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School system to get Muslim holiday

Cambridge to start observance in 2011-12

By Brock Parker
Globe Correspondent / October 10, 2010

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As a Muslim and a high school senior at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School, 17-year-old Dunia Kassay faces a tough choice every year on Islamic holy days: go to school or stay home to be with family and friends.

If she stays home, Kassay says, she will be forced to play catch-up and make up her school assignments. But if she goes to school, she will be neglecting what she feels is her religious obligation on holidays such as Eid al-Fitr, which marks the end of Ramadan, the month of fasting.

“It’s really conflicting,’’ Kassay said. “Instead of fasting for a month and enjoying this really big day, eating and going to family’s houses, it’s kind of like, ‘Oh, hey, guys, I’ve got to go do my homework.’ ’’

But beginning next year, Cambridge public schools will attempt to make it easier for Muslim students to honor their highest holy days.

In a move that school officials believe is the first of its kind in the state, Cambridge will close schools for one Muslim holiday each year beginning in the 2011-2012 school year.

The school will either close for Eid al-Fitr or Eid al-Adha, also known as the Festival of Sacrifice, depending on which holiday falls within the school year. If both fall within the school calendar, the district will close for only one of the days.

The school district’s decision, announced last month, was made as the national discussion about Islam continues, fueled by a Mosque proposal two blocks from the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in New York and Florida preacher Terry Jones’s threat to burn a Koran. The discussion has also touched local schools, as Wellesley school officials drew criticism recently for a video that showed sixth-grade students kneeling during a prayer service at a Boston mosque during a field trip in May.

But Cambridge School Committee member Marc McGovern, who pushed for the Muslim holiday in city schools, said he thinks people need to take a step back from what he called hysteria and the stereotypes of all Muslims as terrorists.

“At a time when I think the Muslim population is being characterized with a broad brush in a negative way, I think it’s important for us to say we’re not going to do that here,’’ McGovern said.

Cambridge schools already close for some Christian and Jewish holidays, and McGovern said he believes Muslims should be treated equally.

“The issue that sort of came up was should we celebrate any religious holidays, but there was not the will to take away Good Friday or one of the Jewish holidays,’’ he said. “So I said, if that is the case, I think we have an obligation to celebrate one of the Muslim holidays, as well.’’

State and federal laws require schools to make reasonable accommodation of the religious needs of students and in observance of holy days, but the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education leaves the decision about how to do that up to individual school districts because they “know best about the needs and unique demographic makeup of their student population and community,’’ said JC Considine, a spokesman for the department.

If a school district has a large number of students who observe Good Friday and would not attend school that day, Considine said the districts are allowed to close because of the expected low attendance. But the state does require districts to schedule at least 180 days of school.

Cambridge School Superintendent Jeffrey Young said the district does not collect information about the religion of its students. But Young said that there is a significant Muslim population in the city, and that, at least anecdotally, the Muslim population in the schools appears to be growing.

A large Muslim population is one of the reasons why the school district in Dearborn, Mich., began closing schools for high Islamic holy days 10 years ago, said David Mustonen, communications coordinator for the school system.

Mustonen said that at first there were some people in the community who didn’t like the schools being closed on Eid holidays. “However, I don’t think this is the case anymore as people have come to realize that it is no different then taking time off at Christmas or Easter,’’ Mustonen said in an e-mail.

In September, public schools in Burlington, Vt., also closed on Eid al-Fitr for the first time, said Dan Balon, director of the school district’s diversity and equity office.

Balon said there is an increasing Muslim population in the schools, and the district decided to close on the holiday rather than risk low attendance rates and force students to decide between school and staying home to celebrate the holiday.

Glenn Koocher, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees, said that to his knowledge Cambridge would be the first school district in Massachusetts to close schools for a Muslim holiday.

“Somebody has to be first,’’ said Koocher. “I suspect there may be heightened interest in this. We’ll see how this plays out.’’

Marla Erlien, chairwoman of the Cambridge Human Rights Commission, said the discussion about closing Cambridge schools for an Islamic holiday began several years ago when the commission conducted a survey at Rindge and Latin asking students about discrimination, and at a follow-up forum students raised concerns about how Muslims were a “discarded group’’ whose holidays weren’t recognized in the schools.

From there, several students, including Kassay and Humbi Song, a 2009 graduate of the high school, began working to raise understanding of Arab and Muslim culture at the high school and then advocating for a day off from school on a Muslim holiday.

Song, who is not Muslim, said she tried to promote awareness about Islam at the high school in part because she had Muslim friends who had been made fun of for their religious clothing and headwear. She said she thinks some students were uneducated about Muslim culture.

Erlien said she thinks closing schools on the holiday will help build connections with Muslims in Cambridge.

“As their kids come home and say, ‘Oh, look, we now have a holiday,’ the parents might begin to feel safer here,’’ Erlien said.

But McGovern said he’s sure there will be some people who think closing school for a Muslim holiday is a terrible idea.

“Can’t please everybody,’’ he said. “You have to do what you think is right.’’

Brock Parker can be reached at Brock.globe@gmail.com.

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