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Merry Christmas

During the Holiday season, the schools are becoming the new battleground over the role of religion in annual cermonies. Some school districts are examining the need for a gift giving policies for teachers. In December, 2006, Bakersfield school district became the first school in district in California to rename the year end two week break as the Christmas recess after twenty years being called Winter recess. In January, 2007, three newly elected school board members pursued changing the Winter Break back to Christmas Break.

State Superintendent of Education Jack OConnell published his top ten activities for the Holiday break.

Joy to the World or Bah Humbug! -- Your Choice

By Jeanne Allen, CER President December 14, 2004

Typically around this time of year, this blog might be called “Joy to the World” or “’Tis the Season,” but lately, there seems to be some hysteria around the appalling notion that anyone in the public realm should speak of anything related to why it is we even have a season to celebrate, let alone want to sing out of bringing joy to the world.

That's particularly true in public schools, where from coast to coast, it appears that some school officials think the Holiday season should be relegated to a pagan winter wonderland rather than allow kids to sing out the messages brought forth over thousands of years from Christmas and Hanukkah.

What does this have to do with school or education reform? Everything. Schools that pretend holidays celebrated and cherished by more than 90 percent of Americans (or so says Gallup) are taboo reinforce the fact that education is this country is in dire need of reform.

School is the place where communities most often converge. They are places that were intended to foster education of the senses, and of the mind. Schools stimulate the brain and the passions. Good schools provide guidance to those who need it, and its leaders serve as models for doing good and right across the lessons schools teach. Parents believe that schools are the places that reinforce education in the broadest sense, from history and civics (which include cultures) to fundamentals (like reading and math), which are gateways to becoming wholly educated.

What was in the mind of the McHenry County, Illinois school principal who allowed children to sing a Jamaican folk song AND of Hanukkah candles, and even Santa, but were prohibited from referring to Christmas? School officials called the omission “inadvertent.” Teachers put together a "balance of music" that was celebratory for the kids, they said. Balanced, that is, for everyone but the children for whom Christmas is their alpha and their omega.

But there's a lesson here for education reform advocates. It's the same lesson we learned during the reading wars, when instruction over whether to teach children how letters sound and related to one another (phonics) once clashed with the notion that simply absorbing books (whole language) would take care of that fundamental.

It was battles like that -- pre-brain research that definitively found children need phonics to become good readers -- that gave rise to the movement for school choice.

When revisionist history became the norm in popular textbooks in most states, the cause for school choice was similarly reinforced. After all, if a state, such as California, was going to require that history texts offered the "right numerical balance of genders and minorities" -- fat and skinny people, tall and short -- at the expense of the story of the American founding, parents would want to seek an alternative to the mandated curricular blather and mis-education that was being forced on their kids.

Such ridiculous discoveries fortified the notion that if conventional public schools were going to tow the line of bureaucracies and thought police, and ensure that children were rarely taught that which they were sent to school to really learn, perhaps parents would have more success if they did the choosing over how and what their kids were taught.

Private schools have always allowed such choice, for those who can afford them. From small, Quaker-like independent schools to structured Catholic schools, private schools have, since before this nation's founding, offered much diversity, albeit to the few.

But it is the development of charter schools that owe themselves mostly to the war over content. Not surprisingly, charter schools gave concerned citizens a place to develop schools that would be more likely to meet their criteria for good education. Be it back to basics or experiential learning, the charter movement that began in 1991 gave relief to parents who were stuck in schools teaching nonsense, or stuck in schools that simply were not teaching. Today the nation's 3,400 schools are mirrors of the diversity America should embrace for all of its schools. They are smaller and more diverse. They often specialize in certain modes of instruction – 14 percent offer core knowledge (a program that is historically accurate and rich in literary content); 13 percent consider themselves college-prep, another 13 science-math focussed, and yet another 13 percent are direct instruction or thematically based. Some focus on the arts, others stress Montessori, some are constructivist and some outward bound.

I'm sure most don't discourage Christmas carols or Hanukah songs, because I know that most charter school leaders take seriously the fact that they exist because parents want them to exist, not because they are propped up artificially by mandated enrollment. And because charters are smaller and more personal and more likely to serve poor children, they probably go out of their way to reinforce holidays because their students’ home lives may be lacking in some way.

But whether or not they do celebrate the holidays as opposed to pretend they don’t exist, parents can make their own determination and choose whether or not they want their children educated in the manner the charter has been set up to operate.

Avid Newswire readers also know that beyond charters, some states -- and cities -- also allow less fortunate children the wonderful opportunity to attend a private school of choice. Many of them religious in nature and most of them oversubscribed with hundreds on waiting lists for precious few scholarships, these schools provide additional support for families and values that are often the subject of discrimination in more secularly-sensitive environments.

So you make the choice. Want to be a Bah Humbug-no-holidays-ever -mentioned-in-school-kind-of-person with no carols or Christmas cookie treats along side the Santa and the Dreidel? Want to be a Joy-to-the-World "it's so cute to see the kids singing all sorts of songs at their annual concert and cutting out little angels to hang on windows" kind of person?

Just like you can turn on a radio program that is blaring Christmas carols -- or turn it off -- you should be able to make a more fundamental decision for your own children, and that is, the kind of environment they spend as much as 30 percent of their waking hours in, during holidays and throughout the year.

Rather than give the lawyers and the ACLU more income, let's adopt our own kind of tort reform -- education choice -- and ensure that beyond the state's standards for proficiency, every child has a chance to be in a school that their family thinks best meets their broadest educational needs and the community values their families holds dear.

Until that day, here's wishing you a Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah and Peace to all!

Jeanne Allen is President of The Center for Education Reform (CER), which creates opportunities for and challenges obstacles to better education for America’s communities. Founded in 1993, CER combines education policy with grassroots advocacy to foster positive and bold education reforms.

A Pandora's box for teachers

With ethics and emotions to think of, schools assess their policies on accepting gifts from students

By Carla Rivera, Los Angeles Times December 19, 2006

Finding the perfect gift to express the holiday spirit is never easy, but students and their parents have been known to bestow on favorite teachers tokens both weird and lavish.

They have included the practical — homemade bread, body lotions and pricey gift certificates; the eclectic — handmade noodles from a father who owns a noodle factory and custom-made CDs recorded at one family's home; and the plain eccentric — a ceramic urn engraved with the phrase "teacher's ashes."

As teachers receive their umpteenth coffee mug imprinted with a red-suited Santa, colored Hanukkah candles and other mementos of the season's festivities, many say a heartfelt note of thanks is what's most treasured.

"Every year, those sorts of things are sweet and very appreciated," said Azizi Gibbs, a former teacher and now assistant director at the Sequoyah School, a private elementary campus in Pasadena.

But the gift-giving tradition that has been around as long as children have walked through school doors is also provoking soul-searching among educators concerned with the ethical implications of parents' largesse. Many schools — public and private — are adopting policies that discourage gifts or impose limitations so that particular teachers aren't favored with armfuls of goodies while others head out for holiday vacation empty-handed.

The policies also lift the financial burden on students of little means who might feel compelled to compete with their better-off peers, said many school officials.

Recent news stories about a public school in Irvine where faculty allegedly demanded expensive jewels, perfumes and clothing in exchange for accepting a special needs student also have reinforced some educators' desire to reconsider what is an appropriate expression of appreciation.

"After that broke in the news, a couple of board members came to me saying we don't have a policy, maybe we should look at it," said Beverly Hills Unified School District Supt. Kari McVeigh.

The Beverly Hills district is looking to adopt guidelines that will make it easier for teachers to say thanks but no thanks to gifts that seem inappropriate. But McVeigh — who admitted to receiving in a long career more Avon products than any human being could possibly use — said teachers shouldn't have to adopt Scrooge-like personas during the holidays.

"I'm not inclined to move forward on a no-gift policy. I want staff and teachers to feel that students and their families can show gratitude."

The Noble and Greenough School, a private campus in Dedham, Mass., discourages significant gift-giving to teachers and even on-campus gift exchanges among students.

"A piece of our rationale is that we always want our teachers to do what they believe is in the best interests of their students, be it in grading or who to keep on a team, and to not feel particularly indebted to parents," said Ben Snyder, head of the upper school. "That could create an inherent conflict of interest and temptation to compromise integrity that we really don't want to be a part of."

Employees of the Los Angeles Unified School District cannot receive gifts worth more than $100 from any one source in a calendar year. A further rule prohibits teachers from accepting gifts of "material value" from students. But the rule does not define "material value," and school principals have discretion over what to allow.

Still, the district has bolstered its ethics office and will launch an initiative next year to make teachers more aware of the gift policy and encourage parents to support school-wide programs rather than individual teachers, said ethics officer Yea-Lan Chiang.

Campuses such as Berkeley Hall in Los Angeles and the Walden School in Pasadena have adopted holiday funds, to which families can make cash contributions to be divided equally among faculty and staff — usually in the form of gift certificates to large retailers and bookstores.

At the Aspen Country Day School, an independent school in Colorado, a parent committee sends letters and collects checks for the Teacher's Holiday Fund. Full-time teachers receive an average of $550.

"As a parent who has so much going on at holiday time, it's so much easier to write one check and it goes to all my kids' teachers," said Robin Danell, who has worked on the fundraising effort for years. "That's the completely selfish angle. It's easy. I don't put any thought into it. I used to bake cookies; we don't even do that anymore."

Still, many families, infused with holiday cheer, continue to share tidings with teachers in myriad ways. Alison Quoyeser, a teacher at the Ross School, a public elementary in wealthy Marin County, said gifts there have included overnight stays in bed and breakfast inns, massages at exclusive spas and gift certificates for upscale restaurants.

Her most memorable gift came from an especially creative room mother:

"She created a treasure hunt of handwritten clues in rhyme that led me and my class of fourth-graders all around the school until we finally arrived at the gift: bottles of frosty Orangina, exquisite little fruit tarts for all and a colorful scrapbook of pictures and words of appreciation from each student."

One of the more macabre gifts, the ceramic urn, was given to a teacher at the Aspen school, said communications director Carolyn Hines. "She recalls wondering, 'What am I supposed to do with this?' " Hines said.

At the Sequoyah School, which received the noodles, administrators considered adopting a gift policy this year but decided against it.

"Parents feel strongly about the gifts they give, and many look forward to this chance," said Gibbs, who attended Sequoyah as a student and remembers giving nicely wrapped baked goods to her teachers.

The arts-minded Bando family began recording CDs for Sequoyah faculty about five years ago, using father Toshi Bando's home recording equipment and cover art designed by daughters Emily, 11, Jazzmyn, 8, and twins Melody and Minuet, 9. Their first CD was titled "Bandos Singing Beatles," and the discs have become a holiday tradition.

The latest release, handed out Friday at the school's holiday party, is "Bandos Singing Folk Songs," with such ditties as "This Land Is Your Land" and "Puff the Magic Dragon."

"Every year we say we're not going to give them anymore because it's so corny," mother Lillian Bando said. "But the kids say, no, we have to think of gifts for our teachers." She said the teachers play the annual CD in school, "and it turned out that the other students love it too. It's a great way to celebrate teachers and students and what they learn in school."

Jesus returns -- to Bakersfield district's school calendar

By Steve Chawkins, Los Angeles Times, December 22, 2006

After an absence of nearly 20 years, Christmas is back on the calendar at high schools throughout Bakersfield and surrounding communities.

At a contentious meeting Thursday, board members of one of the largest secondary-school districts in the state voted to change "winter recess" to "Christmas recess" and "spring recess" to "Easter recess."

Officials of the 36,000-student Kern High School District said they were reclaiming terms that had been needlessly washed away by a tide of political correctness in the late 1980s. The district is just the latest of several nationwide that have taken such action in the last year or two.

"I don't buy the secular atheist agenda that we should expunge all religious dialogue from the public forum," said board member Chad Vegas, a recently elected Bakersfield pastor who called for the renaming. "I don't believe we should exclude a traditional American holiday from the calendar under the pressure of political correctness."

But Rabbi Cheryl Rosenstein wasn't swayed by Vegas' assertions that no offense was meant to non-Christians.

"He indicated that he didn't intend to make minorities feel like second-class citizens," she said, "but we have to acknowledge that people who aren't Christian can potentially feel that way. It's no secret that Christmas and Easter are two of the most sacred holidays on the Christian calendar."

Rosenstein, who leads the 170 families of Temple Beth El, Bakersfield's largest Jewish congregation, called the board's 4-1 vote "tremendously disappointing." She said board members appeared to brush off a letter she presented that was signed by a dozen local religious leaders representing Muslims, Methodists, Catholics and other groups.

"Please leave spiritual matters to us in our homes and houses of worship, where they properly belong," the letter said.

The discussion in Bakersfield echoed debates before school boards in other conservative communities around the country. In Missouri, criminal defense attorney Dee Wampler has persuaded about seven mostly small districts to change their calendars, and next year aims to do the same in St. Louis.

"I try to downplay the Christian or religious standpoint and emphasize our history, tradition and culture," he said. "There's this effort to bring Kwanzaa and other things into the schools, but the fact that we're allowing Muslims and others to immigrate to our country doesn't mean we have to sacrifice our tradition."

In Scottsdale, Ariz., the conservative legal group Alliance Defense Fund has sent lengthy "information letters" to 11,500 school districts "reminding school officials that they and all Americans still have the right to free speech — that it's OK to celebrate Christmas, even in public," said Mike Johnson, the group's senior counsel.

"Most school officials don't have a personal agenda to silence religious expression," said Johnson, who advised board members changing the calendar in a Colorado Springs district. "But rather than take on leftist groups making demands, they just bow to the pressure."

With Christmas a federal holiday and the Supreme Court's approval of some Nativity displays on public property, the law sides with people who want their children to enjoy a Christmas break instead of a winter break, he said.

In California, vacation designations are left to local districts, said a spokesman for the California School Boards Assn. But many districts voluntarily opted for "winter" over Christmas after a 1988 law required state agencies to do so, Kern High School District officials said.

Board member Ken Mettler said he found no indication that the Bakersfield board held a hearing on the matter at the time — an omission he felt was corrected on Thursday.

"We shouldn't arbitrarily change things like this without public input," said Mettler, who engineered a similar change two years ago as a board member of the rural Rosedale elementary district.

To Rob Boston, a spokesman for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the effort at liberation seemed needlessly divisive.

"Why would public school administrators take in-your-face actions that might alienate some students?" he said. "I can only ask them: What would Jesus do?"

3 Capo Unified trustees want 'Christmas' put back in the vacation

They say they're just calling it 'what it is.' Some parents are offended by the proposal

By Seema Mehta,, Los Angeles Times, January 11, 2007

Three newly elected school board members in southern Orange County want to rename the two-week winter vacation the "Christmas" recess.

Ellen Addonizio, Anna Bryson and Larry Christensen, who were elected to the Capistrano Unified School District Board of Trustees in November, say they are not pushing religion into public schools, but are honoring the federal holiday that falls on Dec. 25.

"Traditionally, it was always called that," Christensen said. "It's what it is: Christmas break."

Some parents recoiled at the proposal.

"I'm very offended by what they're doing," said Gila Jones, a San Juan Capistrano mother whose two children graduated from district schools. "I'm not Jewish, I'm not Muslim, but if they think that this is respectful of our non-Christian students and their parents and community members, they are fools."

The proposal comes at a time of growing backlash against what some argue is an attempt to drive religion out of public life.

In recent years, shoppers boycotted Wal-Mart and other retailers whose employees greeted customers with "Happy holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas." Politicians, including Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, were urged to refer to the decorated conifers that graced state capitals around the nation as "Christmas trees" rather than "holiday trees."

The vacation issue surfaced at Capistrano Unified's board meeting Monday, the first since the new trustees were sworn in. During a routine discussion of school calendars, Addonizio questioned whether the holiday break could be renamed, according to Beverly de Nicola, district spokeswoman.

Attempts to reach Addonizio were unsuccessful, but De Nicola said she reasoned that because Christmas "is recognized by the federal government as a holiday, then the school district should be able to use that same wording."

Bryson agreed, and asked district staff to research whether any legal restrictions would bar such a change. Bryson and Christensen said Wednesday they supported changing the name. The other four trustees could not be reached for comment.

Vacation names are decided by local districts. Starting in the late 1980s, many districts began using the term "winter break." But some schools are going back to the old name.

In December, the 36,000-student Kern High School District decided to rechristen its holiday break.

Districts in Arizona and Missouri also have renamed their vacations.

Deborah Lauter, national civil rights director for the Anti-Defamation League, said she was dismayed by the trend, which she says values Christianity above other religions.

"Public schools should seek to be welcoming and inclusive and respect all religions, or even those with no religion," she said.

Greg Scott, a spokesman for the conservative Alliance Defense Fund in Scottsdale, whose attorneys have advised districts that they can call the vacation "Christmas" break, said, "It is a sad day in America when it is controversial to put Christmas on the school calendar."

Top 10 Gift and Activity Ideas

By Jack OConnell, CA State Education Superintendent Education, December, 2007

  1. Travel abroad without leaving California: Over the holidays, make it a family project to learn together about a culture that is different from your own. Visit a community center, store, or place of worship centered on that culture, research customs and ask questions of leaders or members of that community. Visit your local library to find books about other societies, their religions, and culture. Make a scrapbook of your "travels" with notes, snapshots, recipes, and maps. The California State Library also has an abundance of literature in Braille and talking books.
  2. Make a tradition of learning about others: Start a family holiday tradition of learning about a different culture each year, and incorporate something about that country in mealtimes, family activities, and games. Get a map of the world and mark the route of your "travels" each year. Ask children to draw pictures or tell stories about what they have learned, and keep them as family souvenirs.
  3. Explore California: Find out about the state's 12 distinct regions, their history, events, sights, and activities. Then start saving and planning for a family trip to the region you'd most like to visit. The California Travel & Tourism Commission's [www.visitcalifornia.com] Web site also has a "student" link where children can learn about the state's history:
  4. Eat at an ethnic restaurant: Learn what people from other cultures eat and what holidays they celebrate this time of year. Volunteer your time: Volunteer at your local nursing home, veteran's center, or senior center. Donating time teaches children the joy and satisfaction that comes from helping others. Search the California Volunteers.
  5. Start a family giving tradition: Teach your children the spirit of giving. Cook something for a homeless family. Mow the lawn of an elderly neighbor. Hold a car wash and donate the proceeds to a good cause. This tradition can be something the family does together all year long.
  6. Cook family meals together: Take the time to teach your children how to cook traditional dishes from your own culture. Many cultural traditions include special foods and recipes. It's important to pass traditions and recipes on to our children.
  7. Teach your children: When shopping for holiday gifts for your children, look for items that will help them learn. Parents are students' first teachers. Many creative and inexpensive gifts are available that will help foster a love of learning. Books, art supplies, and science projects help students learn while they play.
  8. Be a good neighbor: Many people are harried and overextended with holiday shopping, parties, and visitors. This year try letting go of one activity you feel you "must" do and use that time to run an errand for a neighbor who is ill or in need.
  9. Spend time together: Your time is one of the most valuable gifts you can give your children.


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Last modified: December 17, 2006

Disclaimer: This website is the sole responsibility of Mike McMahon. It does not represent any official opinions, statement of facts or positions of the Alameda Unified School District. Its sole purpose is to disseminate information to interested individuals in the Alameda community.