Education

Millburn Draft School Calendars Stir Debate in the Community

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MILLBURN, NJ - The Millburn Board of Education is expected to consider the approval of draft calendars for the next three academic years at its meeting next Monday, October 9.  The draft calendars include two additional holidays – Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, and the Chinese New Year.

“We are a changing community and are now more diverse, and we celebrate that,” board president Emily Jaffe said at the last meeting when discussing the draft calendars.

The administration and the board’s programs committee have been working on the calendars over the past several months and are currently inviting comments from the public on the draft versions ahead of their vote on Monday.

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The board was originally set to vote on the draft calendars at the last meeting but postponed the decision after some members of the board and parents objected to the lack of adequate discussion and input from the public.

The inclusion of religious holidays in the school calendar has been a contentious issue in this town. In 2014, the board heard requests to include Diwali and the Lunar New year in addition to the Jewish holidays of Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah.

Rather than add on the new holidays, which might have meant extending the academic year or reducing vacation or staff-training time, the board decided to follow a three-part process that included a petition and online ballot to determine which religious holidays would be included in the academic calendar. If the online ballot showed that more than 15% of the student body would be absent on a religious holiday, it would be included in the calendar.

Board members acknowledge that process had a divisive impact on the town, essentially pitting one holiday against the other. The Jewish holidays ended up staying in the calendar, but the Hindu and Chinese holidays managed to receive only 8 to 9% of the student population vote. Chinese and Hindu community representatives said at the time, according to media reports, that the process did not fully acknowledge the changing demographics of the town.

The school district’s persistently strong ratings have been a big draw for Asian and Indian residents in recent years, and their presence in the community has been steadily growing. More than 20% of the students in Millburn Middle School and Millburn High School are Asian, while in the elementary schools, the percentage climbs to 30%, according to 2015-2016 data available at the State Department of Education. There is no separate breakdown for the South Asian or Indian community.

In his comments at the previous board meeting, board member Rick Gray said he is yet to see evidence of increased student absences for Diwali and Lunar New Year. In response, board member Philip Choong suggested that qualitative factors, such as the whether the quality of instruction or learning will suffer, and not numbers alone should be considered in decisions about including a holiday. “A student should not have to choose between celebrating a holiday and going to school,” he said.

Recognizing the changing demographics, the board earlier this year asked the administration to draft the calendars to include the new holidays without taking away existing religious holidays in the calendar.

Millburn district Superintendent Dr. Christine Burton said in her latest update that the calendar was drafted considering multiple factors. Considerations include providing enough professional development time for staff, school days for standardized testing, opening and closing dates, and planning for 2 to 3 inclement weather days, providing vacation time for families and anticipated absenteeism for religious and cultural observances.

As a result, in two of the three academic years, the school year will start in late August, before Labor Day, while still ending in the latter part of June.

The reactions of local community social media groups to the draft calendars have been mixed, with some parents opposed to the earlier start of the year, while others note that kids involved in high school fall sports activities are usually back in town in August. Some parents have said they would like to see the new holidays aligned with the professional development days to avoid advancing the calendar.

Parents can access the draft calendars and the feedback form at the links below.

Proposed calendars: https://drive.google.com/drive/folders/0BytHEdOU5suiNzluQlFNMHNZQ2c

Feedback form:  https://docs.google.com/forms/d/e/1FAIpQLSe4g3-IXwRxT3tZQIN1DN_qI9I7r-W-Z844-dO8JM9qlFYaLQ/viewform

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