Wednesday, October 13, 2010

U.S. School system to get Muslim holiday

Cambridge to start observance in 2011-12

As a Muslim and a high school senior at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School, 17-year-old Dunia Kassay faces a tough choice every year on Islamic holy days: go to school or stay home to be with family and friends.

If she stays home, Kassay says, she will be forced to play catch-up and make up her school assignments. But if she goes to school, she will be neglecting what she feels is her religious obligation on holidays such as Eid al-Fitr, which marks the end of Ramadan, the month of fasting.

“It’s really conflicting,’’ Kassay said. “Instead of fasting for a month and enjoying this really big day, eating and going to family’s houses, it’s kind of like, ‘Oh, hey, guys, I’ve got to go do my homework.’ ’’

But beginning next year, Cambridge public schools will attempt to make it easier for Muslim students to honor their highest holy days. In a move that school officials believe is the first of its kind in the state, Cambridge will close schools for one Muslim holiday each year beginning in the 2011-2012 school year.

The school will either close for Eid al-Fitr or Eid al-Adha, also known as the Festival of Sacrifice, depending on which holiday falls within the school year. If both fall within the school calendar, the district will close for only one of the days.

The school district’s decision, announced last month, was made as the national discussion about Islam continues, fueled by a Mosque proposal two blocks from the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in New York and Florida preacher Terry Jones’s threat to burn a Koran. The discussion has also touched local schools, as Wellesley school officials drew criticism recently for a video that showed sixth-grade students kneeling during a prayer service at a Boston mosque during a field trip in May.

But Cambridge School Committee member Marc McGovern, who pushed for the Muslim holiday in city schools, said he thinks people need to take a step back from what he called hysteria and the stereotypes of all Muslims as terrorists.

“At a time when I think the Muslim population is being characterized with a broad brush in a negative way, I think it’s important for us to say we’re not going to do that here,’’ McGovern said.

Cambridge schools already close for some Christian and Jewish holidays, and McGovern said he believes Muslims should be treated equally. “The issue that sort of came up was should we celebrate any religious holidays, but there was not the will to take away Good Friday or one of the Jewish holidays,’’ he said. “So I said, if that is the case, I think we have an obligation to celebrate one of the Muslim holidays, as well.’’

State and federal laws require schools to make reasonable accommodation of the religious needs of students and in observance of holy days, but the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education leaves the decision about how to do that up to individual school districts because they “know best about the needs and unique demographic makeup of their student population and community,’’ said JC Considine, a spokesman for the department.

If a school district has a large number of students who observe Good Friday and would not attend school that day, Considine said the districts are allowed to close because of the expected low attendance. But the state does require districts to schedule at least 180 days of school.

Cambridge School Superintendent Jeffrey Young said the district does not collect information about the religion of its students. But Young said that there is a significant Muslim population in the city, and that, at least anecdotally, the Muslim population in the schools appears to be growing.

A large Muslim population is one of the reasons why the school district in Dearborn, Mich., began closing schools for high Islamic holy days 10 years ago, said David Mustonen, communications coordinator for the school system.

Mustonen said that at first there were some people in the community who didn’t like the schools being closed on Eid holidays. “However, I don’t think this is the case anymore as people have come to realize that it is no different then taking time off at Christmas or Easter,’’ Mustonen said in an e-mail.

In September, public schools in Burlington, Vt., also closed on Eid al-Fitr for the first time, said Dan Balon, director of the school district’s diversity and equity office.

Balon said there is an increasing Muslim population in the schools, and the district decided to close on the holiday rather than risk low attendance rates and force students to decide between school and staying home to celebrate the holiday.

Glenn Koocher, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees, said that to his knowledge Cambridge would be the first school district in Massachusetts to close schools for a Muslim holiday. “Somebody has to be first,’’ said Koocher. “I suspect there may be heightened interest in this. We’ll see how this plays out.’’

Marla Erlien, chairwoman of the Cambridge Human Rights Commission, said the discussion about closing Cambridge schools for an Islamic holiday began several years ago when the commission conducted a survey at Rindge and Latin asking students about discrimination, and at a follow-up forum students raised concerns about how Muslims were a “discarded group’’ whose holidays weren’t recognized in the schools.

From there, several students, including Kassay and Humbi Song, a 2009 graduate of the high school, began working to raise understanding of Arab and Muslim culture at the high school and then advocating for a day off from school on a Muslim holiday.

Song, who is not Muslim, said she tried to promote awareness about Islam at the high school in part because she had Muslim friends who had been made fun of for their religious clothing and headwear. She said she thinks some students were uneducated about Muslim culture.

Erlien said she thinks closing schools on the holiday will help build connections with Muslims in Cambridge. “As their kids come home and say, ‘Oh, look, we now have a holiday,’ the parents might begin to feel safer here,’’ Erlien said.

But McGovern said he’s sure there will be some people who think closing school for a Muslim holiday is a terrible idea. “Can’t please everybody,’’ he said. “You have to do what you think is right.’’


Students win payout after schools spy on them with laptops

A school authority has agreed to pay out $610,000 after admitting it spied on pupils in their homes through the cameras on their laptop computers. About 56,000 pictures of more than 40 pupils were taken by a remote tracking system controlled by officials from the Lower Merion School District in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

The pictures, which included at least one of a pupil as he slept, were taken in an attempt to locate missing school-issued Apple laptops. The tracking system, which allowed officials to look out from the laptops' webcams, was sometimes left on for months after the computers were located, an official inquiry found.

Blake Robbins, a pupil of Harriton High School who was then 15, was awarded $175,000, which is to be placed in a trust. Blake discovered through evidence unearthed when he sued the school authority in February that he was photographed 400 times over two weeks.

He was alerted to the practice when the vice principal of his school told him he had been seen engaging in "improper behaviour". Blake said this meant that sweets he was eating were mistaken for drugs.

School officials claimed that Blake had damaged or destroyed two other school laptops, and had not paid the required $55 insurance fee to be allowed to take his latest computer home.

His mother, Holly, said: "I'm pleased with the outcome. And I'm pleased that we were able to solve the problem and turn the cameras off, and that they put new policies into place."

Jalil Hassan, a second pupil who filed a lawsuit against the school authority, was awarded $10,000. He has since graduated from Lower Merion High School.

The FBI and regional prosecutors chose not to bring criminal charges against the school authority.

Explaining why it settled the case, the authority's president, David Ebby, said a lengthy trial " would have been an unfair distraction for our students and staff and it would have cost taxpayers additional dollars that are better devoted to education."

The remaining $425,000 of the settlement will be paid to the boys' lawyer, Mark Haltzman, for his work on the case.


British government may cap tuition fees at £7,000, says Vince Cable

Business secretary scraps Lib Dem policy of opposition to fees and accepts thrust of Lord Browne's report into university funding

The government may cap tuition fees at £7,000 a year, Vince Cable said today, as he told MPs he accepted the thrust of Lord Browne's report proposing a radical overhaul of higher education funding.

In statement to MPs, the Liberal Democrat business secretary scrapped his party's policy of opposing tuition fees – but he may still face rebellion from his backbenchers. Before the election all Lib Dem MPs, including Cable and Nick Clegg, signed a pledge opposing tuition fees.

Cable told MPs this afternoon: "We are considering a level of £7,000. Many universities and colleges may well decide to charge less than that, since there is clearly scope for greater efficiency and innovation in the way universities operate. Two-year ordinary degrees are one approach.

"Exceptionally, Lord Browne suggests there should be circumstances under which universities can price their courses above this point. But, he suggests, this would be conditional on demonstrating that funds would be invested in securing a good social mix with fair access for students with less privileged backgrounds, and in raising the quality of teaching and learning. We will consider this carefully."

The business secretary said the government endorsed "the main thrust" of Browne's report. "But we are open to suggestions from inside and outside the house over the next few weeks before making specific recommendations to parliament, with a view to implementing the changes for students entering higher education in autumn 2012.

"More detail will be contained in next week's spending review on the funding implications. But as a strategic direction the government believes the report is on the right lines."

He said one of the government's proposals might be "exempting the poorest students from graduate contributions for some or all of their studies".

Directly addressing the issue of the breaking of the Lib Dem pledge, Cable said that he was the first member of his family to go to university, something he did not have to pay for. He would like others to have that opportunity, he said, but in the current circumstances that was not possible.

"I signed that pledge with my colleagues," he said. "[But] in the current financial situation ... which we inherited, all pledges, all commitments, will have to be reexamined from first principles."

John Denham, the shadow business secretary, reminded Cable that Clegg had said before the election that increasing tuition fees would be "a disaster". "Promises were made by the business secretary and the deputy prime minister at the last election that should not be lightly thrown away," Denham said.

Cable plans an early repayment penalty for tuition fees to prevent rich graduates paying less for their university education than those on middle incomes by avoiding cumulative interest payments, the Guardian has learned. He outlined the proposal to Lib Dem MPs last night. It is not clear how exactly he would organise the penalty, but it suggests he recognises there is a flaw in the scheme being proposed by Browne that makes the scheme less progressive than it might be. It is also not clear whether the early repayment penalty has the support of the Conservatives.

Browne proposed the cap on tuition fees – currently £3,290 a year – should be entirely lifted, with graduates starting to repay the cost of their degrees when they start earning £21,000 a year, up from £15,000 under the current system. Institutions charging more than £6,000 would have to pay a rising percentage of each additional £1,000 as a levy to government.

The interest rate at which graduates pay back their loans would be at the government's cost of borrowing – inflation plus 2.2%. However, those students earning below £21,000 would pay no real interest rate under the Browne plans. Their loan balance would increase in line with inflation.

But the business secretary is battling to prevent a full-scale rebellion taking hold of his party over Browne's proposals.

Greg Mulholland, the Liberal Democrat MP for Leeds North West, emerged as the ringleader of the rebellion, warning: "Without Lib Dem support and with Lib Dem ministers abstaining, it will be very difficult to get this through.

"It is certainly my belief that this is not a done deal and the strength of feeling among Lib Dem MPs could derail any attempts to see fees rising substantially and I will certainly be doing everything I can to make that happen."

Mulholland insisted that his rebellion did not a represent a threat to the future of the coalition arrangement.

He added: "I do not think this is a threat at all because it [the agreement] clearly states that Lib Dems will be allowed to abstain."

Many Liberal Democrat MPs know their credibility and chances of retaining their seats rest on showing they are fighting the rise in tuition fees.

Simon Hughes, the Lib Dem deputy leader, called for all Lib Dems to "consider fully" both Browne's proposals and the government's response. He said his fellow MPs were "very conscious of the positions we have taken on higher education and the policies we campaigned for at the last election".

"Parliament should only support a progressive system which takes into account future earnings and makes sure that those who benefit most financially from a university education contribute the most," Hughes – who functions as a lightning rod for Lib Dem discontent – added.

Tim Farron, the Lib Dem MP who is standing for the post of party president, wrote on the Twitter website that he would vote against an increase in tuition fees. "Unhappy with Browne report & would vote against fee rise," Farron posted.

John Leech, the Lib Dem MP for Manchester Withington, said: "I signed the NUS pledge and supported our manifesto, which promised to vote against any rise in tuition fees. I am going to keep that promise. This is a political red line for me."

His fellow MP Stephen Williams told Radio 5 Live he was unhappy about tuition fees going up and said he would "certainly" vote against the government if the Browne report was just about increasing tuition fees. But he hinted that, if Cable were to produce a more progressive scheme, he could support it. "Effectively at the moment you've got a flat-rate poll tax on all new graduates and if Vince is able to come up with a progressive system with different thresholds, perhaps different rates of repayment – you wouldn't call it a graduate tax, but it will have elements of graduation within it – that will be a much more progressive system for repayment than we have at the moment."

Gordon Birtwistle, the Liberal Democrat MP for Burnley, who is a parliamentary private secretary in the Treasury, said: "At the moment, the Browne report as it is, is unpalatable, and we need to see what changes we can make. I was against an increase in tuition fees, but the financial situation makes it inevitable that it will happen. The country is basically bankrupt."

Asked how he would vote, Birtwistle said: "I am keeping my powder dry."

John Hemming, the Lib Dem MP for Birmingham Yardley, also gave a measured response, saying: "If you have a progressive scheme in which people on high incomes pay more than those on low incomes then it is moving towards a graduate tax. I will be getting out my calculator and studying the proposals in detail. One question is whether it is the fees system or a progressive graduate contribution."

Clegg knows that many of his minsters will be free to abstain, and many are likely to do so, but he cannot yet know if public opinion will see that as sufficient form of resistance.

Linda Jack, a member of the Lib Dems' federal policy committee, told the BBC's World at One she thought around 30 Lib Dem MPs could rebel over tuition fees. "I expect them to vote against because, frankly, if they abstain they are effectively voting for, because they know that if they abstain it will go through. The integrity of the party is at stake here. Everybody signed that pledge that they would vote against an increase in tuition fees so they have really got to stick to their guns on this."

Liberal Youth, the youth and student wing of the Liberal Democrats, warned that removing the cap on tuition fees would lead to unrestricted costs and a market in higher education.

Martin Shapland, the group's chairman, said: "You simply cannot build our future on debt. This move has the potential to cripple students with unprecedented levels of debt which will act as a real deterrent to those from poorer backgrounds seeking a better life through the education system.

"Higher fees will not be acceptable to grassroots Lib Dems and, I imagine, most of the parliamentary party."


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