Professor Details Strategies for Resolving Holiday Conflicts
By Robert Schroeder
Away from the shimmering lights, stampeded shopping malls, butter-laden cookies and themed advertisements galore, at its core, Christmas is a religious holiday. The mere thought of a school requiring students and staff to attend school on December 25 is so controversial, it borders on nonsensical.
In a majority Christian nation, the policy seems carefully sensible. But in a majority Christian nation that enshrines freedom of religion, how do school leaders go about choosing which religious holidays to recognize? That loaded question is the focus of an article by National Louis University's Vicki Gunther, Ph.D., assistant professor in the National College of Education and Ted Purinton, Ed.D., assistant professor at American University in Cairo, formerly an assistant professor at National Louis. Their research in "Closing School for the Holidays-Whose Holidays?" featured in Kappan Magazine outlines the deliberate and collaborative approach Gunther took during her years as an administrator and later superintendent of Skokie District 73.5.
"Every year, it was a ritual, it was a dance, the whole issue of developing the next school year's calendar," Gunther said.
While the challenges of multiculturalism grow in urban districts nationally, Skokie's melting pot culture was already well-established by the late 1990s. A township with historically Jewish roots had grown into a welcoming immigrant enclave. Today, dozens of languages are spoken in the district, and second language education expands well beyond Spanish-speaking students.
School administrators, parents, teachers and the school board began treading the religious waters in the 90s with discussions over the nature of Christmas "assemblies" and the content focus. Those discussions spilled over in 1997 into a full-blown re-examination of how the district addressed school holidays. At issue was a sizable Jewish teacher population seeking a solution to the contradiction of using personal days to observe the Jewish High Holidays, while certain Christian holidays were recognized with full paid time off. At the same time, the district recognized the growing need for accommodation of Muslim, Hindu, and other religious populations within the student body.
"It was all about keeping your shared values, not your individual values, but your shared values front and center," Gunther said. "If you are trying to be inclusive and you are trying to be respectful of people of all different racial groups, ethnicities and religious affiliations, then you work very hard at reconciling differences of opinion."
Gunther explains that recognizing an additional religious holiday is far more complicated than simply granting a day off. While no administrator desires to run afoul of championed religious liberties, the financial and curricular aspects of religious observances are major factors in administrators' decision-making.
"You add on a school day, it doesn't necessarily cost you more money, but if you keep the schools open and you have to hire a lot of substitute teachers, that can cost you money," Gunther said. "Plus, there were non-Jewish teachers concerned about the quality of instruction on days the schools were open and a significant number of teachers were absent."
The district reached an agreement to grant teachers additional personal days, with the express purpose of using the days for religious observances. At the time, the decision was considered radical; today, Gunther cites ongoing discussions in Boston, California and New York City as a sign that the core issue is more palatable but not any easier to solve.
A co-author of "Strategic Communication for School Leaders," Gunther says maintaining open and transparent lines of communication throughout the decision-making process was key to the district reaching mutually satisfactory decisions. In 1997, without blogs, Facebook or Twitter, the district relied mostly on written communications and publicizing board minutes. Whatever the medium, Gunther says the best strategy is to know the audience's expectations and to gather quality data.
"I think for a long time, school leaders and school boards took their communications for granted," Gunther said. "Communications [need to be] deliberate and thoughtful and planned, not random effects."
Today, Skokie District 73.5 now closes school for the Jewish High Holidays and observes some Muslim holidays. Fifteen years after administrators first examined additional religious holidays in District 73.5, districts in nearby Niles Township, faced with similar significant multicultural growth, are testing the waters on religious holiday expansion.