Diversity plays havoc with school calendars

Sunday, September 21, 1997

Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, begins in 10 days. And so
will problems for many Jewish students who will miss school that
day.


It isn't that teachers will object. Most school districts count
religious holidays as excused absences. The problem is that major
school events are sometimes scheduled on important religious holidays.
A few examples: This fall, a Pennsylvania district has planned
homecoming on Oct. 11, which happens to be Yom Kippur, a day
of fasting and prayer for Jews. A Long Island district, with a
large Jewish population, plans graduation every year on Saturday,
during the Jewish Sabbath. In some areas of Georgia and other
states, Muslims complain that they can't attend Friday prayer
because the school board won't allow released time.


All of this puts school officials in a difficult position. As
much as they might want to accommodate, the religious diversity
in most communities makes it virtually impossible to avoid scheduling
conflicts. With growing numbers of Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus,
Sikhs and others now in public schools, a significant holiday
in some tradition occurs nearly every week.


The predominant faith, of course, rarely needs special treatment.
The school calendar naturally favors many Christians, since there
is no school on Sunday—and few schools would dare schedule events
on Sunday morning—and Christmas is a national holiday. But now
that many school districts no longer schedule spring break to
coincide with the Easter, the advantage is not quite as
great. And for Orthodox Christians who celebrate both Christmas
and Easter at different times, the school calendar doesn't help
at all on holidays.


What, if anything, can schools do to accommodate religious diversity
when planning the calendar or deciding school policy? The Dallas
Independent School District tackled this problem by asking a task
force from the religious community for help. After much discussion,
representatives from 23 religious groups put together a chart
of student religious practices. Dallas teachers and administrators
now have at their fingertips information about possible absences
due to High Holy Days, about rituals that might be performed during
school hours, and about medical, dietary, and dress restrictions.
(The Dallas chart is reprinted in Finding Common Ground,
available from the First Amendment Center.)


This kind of information is essential now that school officials
are faced with a bewildering array of religious needs and requirements.
Accommodation isn't always possible, especially when the requests
affect all students. But being sensitive and aware goes a long
way when dealing with deeply held religious convictions. At the
very least, schools can explore ways in which individual students
might be accommodated without disrupting the overall educational
program.


Being informed is a great help. It's a way to minimize calendar
conflicts, especially useful when large numbers of students are
involved. Big school events such as homecoming may not need to
be scheduled on a major religious holiday. Graduation might not
have to be on Saturday every year, particularly in a district
with a large population of Jewish or Seventh-day Adventist students.
And released time on Fridays might be a wise choice for a school
board in an area with a significant Muslim population.


Beyond calendar questions, teachers should know such things as
why Muslim students aren't eating during Ramadan, why Christian
Science parents will request exemption from disease study, or
why Sikh boys wear turbans. Another excellent resource for finding
answers to these and many other questions is America's Religions:
An Educator's Guide to Beliefs and Practices
. This comprehensive
short guide to more than 20 religious traditions is available
from Teacher Ideas Press (800/237-6124).


The challenge of religious diversity in our schools will grow
dramatically in the 21st century. By being pro-active
now — learning more about the many traditions in our midst — school officials can turn that challenge into an opportunity for understanding and mutual respect.