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Schools' December dilemma

December 24, 2001

By DIANE D’AMICO Education Writer, (609) 272-7241

There is a tree sitting in the lobby of the Reeds Road School in Galloway Township.

It is not a Christmas tree.

"It's a Giving Tree," principal William Zipparo said.

As students brought in items for the Atlantic County Women's Shelter, they wrote their names on construction paper stars and hung them on the tree. The red, white and blue stars highlight the patriotic spirit of the 2001 holiday season.

Christmas isn't what it used to be in area schools. Reeds Road music teacher Brian Cook can remember when school concerts routinely included holiday carols that today only would be acceptable at a church service.

"We have some music books from 10-12 years ago that have songs I know I wouldn't use today," Cook said. "You really have to think twice when you're picking songs."

December is a potential minefield of holidays: Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, and Eid El Fitr, the Islamic end of fasting, weave their way through the month, sometimes overlapping.

Schools with large multicultural populations are particularly sensitive about how to recognize the holidays, without seeming to promote or favor any one of them.

The Anti-Defamation League calls it the "December Dilemma."

"We are in favor of education, talking about the history of holidays and religions," said Shai Goldstein, New Jersey Director of the ADL. "But we are opposed to religious celebrations in schools."

The difference can straddle a fine line, especially as America becomes more diverse. The ADL Web site offers guidelines for schools based on legal decisions and the Constitution. It also handles complaints from parents.

"It is still a problem," Goldstein said. "Usually someone just crosses the line and gears a program to one faith. Usually we can resolve it quietly with local school officials."

At the Brighton Avenue School in Atlantic City, a glass-enclosed case in the main hallway displays posters on the history of Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Christmas, the Feast of Santa Lucia and the Nine Days of Posada from Mexico.

"We have 12 languages spoken here," school principal Melinda Peyton said. "This neighborhood is a real melting pot. The children learn very early that we all have our own identities. The holidays are a time to share customs, not religious beliefs."

The fourth-graders made the posters, learning about holiday customs in the native countries of their classmates. Kindergarteners added some decorations.

Students eagerly shared their traditions, some of which they continue in their American homes.

"We have a pinata full of candy that you hit with a stick until it breaks," Cesar Ortiz, who is from Mexico, said. "I like Christmas here because we might get snow."

"We try to make everyone feel included," Peyton said. The school will recognize the Feast of the Three Kings in January and the Chinese New Year in February.

She said parents can legally take their children out of school for major religious or cultural holidays, and teachers try to be aware of days when a number of students might be absent.

"It's a learning experience for us all," Peyton said.

The holiday dilemma is not limited to December. The state Department of Education has a list of 66 holidays for which students can legally be excused from school, from the Baha'i Birth of the Bab in October to the Hindu Makara Sankranti in January. In 2002 both the Chinese New Year and Shrove Tuesday fall on the same day, Feb. 12.

Back at the Reeds Road School, the chorus and band performed their holiday show for classmates in preparation for the evening show for parents.

A song called "Christmas Makes Me Sing" talks about how wonderful Christmas is, but does not mention Jesus. There is a Hanukkah song, a Ukrainian Bell Carol, and a rousing version of "America the Beautiful."

Band director Ben Fong said with elementary students you also have consider the ability level of the young musicians. Picking familiar songs makes it easier for the children to learn. But he also thinks carefully about what the band will play.

"You find yourself picking songs about winter," said chorus director Cook, who admits to feeling a bit wistful about having to pass up some beautiful songs because they are too religious for a public elementary-school program.

"It does make me wonder about the future of holiday programs," he said.

Goldstein wouldn't mind if public schools eliminated holiday-themed celebrations because they can't endorse the religious meanings behind them.

"We are very pro-religion, and we don't want to dilute it," he said. "Programs in schools don't add anything to the real meaning of the holidays, and teachers shouldn't be religious leaders. We strongly believe children should learn about their faith, just not in public school."

©Copyright 2001, Press Plus (Atlantic City)

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