School & District Management

Schools Reconsider the Calendar as Students Grow More Diverse

By Stephen Sawchuk — March 24, 2020 8 min read
Detroit high school junior Mohammad Muntakim has been pushing his school district to add the Muslim holiday Eid al-Fitr to the school calendar. One year, the holiday coincided with his final exams.

As a high school freshman, Mohammad Muntakim was looking forward to celebrating Eid Al-Fitr, which marks the end of the month of Ramadan and the sunrise-to-sundown fasting that accompanies it. The holiday is typically celebrated with family get-togethers and feasting. Then an unexpected problem came up: The holiday fell during final-exams’ week, presenting him with an unenviable choice between academics and faith.

Ultimately, the teachers at his school, Cass Technical High, moved the tests to the following week to honor the 300 or so Muslim students in the high school, Detroit’s largest with 2,350 students. Ever since, Mohammad has helped lead a group of Muslim students in the district to advocate adding Eid al-Fitr to the district calendar if it falls on a weekday.

“I think it’s not about just one school or two schools getting the day off. I think it’s about respecting the culture that surrounds the community and in the city,” said Mohammad, now a junior at Cass Tech. “Detroit likes to say we’re a very diverse city, but I think we need to stand up and say we actually respect our diversity, rather than just calling ourselves diverse.”

Dozens of emails and phone calls have gotten him and his peers tantalizingly close to the goal, but as a result of logistical problems, it isn’t yet a done deal in the Motor City.

The 51,000-student Detroit district is not alone. Muslims are among the fastest-growing religious minorities in the United States, but it’s still comparatively rare for their religious holidays—or those of other religious minorities—to be accommodated in school schedules the way that Christian and Jewish holidays typically are. What’s more, as demographics in the United States change, districts will need to consider how increased diversity demands a re-evaluation of some of the most basic questions of school governance.

“It’s just a natural progression as communities become more diverse, integrated, and settled and established,” said Zainab Chaudry, the director of Maryland outreach for the Council for American-Islamic Relations.

Double Standard?

As pressures to craft inclusive school calendars rise, they are putting districts into a difficult constitutional bind. Since the U.S. Supreme Court determined in the 1940s that the establishment clause of the First Amendment also applies to state and local government, districts have generally had to cite a secular reason to close schools—for example, that large numbers of staff or student absences would hinder learning. (The establishment clause of the First Amendment prohibits government from favoring any religion.)

It’s a hurdle that can feel frustrating to advocates who rightly point out that Christian priorities are deeply embedded in most school calendars. They’re largely an artifact of the founding of public schools in an era when literacy was explicitly linked to the ability to understand Christian scripture, noted Charles Haynes, the founding director of the Religious Freedom Center of the Freedom Forum Institute.

“The schools were founded by Protestants, and they made sure the calendar was good to them. No public school has Sunday classes, Christmas is now a national holiday, so they have a double whammy there,” he said. “And other communities look at that and say, ‘Wow, that’s not fair!’ And then you have a public relations issue and public community issue.

“It bothers many people in these communities because it means their child has to be treated differently,” he said.

It also means, Chaudry noted, that many Muslim communities and other religious groups have been asked to justify school calendar changes on demographic information that’s hard to come by, because religious adherence is not collected as part of the U.S. census.

Education Week reached out to districts located in counties that, according to estimates, have either a high proportion of Muslims or a high number of adherents. Several, including the Los Angeles and Houston districts, said they permit excused absences for religious observance, although sometimes parents must supply a written note. Among the handful of districts that do officially include the Muslim holiday of Eid El-Fitr and/or Eid El-Adha, which marks the end of the Hajj pilgrimage later in the year, are the large Philadelphia and New York City districts.

School calendars are generally the purview of local districts, though a few states have aimed for broader measures. Lawmakers in New York last year identified six additional holidays and proposed allowing districts to add them if the ethnic or religious groups celebrating them made up at least 7.5 percent or more of the population. The bill has not advanced.

And on their own, a few districts have taken an expansive approach. Howard County, Md., now recognizes Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha, the Hindu holiday Diwali, and in response to its East Asian community, the Lunar New Year.

Eyeing the Puzzle Pieces

In Detroit, Mohammad pursued his advocacy with support from classmates, and with the particular encouragement of the district’s chief operating officer, Louis Solano. The high school student wrote an opinion article for the Detroit Free Press outlining his argument, organized a petition, and presented at a school board meeting.

Thanks to his activism, the city and the Detroit Federation of Teachers reached a verbal agreement last year to recognize the holiday by adding an extra day off following Memorial Day. (Eid-al-Fitr is based on the lunar calendar and is expected to fall on that weekend this year.)

But the pact fell through over other scheduling issues, highlighting how something as seemingly simple as changing a few calendar dates can end up posing all kinds of logistical challenges. Detroit’s calendar must be bargained with the DFT and other unions, and although all are supportive of the change in principle, so far they haven’t been able to land on a new calendar for the 2019-20 or 2020-21 school years.

“I will tell you there’s a pathway to get there, but there’s a lot of compromise from different groups to allow that to happen,” Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said in an interview. “And right now, there’s too many compromises that need to be made with too many groups to then get to an agreement.”

Just a few of the sticking points: whether such a day would be reserved for teacher training and how they’ll be compensated for it; whether to nix part of a winter break, which the schools have preserved despite also letting students out the week of Christmas, alongside a spring one; and whether to begin before Labor Day, which teachers generally eschew.

Adding days at the end of the school year could cause problems, too, because few Detroit schools have air conditioning to compensate for sultry weather. School closings from the coronavirus pandemic seem likely to complicate scheduling issues further.

“It is not a matter of not wanting to do it—it’s a matter of trying to figure out a plan ahead to make sure its impact is not disruptive to other matters we have to consider,” said DFT President Terrence Martin.

A Larger Conversation

Nationally, the issue of what advocates term “Eid equality” has become a fruitful topic of youth activism beyond Michigan. A 16-year-old New Jersey student earlier this year succeeded in persuading the Pompton Lakes district to close on Eid al-Fitr for future years, for example. And the Detroit students’ conversation about the issue has inspired similar movements in the nearby suburban districts in Troy, Warren, and Bloomfield Township.

And for those districts that have yet to debate the topic, but are seeing their communities grow more diverse? They should start by hosting a community town hall for Muslim families or other religious minorities to learn what they most need from the schools, said Chaudry of CAIR.

“In some cases, the community is not particularly concerned” about religious holidays, especially if it’s trying to get other basic needs met. “I think for refugees especially, theirs are food on the table and a roof over their head and not being subjected to violence, and they have different priorities than some who have been settled for generations,” she said.

Haynes of the Religious Freedom Center agrees that communities that have successfully navigated the calendar issue also have tended to have a wider-ranging conversation about how schools can listen to religious minorities’ particular needs or concerns. Otherwise, the calendar issue can assume outsized symbolic importance.

“This issue taken in isolation is a surefire way for conflict and anger in many communities, and a surefire way for people to feel like they’ve lost or been hurt,” Haynes said. “It’s just hard for there to be any real winners when it’s all put on this one thing.”

Short of calendar changes, there are a lot of other things districts can do to show that they’re listening. For example, they can give excused absences and leave those out of calculations for giving out awards for perfect attendance, so Muslim students and other religious minorities aren’t penalized.

What they shouldn’t do, he said, is take a zero-sum approach. Before Howard County in Maryland approved its new calendar, for instance, it had considered scotching all but state-mandated holidays—a proposal that riled up both its Muslim population and its Jewish residents, who would have lost Rosh Hoshana and Yom Kippur.

Advocates for Muslim youths say they’re still working to educate school systems but note encouraging signs of awareness. Anisa Sahoubah, the youth and education director for the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services, in Dearborn, Mich., says one general change she sees among local districts—and welcomes—is that more of them have started to change how they refer to breaks, calling them “winter” and “spring” rather than Christmas and Easter breaks.

Mohammad is still hoping that Detroit officials will reach a calendar agreement for 2021, when Eid-al-Fitr is likely to fall on a weekday.

“The movement’s there; there’s community support; people are willing to work behind it, but we haven’t seen it being implemented yet,” he said. “I think this is the start just for students. It’s a big community here, and we have a lot, lot more to do.”

Librarian and Research Specialist Maya Riser-Kositsky contributed research to this report.
A version of this article appeared in the March 25, 2020 edition of Education Week

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