Chicago Tribune: Soul-searching over classes; Religious diversity challenges schools on scheduling

Linda Haase Cohen moved to Skokie in large part because schools were off for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. So she was not happy when her district began scheduling classes on the Jewish holidays just as her daughter entered elementary school.

By 6th grade, the stress of missing class on those days and having to make up work was so intense that Cohen’s daughter cried as the holidays approached.

“I would hope that people who are Christian could put themselves in our shoes and imagine how they would feel as their sons or daughters cried as Christmas or Easter approached because missing school was going to be so hard on them,” Cohen said.

Officials at District 73.5, which will vote Tuesday on whether to continue a 9-year-old policy or go back to being off on the High Holidays and Good Friday, say they have been trying to respect everyone in a district of incredible diversity.

“We can’t be in the business of deciding which religions are important enough to be acknowledged and which are not,” said school board President James McGowan, who noted that all holidays are excused absences.

How best to incorporate people of different faiths has become an issue as America becomes more diverse.

But Skokie is not like other places. It has long been seen as a place where Jews could be sure they were wanted. Closing schools was a big part of that, Cohen said. “We thought it was wonderful,” she said.

Skokie’s other school districts and surrounding communities do not schedule classes on Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur, the dates of which vary.

School board member Andrea Rosen, who has pushed for giving the holidays off in District 73.5, said there are practical reasons as well as traditional ones for reverting to the old calendar.

Nearly 10 percent of the pupils and about 15 percent of teachers in the district are Jewish, she said, so if school is open it’s not only a major inconvenience for many, it also costs several thousand dollars to hire substitute teachers.

“Why not pick the days to be open to maximize the number of students and the number of staff?” Rosen asked.

Soul-searching over integrating children of different religions goes far beyond the 1,100 pupils of District 73.5, which teaches pre-kindergarten through 8th grade.

As America changes, so do the prayers of the faithful, prayers whispered and chanted in many languages, from English to Arabic, Urdu to Hebrew, Korean to Swahili.

Up to the schools

And it’s up to schools to figure out how to accommodate the religious needs of children while maintaining what is to many a sacred line between church and state.

“You just have to make a conscious effort to make sure that everyone is acknowledged, that everyone learns from each other,” said Principal Miguel Trujillo of Kilmer Elementary School in Rogers Park, where the 925 children come from at least 30 countries. “It’s a little bit of melting pot, a little bit of tossed salad.”

Springfield gives schools wide latitude in determining their calendars, said a spokeswoman for the Illinois State Board of Education.

The Chicago Public Schools do not schedule religious holidays off other than Christmas–usually called “winter break”–but students who miss class for such days are not penalized and the time off does not count against perfect attendance, spokeswoman Jeanie Chung said.

Other religious and cultural accommodations are common.

In the last few years, many schools have set up areas for Muslim children to go during fasting for the holy month of Ramadan, to spare them the temptations of the cafeteria. Teachers are told to expect a lower energy level during this time.

At Argo Community High School in southwest suburban Summit, which educates many Muslim teenagers from Bridgeview, officials went to the local mosque to talk about how to integrate Islamic culture and beliefs, said District 217 school board President Eugene Wroblewski.

“We obviously are concerned for what their needs are and make every allowance possible,” Wroblewski said, especially during Ramadan and Eid al-Fitr, the feast that marks its end.

Debate among Muslims

Muslims have talked among themselves about how schools should treat their holidays, saidAhmed Rehabdirector of communications for the Council on American-Islamic Relationsin Chicago.

“It’s been a debate in the community for sure,” Rehab said. “You have perspectives that range from apathy, or leaving things the way they are, to, let us have our days off for ourselves, to the extreme demands that they should be no-school days just like the Christian and Jewish holidays.”

No other religious minority has stepped forward to ask that its holidays be declared no-school days, educators said.

Satheesan Nair, president of Malayalee Hindu Organization for Des Plaines, Niles and Morton Grove, said he is not bothered by others getting holidays off.

“All the functions we celebrate back in India, we celebrate here,” he said. “Even if we are not getting holidays [off], we are celebrating.”

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