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Holidays provide lessons in diversity

| Thursday, Dec. 5, 2002

The original national motto E pluribus unum, which means "one from many," should make a comeback in area classrooms when it comes to religious awareness, an education expert says.

Particularly in the post-9-11 world, it is critical that teachers and administrators make special efforts to teach children about world religions outside of mainstream Christianity and to promote tolerance, said Rodney Hopson, assistant professor of educational foundations and leadership at Duquesne University.

"It's easy to see diversity as a deficiency, but it's really an opportunity for school district personnel to provide lessons that speak to the diversity of our religious and ethnic makeup," he said. "We need to rethink what we mean by 'the mainstream.'"

One way local school districts promote religious tolerance is with attempts to accommodate students who celebrate holidays that are not nationally recognized with a day off, as with Christmas. Jewish students, for instance, began celebrating the eight days of Hanukkah on Friday night, and on Nov. 6 Muslim students began celebrating Ramadan, which lasts about a month.

The list goes on, with Orthodox Christians celebrating Christmas on Jan. 7, rather than Dec. 25. Hindus, Buddhists and other faiths also have their own holiday calendars.

"I'm sure we have all of them," said Bonnie Berzonski, spokeswoman for the Fox Chapel Area School District. "We really have a cross-section here."

While districts have some discretion in how much effort they make to honor religious traditions that are not national holidays, the basic principle of tolerance is mandated in state law.

According to the Pennsylvania School Code, students must have an excused absence without penalty for religious reasons with written parental request. Nothing specifies a limit on how many days can be missed, however, and such details would be a local decision that the school would have to negotiate with parents, said Shanna McClintock, spokeswoman for the state Department of Education.

In Fox Chapel Area, Berzonski said the district, as a matter of policy, avoids scheduling assemblies, field trips, graduation exercises and other special events for religious holidays. The policy also says that teachers should not schedule exams for religious holidays or for a student's first day back at school after a religious holiday.

Berzonski said district officials consider every major Jewish and Christian holiday before scheduling events, because of the many Jewish students in the district. But that didn't prevent controversies in recent years, when the district continued having graduations on Friday nights, conflicting with the Jewish Sabbath.

Fox Chapel Area officials compromised by scheduling the graduation early in the evening, so Jewish students could go to synagogue with their families by sundown. Fox Chapel Area students and staff in recent years have been given the day off on Yom Kippur, the most solemn day of the year for Jews.

In addition, Fox Chapel Area students who miss class for a religious reason, as confirmed by a note from a parent or guardian, are considered present with respect to school records, recognition for perfect attendance, awards and grades. All employees and residents in the district receive an annual events calendar listing holidays for multiple religions.

However, the district's efforts to include all faiths can only go so far, because if every religionĂ­s holidays were taken into account, there would not be enough free days to schedule things, Berzonski said.

Hopson said an educational atmosphere that promotes diversity is especially valuable to elementary school children, who are "impressionable and keen.

"This is a very timely opportunity to teach them about … not seeing diversity as abnormal," he said. "It comes down to what should we accept, what should we value?"

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