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School holiday debate: No child, but some issues, should be left behind

A Maryland school district strips the names of religious holidays from its school calendars. As a debate ensues, one mom wonders, are there bigger issues in schools that might deserve a little more parental involvement?

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    Too early for 'winter break' from school: Mae Madison, 9, sits down on her sled before sledding down Peets Hill in Bozeman, Mont., on Tuesday, Nov. 11.
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If the major concerns facing American schools now include classroom size, lack of technology, bullying, No Child Left Behind, and parent involvement, to name only a few, then why is it that religion in school and dress codes seem to hog headlines?

According to Public School Review, a website focused on evaluating public schools, the biggest issues facing school kids are a far cry from what parents may read in the headlines. 

Case in point, this week a school board in Maryland made headlines when it voted to have stricken from school calendars all mention of religious holidays.

According to reports, the Montgomery County Board of Education voted on Tuesday to remove references to all religious holidays on school calendars beginning next school year. That includes Christmas and Easter, as well as Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah.

The vote was made after the board was approached by Muslim leaders in the community asking for the Muslim holy day of Eid al-Adha to be included on the calendar. In response, Superintendent Joshua Starr recommended that the board consider removing the names of religious holidays from the calendar.

The county's public schools will still be closed on Christian and Jewish holidays, but perhaps the thinking by the district is that out of sight will mean the issue is out of mind for Muslim community leaders and parents. Some, like me, may find it hard to follow the logic.

But what might be harder to follow is why this particular calendar conundrum is earning top headlines above so many other pressing issues.

I see a pattern emerging with issues such as religion, patriotism, and dress codes making headlines, while it seems parents and school boards could spend time on some other top issues more directly involved with our kids’ education.

Looking back at what schools and parents are getting all worked-up about, it may be time to pause for a priorities check and perhaps a recalibration of efforts.

Some examples of stories I’ve seen become viral online in the past year include: a high school football player being penalized by a referee for taking a knee to thank God after making a goal, a Marine dad furious over kids learning about Muslim culture, hubbub over what high school seniors can and can’t hold in a yearbook photo, and a Native American child being denied his right to a ponytail, a teenage girl removed from class for saying “Bless You” when someone sneezed, a kindergartener being removed from a lunchroom for saying Grace, and dress codes and more dress codes.

None of these issues directly relate to what students learn in the classroom. However, Families in Colorado are still fighting one local school board in an effort to try and keep it from changing the history curriculum by expunging references to civil disobedience. This issue does directly effect what kids learn in class, but is it an issue that had to be placed ahead of so many others. 

Let’s review a few potentially more pressing issues.

Class Size

According to an article on the education research website Class Size Matters, classrooms are overcrowded and most teachers say they can’t effectively teach every student in a classroom if the class size exceeds about 30 students.

The National Education Association report on student teacher ratios and class sizes for the 2013-2014 school year showed classrooms are getting dangerously close to being overfull, “an elementary school with a school-wide student-teacher ratio of 16:1 in kindergarten through third grade would typically have an average class size of 25 or 26 students in those same grades.”http://www.nea.org/home/rankings-and-estimates-2013-2014.html

Poverty at Home

Millions of students come from households with income under the national poverty level, and many are also homeless, with nowhere to go once they get off the bus at the end of the school day.

According to the National Center for Children in Poverty, “More than 16 million children in the United States – 22% of all children – live in families with incomes below the federal poverty level – $23,550 a year for a family of four. Research shows that, on average, families need an income of about twice that level to cover basic expenses. Using this standard, 45% of children live in low-income families.” 

Kids from families living in poverty have a higher chance of facing issues dealing with abuse, neglect, a parent in jail, and a single parent home.

Technology at school

According to multiple reports, America has fallen behind the global curve in math, science and technology when it comes to preparing kids for a future in STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Math) careers. 

Part of the blame, can be pointed at a lack of technology and computers available in the classroom, and the teacher training to understand those computers. According to Public School Review, many schools are lacking the budget to purchase computers, and more than ever, students’ knowledge exceeds their teachers when it comes to operating devices.

No Child Left Behind

The legacy of No Child Left Behind is still a battleground where many teachers and parents are fighting to alter curriculum focus away from standardized testing and back to curriculum based less on cookie-cutter subject matter.

It wouldn’t hurt for parents to spend more time familiarizing themselves with the increasing demands students will face in the world and how Common Core standards must change and grow to help our students meet those demands. 

Bullying

Perhaps the one issue that has seen a good deal of news attention is bullying.

“A poll from the National Center for Education Statistics cited that problems like apathy, tardiness, disrespect, and absenteeism posed significant challenges for teachers,” according to the Public School Review

Parent Involvement

However, all of these issues come down to one big fundamental need, parent involvement. While some districts appear to have shut parents out of the process, as some parents in Colorado claim their board did prior to their protests, in other areas parents appear to be squandering their energy and attention on less critical issues.

Parents have bigger fish to fry where our children’s education and wellbeing are concerned to go chasing after these distractions which sap our focus and faith in the systems educating our kids.

It’s up to parents to stay the course of championing educational matters that matter to education and not be distracted by some of the more superficial or social matters that come along. Ultimately, it’s important for families and administrations to forge a path together.

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