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Parents: Jewish Holidays Need More Respect from Schools

Emily Blumberg
Emily Blumberg
Part two of a transcript from the Jan 13, 2014 School Committee meeting. For Part one, click here.

8:01 to 8:06 p.m.

During the student representative’s update, student representative Katelyn Mitrano said that Westford Academy students are currently undergoing midterms and preparing for prom, but requested that sidewalks on Patten Road be cleared.

Olsen said that this has been a problem for years, and that sidewalk clearance is the role of residents in many cases, and clearance was inconsistent.

Harkness asked if Westford Academy principal Jim Antonelli could put signs for drivers to slow down.

Mitrano said that many students are parking on Hartford Road due to the issue.

8:06 to 8:42 p.m.

The agenda moved forward to the school year calendar, with Olsen asking for feedback and that it would begin to be put together in a week to a week and a half.

He said that no two years are the same, and this year may require more professional development days, requiring early release, and that he is trying to find the equilibrium of how many are needed, with a maximum of one per month.

Kohl asked that there are three additional days that could potentially be used for professional development next year due to collective bargaining agreement with the teachers having a school year of 185 days.

Murray said that it’s important to be mindful of how long kids are out of school.

Emily Blumburg, whose daughter goes to the Nabnasset School, requested that Westford Schools be closed on Jewish high holidays, specifically Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.  She offered information on nearby school districts at request.

Blumburg discussed a policy change regarding religious holidays made last year that allows students excused absence after explaining to teachers, but many did not due to fear of falling behind.

Blumburg requested that if these days could not be made as holidays, no tests should be given on these days.

Susanna Wood of Honeysuckle Road came to the microphone next, saying she had come with many fellow congregants from a synogouge in Acton.

Wood gave concerns over the no tests on religious holidays policy being missing without explanation and said that requesting favors of teachers early in the school year was difficult for students as they often did not know their new teachers yet.

Wood also requested that important staff meetings, sporting events and other events should not occur on religious holidays and in response to a discussion she had earlier with Olsen, she said that there is no better way to teach ethical values to students.

Wood concluded providing a calendar for the Jewish high holidays for the next ten years. Keele asked if he coached her daughter in basketball, which she did.

Melissa Himmel-Farb of Buckboard Drive came to the microphone next. She said that when she grew up, it was expected to have those holidays off since many students took the day off anyway.

While she said she loves Westford, she believes Jewish students are singled out.

Himmel-Farb said that contacting teachers two weeks in advance was also difficult since many parents do not know who their child’s teachers are earlier in the year.

Caren Boroshok came to the microphone next, requesting that the two week notice request for non-Christian holidays is discriminatory and requested Westford take the Boston School Department calendar, also requesting that tests not be required the day after non-Christian religious holidays.

Keele thanked all of the parents for their input, saying input does not occur often enough. He said it was not the intent to create a burden and said that it appears there may be unintended consequences and that the policy needed to be looked at.

Clay asked for the background that led to the change, with Olsen saying that there had been some feedback stating that there were more requests for days off and due to the increasing amount of diversity, it would be more fair to take specific designations off the calendar and leave it to respective families.

He said that it has worked in some instances and not in others. The policy was changed in March of 2012 and more issues than not were discussed and it was time to be re-examined.

Benoit had an idea of “personal floating days” where absences can be given with no questions asked. He thought this idea may help relieve the stigma since it could apply to any child.

Mitrano said that Westford Academy personnel are understanding during the first week of school due to the holidays and it is hard to get caught up after missing two days.

She also said that it’s unfair being given just to the Christian holidays, but it would be difficult to have days off more frequently throughout the year.

Keele said that the issue couldn’t be taken up immediately due to the budget process and advised the parents subscribe to meeting agendas.

Harkness gave more background on the decision over the policy change, saying that it was intended to provide anyone of any religion the ability to let their teachers and administration know their needs to provide fairness.

Keele said that he believed most Westford Public School staff would likely allow additional time for those impacted.

Ron Fliescher of Jennifer Drive said that his children had been impacted by these issues. He said that the Westford School System has done the best they could, but that his children feel excluded.

He understood that Westford is different than when he grew up in New York. He said the answer is not to exclude everyone equally but provide exceptions and that tests should also be avoided on Muslim holy days and religious days of other faiths, as mentioned earlier. 

He said that he could take days off work, and unlike his children would not feel excluded when he came back.

Harkness grew up in New York and asked Fliescher whether the important part is whether the holidays are recognized on the calendars.

Fliescher said that field hockey tryouts and in the past, school pictures, were on those holidays.

8:42 to 8:43 p.m.

Several warrants were approved and the meeting went into executive session.

joseph mcgruff January 14, 2014 at 10:19 PM
Great point and well said SS. And you know, if you want SS, you can easily goto to the next School Committee meeting and ask for hmmm?... 12/16 off as observation of the Boston Tesa Party or whenever your Fantasy football draft is as you are atheist and make up about the same % of people in the country as Muslims, Jews, Buddhists and Hindus besides many others...just sayin'. I am sorry if that sounds unsympathetic, I mean it is really I guess, but it is how the majority feel and operate.
Steven Sadowski January 14, 2014 at 10:40 PM
It's not unsympathetic. People in this country are too sensitive. We've become a bunch of whiners getting offended when someone challenges our beliefs and opinions. If religion is important to you, then make the time for it. But that's not good enough for a lot of people. They not only want the time off for their families (which they can get BTW) they want the whole town to take the day off. For what? Do you think the Hindu is cares about Easter? Or the Muslim about Rosh Hashanah? So just because you get a day off for your cause, doesn't mean the rest of the town cares a wit about your holiday.
joseph mcgruff January 14, 2014 at 10:59 PM
We could actually stand to lose a few holidays from the calendar year haha. Think of it this way, imagine if the entire population of New Mexico lobbied Tom Udall (D-NM) to propose a bill to the Senate to get September 16th observed Nationally for Mexico's Independence day...people would laugh. New Mexico = Judaism. I do feel bad though. As you said SS, just because its not a 'holiday' doesn't mean it can't be observed by those it is important to and be given time off is the WANT (not necessarily need, big difference there).
Steven Sadowski January 14, 2014 at 11:10 PM
Agreed. I mean wasn't there a tradition for youngsters to skip school with the "old man" to go see Red Sox opening day? If it's important to you and your family, take the time off. Make arrangements and fill the gaps. Especially in this era of PDF's and scanners, Google and Skype/Facetime, a student can stay on pace and fulfill family obligations.
Andrew Sylvia (Editor) January 14, 2014 at 11:12 PM
What do you guys think of the floating days off idea?
Steven Sadowski January 14, 2014 at 11:31 PM
I like it. I think it gives people the choice (hey "choice" in public schools! Who woudda thunk?) to take whatever days off they want. But I think it's unnecessary from my POV, my kids are only in grades 1 & 3, (maybe it gets more strict onward and upward?) so any day I want, I can keep my kids out of school. They get marked as absent, but what are they missing? 3 x 2 = 6? A hexagon is a 6-sided polygon? Boston is the capitol of MA? I never do it, but I could very easily do it and make up whatever they missed. But I like your idea Andy. Andy for School Committee!
Steven Sadowski January 14, 2014 at 11:49 PM
My only quarrel with your reasoning thus far, Joe, is that we do not have a democracy here, for the very reason that if 51% of the population is in the KKK they can vote for white supremacy. Instead, we have a republic, where majorities win elections, but there are enough checks and balances in the system, and diplomatic and parliamentary nuances, that insure the majority can't simply straw poll their way to victory. So while you are correct that Druids probably only make up .0000001 of the population, they can still mount a defense for representation in a republic.
joseph mcgruff January 14, 2014 at 11:53 PM
Andy, the floating idea is confusing to me as it is fully accepted and within everyone's right to stay home for just about any religious reason, or really any personal reason. And how many excused absences do kids already get, I would guess 3? Maybe more? Maybe a better question is: At what point (or percentage of people) is asking the entire town / majority to recognize your religious wants unacceptable? Jews make up 1% of the North American population...not 75% like Christians, or the 15% who claim no religion belief. Its not personal as I feel some are making it, hell I would say lets all take off everyones holidays, I think '420' would qualify now-a-days too, and we could condense the school year into the month of February! How many Black Fridays would there be then? And 'singling out' Jewish kids? That is grossly insulting to all other minority religious groups in my opinion...
Andrew Sylvia (Editor) January 15, 2014 at 11:56 AM
To serve as a devil's advocate here Joseph, does that mean majorities should get special privileges?
Andrew Sylvia (Editor) January 15, 2014 at 11:57 AM
Also, an update, I made an error regarding what was said near the end of the meeting, I made a correction. The full meeting video is on the Westford CAT website.
Randy Winslow January 15, 2014 at 07:59 PM
I find it unreasonable that so many parents complain about having to take part in their child's education, it's so hard to send an email with all the addresses listed.
Randy Winslow January 15, 2014 at 08:03 PM
What about Diwali? There are a ton of holidays, schools should stay out of it and just assign tests and homework as they normally would. No special exceptions for anyone.
Nick Caraway January 16, 2014 at 06:24 AM
Imagine no religion, its easy if you try. No Hell below us, above us only sky....
Vicky Geary January 16, 2014 at 09:29 AM
While I think respect should be given to the Jewish Holidays with no homework and no tests during those days, I don't agree with closing Westford schools as one person in the article suggested. Now I will agree, that the two week window for notification is too long as the Jewish holidays fall just as school is starting (which by the way is another reason not to close - we are already trying to build momentum and get back into the school routine. I think the concern about fairness in assigning days off for Christian holidays versus others is slightly exaggerated. If you really look at the calendar, the only Christian holiday acknowledged with a day(s) off is Christmas, termed Holiday Break. All other holidays that we receive are secular/Federal holidays (Labor Day, Columbus Day, etc). We don't need more time out of school than there already is. Taking off for every religious holiday can result in months with no full weeks of school, breaking learning momentum.
Sam January 16, 2014 at 09:51 AM
Well said
Scott Graham January 16, 2014 at 11:01 AM
Many school systems have moved to not observing any religious holidays. There is just to many of them. I have to agree with this direction. If your child needs to take a day off for religious reasons then inform the teachers and reschedule tests and homework to be made up. It's not like your religious holidays sneak up on you. They are well planned out YEARS in advance. As for not scheduling tests around those dates. Forgetaboutit. Once again schedule your child's studying to work around the holidays. Teachers can not cater to every religion, they are stressed enough by MCAS requirements.
joseph mcgruff January 16, 2014 at 11:37 AM
Andy, not so sure devils advocate applies here. I don't think I would call a religious observation a privilege...I guess if you are saying that only the Christian holiday is observed versus others than yes that is true. Unfortunately every religion, idea, suggestion, parent or family can not be catered to, so yes the majority wins out in most cases, as it should IMO. As Vicki said, Christmas is the only religious (Christian) holiday observed..And as Steven has pointed out, anybody can take a day off to celebrate a holiday, there is no punishment or fine or demerit issued. You know when the holidays are, if it is important to you you take the day off and your kid or you can ask ahead for any school assignment, is that so hard? Wait, a lot of school assignments are given over Christmas break too so...is that not fair either? You just can't cater to every single person and their wants, sorry.
Andrew Sylvia (Editor) January 16, 2014 at 04:36 PM
No problem, just trying to stimulate discussion.
joseph mcgruff January 16, 2014 at 04:47 PM
Andy, the DA angle sort of fits...but what can you do? Let everyone's request be filled? I mean its almost laughable that people brought up such suggestions...if it ain't broke...only in Westford
Westford Insider January 16, 2014 at 07:21 PM
In the past the School Committee seemed to bend more for Jewish Parents requests rather than the Indian Parents request. Call if what you want but its inconsistent at best and something else at worse! There is too much TEST TEST TEST going on in the WPS anyhooo
KarenL January 16, 2014 at 08:01 PM
I'd rather talk about the sidewalk issue. Every other town I've lived in fined residents who did not shovel the sidewalk in front of their house, why not here? It really is a hazard, especially near schools. As far as I'm concerned, having a sidewalk in front of your house is a privilege. I don't have one here in Westford, but when I did, in other towns, I sure did go out and clear it. Being able to walk right out of your house and down the street safely is a good deal! Shovelling it in the winter is a small price to pay. Neighbors should help out the elderly or infirm who can't clear their sidewalk...if they won't, shame on them. Near Westford Academy...the some students can go shovel the walks of the elderly or disabled, tell the school who they are and give the kids some shovels.
Steven Sadowski January 16, 2014 at 08:10 PM
KarenL: Shoveling sidewalks requires taking responsibly for a privilege. As we have discovered in other threads, people don't take responsibility for their privileges, they'd rather pawn off their privileges on others and then get defensive and upset when people call them on it. People who merely bring up the idea of people taking responsibility are called unneighborly and insensitive. I think someone said it best in another thread regarding this kind of dynamic when they wrote (and I'm paraphrasing), "Have a hissy fit all you want, I'm still not shoveling my sidewalk." That says it all, doesn't it?
KarenL January 16, 2014 at 08:43 PM
OK, Steven, don't want to be accused of being hypocritical, so I'll get those bob cats in my house right now and keep them safe and out of peoples' yards;). I don't have a pet cat, btw. Hope you'll be willing to pet sit for them when I'm out of town...borrow a full on bite suit from Corey Peladeau, because they are very DANGEROUS.
Steven Sadowski January 16, 2014 at 08:59 PM
Sure, as so long as I can drop my kids off at your place when I leave town? They don't bite but they'll climb a tree and then get stuck.
KarenL January 16, 2014 at 09:14 PM
Plenty of trees here...they are welcome to come. But, they'll have to find their own way down, personal responsibility you know.
Steven Sadowski January 16, 2014 at 10:09 PM
No, I'm on vacation remember? You take care of it. Oh and I'm also the most responsible parent evah.
joseph mcgruff January 17, 2014 at 10:11 AM
It seems that every other town I have lived in either: clears the sidewalks for you (at least the main side walks closest to the center of town, I guess in the surrounding neighborhoods are on their own or just walk in the street) or asks you to do it yourself or get fined. The tough part is that a sidewalk is essentially another end of the driveway and as we all know is the hardest area to clear. So, when its a few inches or not that bad, I can see expecting all to do their part. When alot of snow falls, and the plows pile on to the sidewalk, it gets compacted I can see how someone might not be ABLE to do it...what then? I will say, that it is also head scratching when people move and choose to be near the common, or near train tracks or a cut thru street, all of a sudden it becomes a burden to them, when forever its been expected and accepted what comes with living in these areas. Sort of like the holidays we get off too...
Nick Caraway January 18, 2014 at 12:30 AM
Just some parental units who want to blow off steam just like the dad last year and the rainbow gay flag bible rant needed to get his monkey off his back too
Christi January 20, 2014 at 11:13 AM
I do not understand the request for residents to clear sidewalks on Patten Rd. Where do they want cleared? There is only a very short stretch of sidewalk on Patten which runs in front of 3 or 4 residences and this is usually cleared. The rest of the 'sidewalk' runs directly in front of WA through the trees (which cannot be easily cleared due to huge snow piles from the WA parking lot). If this pathway is the issue, then it is the Town's responsibility to clear it, since it is most certainly on school land. The only other stretch of paved pathway (hardly a sidewalk) winds through the woods, past the Russian Cemetery, and runs out prior to Rooks Way. No houses border this stretch of pathway. Again, I believe most of it borders town land. Looking further afield there are no sidewalks on Country Rd, Hartford Rd or Robinson Rd for residents to clear. IMO if the school administrators want the pathways clear on Patten, either the town should do it or they should get the kids to do it in their gym class block. They might even get a decent workout for once!
Kevin January 21, 2014 at 03:15 PM
Since any discussion of God in public school is inexplicably and practically outlawed nationwide, I see no reason for anyone to ask for exceptions. If you are a practicing Catholic and you want to skip school to attend Ash Wednesday services, Christmas, or any other holy day then that's up to you regardless of school. make up the time.. Same with the Jewish holidays, Muslim etc etc...By the way, guess how many books on Christmas, which is a Christian religious holiday, there are in the Nabnasset School Library- if you guessed zero you'd be right. How many books are there on Judiasm ?- at least 40...Why ? Mainly because we are a society that is a bunch of politically correct whiners who are afraid to stand up for our beliefs without fear of being labeled anti- this or anti that !

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