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:

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. If you were advising Jeff Young, what would you suggest and why?

2. What are the risks of adding Eid? Of not adding Eid? Are there other options? How have other school districts handled the question of adding religious holidays?

3. 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?

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

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[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.