which just happened to fall during the testing window).  For those who might not know, fasting is part of Ramadan until sunset.  Most younger students do not fast but many older students do and taking a test on an empty stomach is rough.

What this all points to is a need to figure out how to better balance communities' concerns with the district doing its job of educating all students. 

I have seen no statement from either the Board or the district on this topic.  I do hope they change that kindergarten start date.

I'm interested in your thoughts.


Jet City mom said...

We are not religious, but enjoy supporting our friends who are, and it would be good to see some consistency in schools.

In 3rd grade, our daughter had a teacher who used holidays as a way to learn about other customs and cultures.
The children especially enjoyed learning about the winter holidays, like Diwali.

But the next year, there was a child whose family were Jehovah Witness.
To the teacher this meant no mention or celebration of holidays or birthdays all year.
This seemed extreme, to essentially punish the rest of the class, because of one students religion.
It was very disappointing, as the family also had a problem with field trips.
Made for a depressing year.

It would be helpful I think to have clear guidelines, especially for less experienced teachers.

Conscientious Objector said...

My atheist child was required to say the pledge of allegiance (including the "one nation under God" portion) everyday at her SPS elementary school. She asked the teacher to be exempted and was denied. She stands but just doesn't say the God bit. I had the same problem when I was in elementary school in the 80s.

I appreciate that Christian teachers may not be aware of when the Jewish high holidays or when Ramadan falls. But what alarms me most is when a child points out the problem to their teacher and the teacher tells the child the problem is with them. Why could my daughter's teacher not let her sit out the pledge of allegiance? Why are children forced to sing Christmas songs and celebrate Saint Valentine's Day? If a student fasts for Ramadan and asks for an accommodation, why is a teacher reluctant to reschedule an exam? Students shouldn't need to have parents who are lawyers to get the special "privilege" of observing their own religions. Or in my child's case, in not observing other people's.

If a child says that the field trip is scheduled for Yom Kippur, that should be enough to get the teacher's attention. It is easy to verify when Yom Kippur is. Why is that not enough? Why does it have to result in the parent complaining to the school and the child eventually having to miss the field trip?

There is definitely room for improvement in this district.

Kindy Mom said...

The first day of school is scheduled for Sept. 5 and that is not a problem. The district and SEA did take Jewish holidays into account when scheduling that. The problem is the delayed start for kindergartners. Whoever decided on that did not check the calendar. The delayed start is silly anyway. Why not just have them start on the first day of school?

Melissa Westbrook said...

Your child does NOT have to say the pledge. Standing is a good idea in terms of showing respect to others beliefs. Tell her I say the pledge - loudly - but never include “under God” as that would be false for me. (Also not part of original pledge.)

I was quite surprised to learn there are schools still singing songs about Christmas. I recall in my sons’ elementary, there was a effort to do more winter-themed songs.

Anonymous said...

The pledge is not required at schools where it is recited, but the social environment does not clarify that, and peer pressure or false presumptions by children (who have no reason to assume otherwise) do grow up thinking it is required. If a child sits, moreoever, they often become the targets of certain kinds of bullying. The schools could be much clearer for younger students that it is not required, but that would raise the ire of some people in the community, so the pledge becomes de facto required even though it is not technically required.

Our NE school has a large Jewish population but chronically has problems with the school and parent group scheduling major school events on the High Holidays. While I get that the High Holidays can be confusing to non-Jews just because their dates vary every year, what I don't get is the inability of school admins and parent groups to anticipate the problem and double-check on the dates. I actually also don't get why Jewish families don't raise more of a stink about it when it happens, which would tend to improve the problem over time. (But actually I do get that, too: in the current political climate, people don't always like sticking their necks out for stuff like this.)

:High Holiday Hopes (HHH)

Anonymous said...

If we admitted our Winter holiday is a winter solstice holiday......as it always has been.....problem solved. All people need to appreciate the natural world.


Conscientious Objector said...

The pledge is not required, but when a 45 year old teacher TELLS a 5 year old child that it is required, who do you think is going to win that argument?

The first day of kindergarten is not required if you're Jewish and it falls on Rosh Hashanah. This would be an excused absence and the child would not have to attend. But that's not what the issue is here.

Anonymous said...


Non-Christian holidays are linked to the moon and other natural events, too.

After the Jeff Sessions/Sarah H. Sanders disgrace of quoting the Bible this week to
justify childhood trauma on the border, do you really think minimizing Christianity's link to our government's choices to honor (Christian) holidays is a good idea right now? Don't you realize we wouldn't have these particular days off if Christianity were not the un-"official" national religion? Don't you realize the politics in Europe right now over these same issues?

No matter the pagan holiday origin in setting Christian holiday dates, now is the apt time to fight back when school districts favor one religion (Christianity) repeatedly after others.

Also, if a school is equally celebrating cultures, there is nothing wrong with singing Christmas carols. Acting like being an athiest gives you the grounds for erasing two thousand years of European culture (largely grounded in Christianity during that time) is a recipe for justified reactionaries, as well as not being respectful of the great arts that were produced during that time.

Delete Me

Anonymous said...


Just hand a copy of this to your child's teacher, but don't forget that saying the pledge daily is part of state law--and that SPS teachers were reminded rather forcefuly of that fact several years ago when a PARENT raised hell because many SPS schools were very lax on the daily pledge legal requirement.

I know because I was there.


Anonymous said...

Public schools in the 19th century were largely Protestant, but not so friendly towards Irish immigrants who were Catholic. Both Christian, but they battled over bibles. Catholic parishes ultimately created their own network of privately funded schools.

I appreciate that Christian teachers may not be aware of when the Jewish high holidays or when Ramadan falls.

I would not lump all Christians together and would suggest many teachers are just as unaware of Catholic or Eastern Orthodox or [name your religion] holy days. It's not unusual for school festivities and spirit days to fall on Good Friday.

As for the 5 year old told to recite the pledge - I would have had a respectful conversation with the principal. Our school compromised and said it once a week. Those who wanted to stand and recite the pledge, did, and students were told it's okay to sit quietly as well.


Charlie Mas said...

The District should, of course, be considerate of religious holidays (of all faiths) when scheduling events and activities. While there are limits - school events need to fit on the calendar somewhere - there are a handful of days for each faith, such as the Jewish High Holidays, that the district can and should make a special effort to avoid.

Speaking only for myself, I would prefer to speak privately to those in authority and encourage them, in a friendly way, to reschedule around Jewish holidays. I am reluctant to speak up publicly to avoid the stereotype sometimes projected on Jews as complaining, obnoxious, and litigious.

What puzzles me about this is how easily it can all be avoided. The fact that the District does not bother to do the small amount of effort required to avoid these conflicts shows that the District really, really doesn't care about minority faiths - or faith - at all. I cannot help imagining the moment in the scheduling process when someone noticed that the first day of kindergarten this year will fall on Rosh Hashana and District official who shrugged their shoulders, thought it was a mildly interesting coincidence, and moved past it without so much as wrinkling a brow. The indifference is staggering.

Anonymous said...

There's an easy way the district could fix it this year. Have 1/2 the kindergartners come the first day, the other 1/2 come the next day. If any Ks are Jewish, they can come with the 2nd 1/2 on the 2nd day - the 11th. That way, each K still gets their first day of school, and K teacher only has 1/2 the class to orient to school. Hopefully they will look more closely at the calendar in the future.


Seattle Citizen said...

Charlie's back! Hi, Charlie!

Me, I'm in favor of losing the pledge entirely. It's not necessary in a school.
On religious holidays, how do we make a calendar that works around all religious holidays? Should we have Christmas off, and Rosh Hashanah, but not Ramadan? What about the Solstice?

Who decides whose religion is "important enough" to give it a day off?

Just call breaks what they are, breaks, and let parent/guardians decide what other religious days they need to pull their children from school. It creates problems for instruction, but better that than schedule around EVERY religious holiday, which would be the only equitable way to do it.

Person said...

I think it's OK not to have breaks for every single holiday, but the first day of kindergarten is an exception-- not only is it the first day of school, but is it the first EVER day of school for many of these kiddos.
Seattle Schools in general is very inconsiderate of people's needs. Some notable examples of this are mixing meat into supposedly vegetarian dishes at lunch, turning Christmas parties into Christmas parties with a different name (such as "winter celebration"-- and still making it a Christmas party), and focusing too heavily on Christianity in social studies and either not mentioning or barely covering any other religions (at my daughter's school, Christianity took two months to cover and there was no mention of any other religion).