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Board Approves Calendar Despite Concerns About Starting on Muslim Holiday

At last week's meeting, the school board approved the calendar for the 2011-2012 school year, but not without opposition from board members Rebecca Gagnon, Hussein Samatar, and Richard Mammen.

Tuesday night, the Minneapolis Board of Education approved its calendar for the 2011-2012 school year, but not without opposition from some new board members over starting school on one of the year's biggest Muslim holidays. The vote to approve the calendar anyway was 5-3.

 The calendar ties into a larger debate about “cultural competence” and acceptance that’s been simmering in the Minneapolis schools community for a long time, in various forms. At issue on Tuesday was the fact that this year’s Eid al-Fitr, the Muslim holiday marking the end of the fast month of Ramadan will fall on either the first or the second day of school under next year’s calendar.

Board members Rebecca Gagnon, Hussein Samatar and Richard Mammen supported moving the start of the school year to the other side of Labor Day to accomodate Muslim students (video, audio, and minutes available here).

Eid al-Fitr, like Easter, moves around a lot, as its date is set by a lunar calendar.

Samatar pointed out that many Muslim students—including members of the city’s large Somali community—would likely be missing school that day. He suggested that this year’s quirk of calendars represented an valuable opportunity to make a gesture of understanding towards the district’s Muslim families by moving the start date to the other side of Labor Day. Gagnon agreed, criticizing the calendar committee for scheduling a grading day on Good Friday, 2012.  

“As a Christian, I’d take Good Friday off," Gagnon said. "I don’t see how this is different.”

Theresa Battle, associate superintendent for Area 3 and the calendar committee’s representative at Tuesday night’s meeting, said that while the committee considered the holiday question after Samatar raised it at the Feb. 8 board meeting, they decided that it was more important to schedule as many instructional days before high-stakes tests in the spring in order to give students as much prep time as possible.

So what to do? Mamen offered one suggestion explaining his “no” vote on the calendar: using time in the rest of the school year more effectively to make up for the lost days.

Other topics discussed at the school board meeting:

  • In a long discussion, the board debated $1.7 million worth of  Special Education Services contracts with several tutoring firms. The program in question is called Reading And Math Partners (RAMP). Board members Gagnon, Mamen, Monserrate and Samatar raised questions about why the district was not apparently hiring these tutors from the city's minority communities, where he said many of the SES students are concentrated. Council of Black Churches Chairman Bill English attacked this board and its predecessors for not including a requirement for tutors providing services in the schools to demonstrate that they have success working with the relevant minority communities. District staff that designed the short-term tutoring program, meant to help students pass Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment tests this spring, tried to counter these criticisms by pointing out that they had included a way for the district to hold the firms accountable for results. Director Carla Bates spoke up in favor of the program. She said that a failure to approve the program, which tutors 500 students, would be like shooting ourselves in the foot."
  • The board passed a resolution supporting the idea that reducing high school dropout rates was a good idea.
  • Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson delivered an update on the North High redesign, stressing that the school was not closing.
  • The board held a discussion meeting where new members were brought up to speed on how the budgeting process works.

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