Monday, November 29, 2010

Some Massachusetts school districts may drop religious holidays

I'm guessing that attendance will be rather poor on Christmas day

School officials in Acton, Boxborough, and Harvard are looking at removing all religious holidays from next year’s school calendars.

Currently, classes in the districts are not held on a Christian holiday, Good Friday, and the Jewish holidays of Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashana.

The Acton-Boxborough Regional School Committee is scheduled to discuss the issue and vote on next year’s calendar during its meeting Thursday night, while the Harvard School Committee has scheduled a vote for Dec. 13.

Harvard’s School Committee chairman, Keith Cheveralls, said all indications point to the board eliminating the holidays from the calendar. The committee held a meeting on the issue Monday, and discussed a proposal that calls for eliminating religious holidays, and a second policy ensuring that all students and faculty are given reasonable accommodations to observe them, he said.

“It was quite apparent that the committee has a desire to move to a model where we do not recognize religious holidays,’’ Cheveralls said.

Last year, Harvard appointed a subcommittee to study the proposal, but it was unable to reach a recommendation, he said. “It’s a very emotional issue. We’ve tried to be very thoughtful and be considerate of all views.’’

The move to drop the holidays does not appear to have as much support in the Acton-Boxborough school district, where Superintendent Stephen Mills said he has recommended making no changes to the school calendar. It would mean no classes would be held at the regional district’s junior and senior high schools on Good Friday, Yom Kippur, and Rosh Hashana.

To help the committee make a decision, the district asked parents and faculty to take a survey. Mills said the survey, which closed on Nov. 19, found that the district would require a significant number of substitute teachers if classes are held on those holidays.

“It would be difficult but we could accommodate the Jewish holidays,’’ Mills said. “Good Friday presents a real problem in terms of my ability to manage the school system. That would be really problematic.’’

The survey found that 43 teachers would take off the Jewish holidays and 157 teachers would not work on Good Friday. On a typical day, the district uses about 15 to 20 substitutes, Mills said.

Of the 5,500 students in the middle and high school district, about 200 students would stay home on the Jewish holidays, and 300 on Good Friday, he said. The district is about 90 percent Christian and 7 percent Jewish; the remainder is other religions.

Other schools have also considered changes involving religious holidays.

In Natick, the School Committee recently approved a calendar that keeps its observance of Rosh Hashana at two days. Superintendent Peter Sanchioni had proposed reducing it to a single day. Rosh Hashana, one of the holiest days in Judaism, marks the beginning of the Jewish New Year. Some Jews celebrate the holiday for one day while others celebrate it for two days. Framingham has two days off for the holiday, while Wayland, Newton, Dover-Sherborn, and Wellesley have one.

In Cambridge, school officials have decided to cancel classes on one Muslim holiday beginning with the next school year.

In Harvard, Cheveralls said the School Committee is acting on the religious holidays issue because some residents and members question whether the system should single out any religions for special treatment. He pointed out that the town now has some 19 cultures and it would be difficult to satisfy each with a holiday.


The NYC disaster continues

City schools chancellor nominee Cathie Black insists she's connected to public education via a highly touted charter school - but a close look shows she's had no contact with students, parents or teachers there.

Officials at the Harlem Village Academies admit the school's National Leadership Board, which Black joined just five months ago, has never met. That board "has no operational or governing authority" over the school and exists for "support purposes only," the school said in response to Daily News questions.

Black primarily advised the school's CEO, Deborah Kenny, on "management, leadership, and the development of a book" Kenny is writing, the school said.

Harlem Village parents and former employees had little knowledge of Black, who is expected to get a state waiver that will allow her to take the job despite having almost no education experience. "No, no, no, she's not with us," said the parent of a sixth-grader. "She's not on our board. We have a lot of people who give money, lots of very famous people come here. That could be what it is." A second parent added, "I've heard of Cathie Black from the papers, but she's not part of this school."

Black's link to Harlem Village appears to be her only connection to New York public schools. She went to Catholic school, sent her children to a Connecticut boarding school and spent her career in the publishing business.

A former Harlem Village employee said Black visited the school in 2009 at Kenny's invitation as a possible donor. After that, the former employee never saw Black again. Harlem Village officials said Black started on the board in July, a month after she lost her job as president of Hearst Magazines. It's not clear when Mayor Bloomberg first approached Black with the idea of becoming chancellor.

Whatever Black's role there, Harlem Village has little in common with the average public school. Kenny, who oversees 450 students, is paid $442,000, including a $140,000 "bonus" and $27,780 in "other" expenses.

The schools chancellor gets $250,000 to oversee 1.1 million students.

Many charter schools have a parent representative on their board. Harlem Village does not.

Bloomberg has called the school a national "poster child" for school reform. Conservative media mogul Rupert Murdoch gave $5 million toward construction of the new high school.

The school has been lauded nationally for its high test scores, including for pushing 100% of its eighth-graders to pass state math tests.

A look at the overall scores tells a different tale. In the last round of tests, like schools across New York, numbers dropped precipitously after the state made the tests tougher.


The British schools where English is a foreign language for 80% of pupils

Children who speak English as their first language are in a minority in a rapidly growing number of schools, figures reveal. The surge has been most pronounced in London, where in some boroughs youngsters with a different mother tongue make up nearly 80 per cent of primary pupils.

However it is not confined to the capital. In Birmingham, Bradford and Leicester more than 40 per cent of pupils across all primary schools do not count English as their first language. Nationally, English is a foreign tongue to nearly one in six youngsters in primary schools.

The figures, to be published this week, have almost doubled during the past decade and are projected to increase to 23 per cent – 830,000 out of 3.5million – by 2018.

There are concerns that the increases will place school finances under strain as a growing number of youngsters require help with English. MigrationWatch, which conducted the study using figures from the Office for National Statistics, believes that over the next five years more than 500,000 extra school places will be needed for the children of immigrants who arrived in Britain after 1998. This will cost the Treasury £40billion, equal to a penny in the pound on the basic rate of income tax.

Sir Andrew Green, chairman of MigrationWatch UK, said the trend will lower education standards for native English-speaking children. He said: ‘These pupils will of course continue through the education system but it is primary schools where the effect is being felt most acutely at present and where English-speaking children are bound to suffer as immigrant children require extra help.’

The figures reflect a more than four-fold increase in immigration since Labour came to power. Net annual immigration has increased from 48,000 in 1997 to 215,000 in 2009. Across London as a whole, children who speak English as a second language total nearly a half of all pupils – 44.6 per cent.

But in inner London, they number 55 per cent of primary school pupils, and in boroughs such as Tower Hamlets, Westminster and Newham, they form nearly eight in ten of primary pupils.

The lowest populations of youngsters with English as a second language are in the South West and North East. Outside London, the area with the biggest proportion of pupils without English as their first language is Slough, Berkshire. The education authority to record the sharpest increase in the past decade was Luton, Bedfordshire, where almost half have a different mother tongue.

However, while the figures show the number of pupils who are not native English speakers, they do not take into account their fluency in English. Recent Government figures on reading and writing skills among 11-year-olds, show, on average, that children of Indian and Chinese ethnicity outstrip their white British counterparts.

Hazel Blears, a Communities Secretary under Labour, was involved in the party’s immigration policy. She said the figures should be treated with caution. ‘They may be first-generation immigrants and their parents may not speak English, but they [the children] might do.

‘That said, you have to recognise that where you have a large surge in the number of people coming from other countries then you have to deal with that by, for example, having more teaching assistants,’ she said.

Labour has been criticised for almost doubling the number of teaching assistants in schools while the number of qualified teachers remained relatively static.


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