What School Calendars Say About Belonging

By Nancy B. Greer
President & CEO
The first day of kindergarten is a momentous day for children and their parents. It’s a special day for taking pictures, meeting the teacher, making new friends, and creating lasting memories. When that milestone event in the lives of Jewish children conflicts with one of the holiest days on the Jewish calendar, families are forced to make a heartbreaking choice.

Recently, the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle learned that Seattle Public Schools’ calendar for the 2021-2022 school year scheduled the first day of kindergarten on Rosh Hashanah. In the past week, your Federation’s advocacy team brought together Jewish community leaders to swiftly mobilize and sent a letter to district leadership that was signed by over 1,200 Jewish and non-Jewish faith leaders, local and state elected officials, district staff, teachers, and parents.

Fortunately, the district listened and agreed to reschedule the first day of kindergarten—demonstrating the power of what is possible when we come together and collaborate. Yet the issue of culturally sensitive school calendaring remains unresolved. Most immediately, the WaKIDS kindergarten readiness program that the Legislature mandated as part of funding all-day kindergarten will take place in Seattle on Rosh Hashanah this year. More broadly, conflicts between major school events and holidays celebrated by minority communities are a recurring pattern. For the 2018-2019 school year, Seattle scheduled the first day of kindergarten on Rosh Hashanah. In 2019, the district asked Muslim students not to fast during state-mandated standardized testing that took place during Ramadan.

We understand that setting school calendars is not an easy task, especially now, when the global pandemic has created unthinkable challenges for educators. We appreciate how hard they work to meet the needs of students, families, teachers, and staff, and to ensure the health and safety of the entire school community at this difficult time.

Nevertheless, culturally insensitive school calendars cannot be left unaddressed. Intended or not, date conflicts between major school events and religious holidays are a micro-aggression. Out of such actions, bias and discrimination can take root and spread. Our letter to Seattle school leaders proposed a constructive way forward: a regularized process for integrating culturally sensitive dates into school calendar planning, in order to avoid conflicts between religious holidays and major school events whenever possible.

We recognize that sometimes, conflicts will be unavoidable. Better planning can ensure that such conflicts are the result of genuine necessity, rather than the matter not receiving due priority. Jewish and other faith leaders stand ready to help educators implement culturally sensitive considerations into school calendar planning.

Thanks to the support of our generous donors, the Federation had capacity to take on this issue. Our organizational value of Kehilla/Areivut, Community/Mutual Responsibility, empowers active Jewish engagement to repair our world. Ensuring that our schools create a sense of belonging for all children of all backgrounds is critical for building a more just and welcoming world that works for all.