Adding Eid

Jeff Young, the incoming superintendent of schools in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is asked to add Eid to the public school calendar. What are his options?

Case Excerpt

The full case is comprised of an (A) Case, a (B) Case, and additional content.

At the December 15, 2009 meeting of the Cambridge Public School Committee, Superintendent Jeff Young received a formal request to add a Muslim holiday to the school calendar. The motion from two School Committee members read, in part: “…[G]iven that other large world religions are recognized by the Cambridge Public Schools by closing school on specific holidays, the School Committee asks the Superintendent to add the Muslim holidays of either Eid al-Fitr or Eid al-Adha to the school calendar depending on which holiday falls during a given school year.”[1] Young considered the calendar to be the bedrock of school organization: it was already behind schedule, and debate on this issue would only cause further delay.

Young explained, “It was hard, because on one hand I wanted to make it go away.”[2] Yet he also thought, “Here’s a really interesting social justice question.” The issue touched on his fundamental belief in equality: it was, for Young, a question of basic fairness. In the current calendar, school was closed for Good Friday and either Yom Kippur or Rosh Hashanah. Effectively, Young noted, Jews and Christians could observe their holidays and still have 180 days of school, while Muslims would have, at most, 179. Yet there were several compelling practical, financial, and educational reasons not to make the calendar change. Sensitive to its potential for controversy and wanting to study the issue more closely, Young asked if he could take some additional time and offer a memo for the January 5, 2010 meeting. The incoming school committee -- recently elected, and beginning service in January -- would then be able vote on it and “own” the decision.

Young had been in Cambridge only six months but served as superintendent for three districts over an accomplished twenty-one years. He thought, “I’m trying to choose my battles in this job. Is this the one that I really want to pick?” Young’s memo making a recommendation would be due in two weeks.

Discussion Questions

1. What are the risks of adding Eid? Not adding Eid? Are there other options? Can you find examples of schools that have found other options?

2. Is there a place for religious holidays in public schools and, if so, where? Who should determine whether and how to study or celebrate religious holidays in public schools and how should they do so?

3. Draft a memo to the school board as if you are Jeff Young: what do you recommend, and why?



Expand for Citation

[1] Joint Motion from the School Committee to the Superintendent (C09-569), regarding the addition of Muslim holiday to the school calendar, December 15, 2009, from Jeff Young.

[2] All quotes from Jeff Young: Jeff Young, interview by author, Cambridge, MA, January 14, 2010 and February 12, 2010.


Additional Content

Memo from Superintendent Jeff Young

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DATE:  December 30, 2009
TO:  School Committee Members
FROM: Jeffrey M. Young, Superintendent of Schools
SUBJECT: Muslim Holiday 

In the days following the December 15, 2009 School Committee meeting at which the possibility of adding a Muslim holiday to the Cambridge Public Schools annual calendar was raised, I have consulted a number of groups and individuals regarding this issue.  At this time, I am recommending that the School Committee adopt the motion that was placed before you at the last meeting (see attachment) and add one Muslim holiday to the annual school calendar.

On December 22, 2009 I met with a group composed of current CRLS students; several CRLS graduates, including Samuel Gebru who spoke at the 12/15/09 meeting; Marla Erlien from the Cambridge Human Rights Commission; and several members of the CRLS faculty.  At this 90-minute meeting, the group spoke to me about the significance of Eid, including its relevance to practicing Muslims as well as the ways in which the Muslim community contributes to the school's diversity.  We also talked at length about programs and policies to raise awareness among non-Muslims about the Muslims' positive contributions to the school in particular and society in general.  We had an in-depth discussion about cultural issues such as perceived intolerance of or taboos associated with Muslims at CRLS.  The group informed me of several efforts underway at the school to raise consciousness.  I told the group of 15-20 individuals that I am committed to continuing to work with them to improve the climate at CRLS, whether or not a formal day off was added to the annual school calendar.

All of the students--especially their main spokesperson, Hichem Hadjeres--appreciate the efforts of CRLS administrators to promote understanding among different cultures (and I must tell you that based on what I’ve seen in other high schools, CRLS does an excellent job of advancing its ideals of a diverse community).  For additional background, I am attaching to this memo a recent email on the subject from Dr. Chris Saheed.

I also have spoken with Diana Eck, the Executive Director of the Harvard Pluralism Project as well as Dr. Ali Asani, Professor of Indo-Muslim and Islamic Religion and Cultures at Harvard.  Both Dr. Eck and Dr. Asani offered advice on developing a more inclusive culture at CRLS.  Judaism, Christianity and Islam are the three major religions in the United States.  Dr. Eck contends that the “slippery slope” argument that there might be no end to future holiday requests does not really pertain to this matter, as other religions do not have the major single Holy Day on the same order of Rosh Hashana/Yom Kippur, Good Friday, and Eid.  Dr. Asani pointed out the growing sense of “Islam-phobia” in our country and the world and thought it was important for public institutions to do whatever we could to advance the goals of understanding and acceptance.  Moreover, it does not seem fair and equitable that Jews and Christians are able to worship and still have the opportunity to attend the full 180 days of school while Muslims who wish to worship have, at best, the opportunity to attend 179 days of school.

There are implementation challenges, however.  At the School Committee’s request, we consulted with Ellen Semonoff to assess the impact adding a holiday to the school calendar would have upon City services.  For your information, Ellen’s memo to Jim Maloney is attached.  We will also need to go back to the table with our unions in a collective bargaining environment to make sure that all employees understand the impact of this policy.

At every public meeting I have attended since I arrived in Cambridge, I have spoken about my commitment to the values of academic excellence and social justice.  These are easy to talk about and not so easy to live out in real life.  The present case regarding the school calendar offers an opportunity for us to live up to our values.  Thus, I recommend that Eid be added to the school calendar and that we work hard to ensure that the administrative inconveniences and challenges attendant upon this decision be worked out in a timely and thoughtful manner.  Cambridge has an opportunity to be a leader and I believe we should embrace this moment in time.  There is no question that the world is becoming more pluralistic and we should use this occasion to take concrete action to promote the spirit of pluralism, inclusion and social justice.

NOTE: Next week, when people return from vacation, we will send you supplemental information, including a new copy of the school calendar as well as a list of Important Dates for the School Year.

I hope that the School Committee will approve the proposed CPS calendar at the January 5, 2010 meeting.