Push for School Observance of Diwali Continues in Millburn

April 8, 2014 at 6:59 AM

MILLBURN, NJ—As members of the township’s Indian community continue to support the closing of Millburn schools during Diwali, the Indian Festival of Lights, a number of different options of dealing with the observance of the holiday surfaced at Monday’s board of education meeting.

Among the various ideas being floated by board members is the possible elimination of all school closings for religious holidays and allowing students to take excused absences to observe holidays they feel appropriate for their religions.

The idea was first suggested by board member Emily Jaffe at Monday’s meeting.  It seemed to gain traction among other school body members, although it apparently is nowhere near the point where it would be considered a formal resolution or official policy.

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Jaffe said, although not a member of the board program committee, during the five months of discussion of the Diwali issue she has studied the issue very carefully, as have her fellow board members.

She added that, as an observant Jew, she would be journeying to the home of an extended family member next week for an extended seder for Passover. She also said that she applauds the enthusiasm and passion of members of the Indian community who have presented their case for Diwali to be observed by the closing of school.

Jaffe added, however, that “quite honestly, even as one who takes my religion very seriously, I am leaning toward the comment of just taking all holidays away because we are all equal.”

Although the board member said this position might not go over well in her community, she said this might be a way of dealing with the concerns of people of faith throughout the township.

Board member Raymond Wong, whose wife is Indian, said he may come to some of the same conclusions as Jaffe.

He said his family does observe most of the traditions of the holiday as a family at night.

Wong, addressing questions about why Rupali Whadwa, the board’s only Hindu, had not been appointed to the program committee, noted he had given up his seat at one of the committee’s meetings so Whadwa could explain Diwali and its significance to the committee.

In leading off Monday’s discussion on the issue, however, Jyoti Sinha of Short Hilla said Diwali was one of the most important days for Indian families to share their faith. spend time with each other, teach the values of the Hindu faith and enjoy the ethnic foods associated with that observance.

She also said she heard of a little girl in the township who was singled out by her playmates because they did not understand her faith, eventually causing the girl’s family to move from Millburn-Short Hills.

Closing township schools in observance of the holiday, she added, would enable children of other faiths to gain a better understanding of those whose religions were different than theirs.

A husband and wife who spoke said closing schools for Diwali would help the township further celebrate the diversity upon which it prides itself.

Another resident, Jyoti Sharma, recalled that last December, when the issue of removing other religious holidays from the school calendar surfaced many members of the community said they did not want their religious holidays removed from the calendar.

She added if action was not taken to observe Diwali as a school holiday, “do we want our children to think the community thinks less of our religion?”

Sharma also pointed out that Assemblyman John McKeon, who represents the township, recently sponsored a bill calling upon all communities with significant Indian populations to consider observing Diwali as a school holiday and reminding his fellow legislatures of state law, which requires school districts to allow students the time to properly partake of religious observances.

Program committee chairwoman Regina Truitt noted that, contrary to the impression left by some of the speakers at Monday’s meeting, the committee had not been taking time away from other important issues such as the future of the world language program to discuss Diwali.

Rather, she noted, the committee had held additional, ad hoc meetings to discuss the school holiday issue.

Truitt also said she had never said adding Diwali as a school holiday would set a dangerous precedent, rather, that adding another holiday without setting the proper guidelines would set a dangerous precedent.

Whadwa, addressing the history of the issue, said she had brought it up around the time the board was discussing changing the school calendar last December because she had received a number of emails asking her to look into the addition of a school closing for Diwali,

She also thanked Wong for giving up his seat at the program committee meeting, although she was someone puzzled about why she was not made a member of that committee.

Whadwa and some of the other speakers also said that, if the board had discussed changes in the school calendar to coincide with changes in the township’s demographics about 20 years ago to add the Jewish holidays, she saw no reason why the more recent change in demographics to a larger Indian population should not result in a discussion on adding Diwali as a holiday.

She added, that, as put forth by some of the other board members, that there was a fear that future changes in demographics would bring demands for different school holidays from a variety of other faiths, then it might be time to consider eliminating school holidays for religious observances altogether.

Board president Jeffrey Waters commented, however, that the discussion on Diwali had not been as protracted as some speakers believed it was.

He said it was brought up “out of the blue” at the end of last year as part of a continuing discussion with superintendent of schools James Crisfield about trying to end the school year earlier.

In December, the board had spoken about eliminating the last day of Rosh Hashanah as a school holiday in order to shorten the school year.

Waters noted it was part of a continuing attempt by the board to end school in the third week instead of the fourth week of June while still complying with the 180 days of school required by the state.

However, he said, discussing this change in the calendar also would mean changing other portions of the calendar and, possibly altering the February vacation, which was opposed by many parents.

He added, “It was not so much about the merits of the holidays, but more about the ripple effect of adding other holidays and the possibility that other groups would ask to have holidays added.”

Waters also noted that, in discussing the allowance of Jewish holidays in Millburn schools about 20 years ago with a former township educator who was familiar with that situation, he discovered the Jewish holidays were allowed not only in Millburn but also in many surrounding districts because many of the teachers and possible substitute teachers at that time were Jewish and it would be difficult to keep the schools open when so many staff members were taking the day off to observe the holidays.

Board member John Westfall-Kwong, who said he was religious although he did not observe any particular faith, said he would be inclined to support Diwali as a holiday. He added future school boards should be prepared to deal with demands for religious holiday closings from other groups if they were presented in the future.

Truitt noted the program committee would discuss an overall policy for school holiday closings with the board attorney any proposal was presented to the full board.

On another matter, Millburn police juvenile officer Ed de la Fuente presented a program on cyber bullying and the dangers to students of social networks and internet sites. He noted that, because of the tremendous importance placed on the various sites to the children and their self-esteem parents should set strict guidelines and time limits on use of the sites and make sure they, not their children, ultimately were those in control of the childrens’ use of the sites.

A few of the residents and board members also expressed concern about stress in township schools on students in light of the three recent deaths of Millburn students. 

Parent Kathy Estes suggested that health education classes should be more specifically geared toward helping students deal more courteously with each other and building self-esteem to prevent situations that could lead to suicide among students.

On another topic, a few residents continued to express concerns about the Common Core Standards, their effect on students and the cost to the district.

Marisa Christmas said that the new PAARC test that would replace the High School Proficiency Assessment would take up 40 percent of the school year and that time and equipment that was supposed to be devoted to digital learning would instead be devoted to testing under the new program.

The cost of the testing program, she added, would force the township district to spend above the 2 percent “cap” limit and teachers would be more involved in “teaching to the test” rather than teaching students to think for themselves.

She wanted to know the impact on the district of taking up so much of the school year for the PAARC test and the cost of the proposed programs.

Resident Regina Caridi also wanted to know the budgetary effects of the Common Core and said Millburn, like Summit and Montclair did recently, should bring in state experts to more fully explain the proposed changes from Common Core.

Frequent Common Core critic Doug Cundey cited headlines about testing as part of the Common Core in New York City, which, he said, indicated that English proficiency had dropped from 30 percent last year to 7 percent this year after the new standards were implemented.

He added that 28,000 students in New York state had opted out of Common Core-related testing and teachers had found “Common Core Syndrome” caused a large amount of unnecessary stress on students subjected to the demanding testing and its time limits.

Teachers, he said, believed that the new standards taught students what to think rather than teaching them to think more effectively.

In other action, the board also approved the following transfers of funds from the capital reserve into capital outlay for roof replacement projects, with partial funding for the projects from state RODS grants:

  • Millburn High School—$1,249,560 total cost with a $499,824 grant.
  • Deerfield School—$1,194,428 total cost with a $477,771 grant.
  • Wyoming School—$347,253 total cost with a $138,901 grant

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