Holiday celebrations vary in local school districts

Like Roseville some districts avoid them, others take part

February is winding down, but discontent appears to be lingering over the Roseville Area School District's decision to no longer allow Valentine celebrations in its schools.
In recent years, District 623 did away with non-secular parties marking Halloween, the December holidays and Valentine's Day. Roseville school administrators point to the changing demographics in the city as a reason for the policy changes.
But earlier this month Parkview Elementary parents expressed dismay on Facebook after finding "backpack notes" from the school informing them that the traditional classroom valentine exchanges would no longer be allowed in the building. Many were sorry to have a favorite tradition from their childhoods end.
This is how one parent with two children at Parkview Elementary, Chris Johnson, found out about the Valentines Day cancellations at the school. Johnson said he made several attempts to contact Kristen Smith Olson, Parkview's principal to get straight answers as to why the Valentines celebrations were cancelled before receiving a note sent home with his first grade daughter.
"Given the importance of this topic, my feeling is that it should have been communicated differently," Johnson said.
Roseville Area School Board member Kitty Gogins said several factors have influenced decisions as to what types of events or holidays are celebrated in classrooms.
There are many different religious and cultural traditions that need to be respected in District 623, as well as economic differences among families, Gogins explained. The district also wants to curb the amount of class time used for celebrations of any kind.
"We want to use the limited time we have with our students for educational purposes as mandated by the state," said Peter Olson, District 623 director of teaching and learning.
Holiday party policies vary
So what policies or practices are in place regarding holiday celebrations in neighboring school districts?
The St. Paul Public Schools has one of the most diverse student bodies in the state. Preliminary district enrollment data from an October 2012 report shows that slightly less than 24 percent of the district's student body is classified as white. The report also indicates that 46 percent of students in the district speak a language other than English - Hmong, Spanish, Karen and Somali being the most widely spoken.
The St. Paul district has a concise policy regarding holiday observances. The policy states: "Schools shall discourage programs and festivities arranged to celebrate holidays and other special days, and shall strive to eliminate them, except where such observances are required by law. ..."
 Nowhere in the policy is the word "prohibit" used, and it appears that schools within the district have some discretion in the matter.
Battle Creek Middle School, for example, held a Valentine's Day dance in the school's gymnasium for its seventh- and eighth-graders.
The school hosts dances for other holidays as well.
"I had a lot of fun at the Valentine's Day dance, but the Halloween dance is my favorite. I really like the decorations," said 13-year-old Battle Creek student Sami Sundberg.
The school reportedly hosts winter, spring and Cinco de Mayo dances as well, which are supervised by teachers and the school principal.
"The district discourages holiday celebrations, but the policy is not so airtight that it completely rules them out from every building," said Joe Munich, administrator for St. Paul Public Schools policy, planning and intergovernmental relations.
In recent years the North St. Paul-Maplewood-Oakdale School District has experienced dramatic demographic changes similar to Roseville.
Assistant Superintendent Troy Miller said that the North St. Paul district is the most ethnically diverse of any first-ring suburb in the state. He said there are more than 120 different languages and dialects spoken in the homes of District 622 students, and students of color comprise between 60 and 70 percent of the district's student body.
He said the North St. Paul district does not have a formal written policy that bans holiday celebrations, but it does have guidelines administrators closely follow. For the most part the, schools within the district do not celebrate any holidays while classes are in session.
"Being as diverse as we are it's necessary to be hypersensitive to all of our kids' cultures," Miller said. "We don't want to pick and chose which holidays we celebrate. Given the multitude of different cultures in our schools, we would be celebrating a different holiday nearly every day."
The assistant superintendent said that staff are proud of the diversity in the district and strive to provide a welcoming and fun learning environment for everyone.
Learning about different cultures is embedded in classroom time, Miller said, and students learn about diversity in classroom discussions and through different activities such as musicals that students participate in.
Low-key celebrations
Although smaller than the others, the St. Anthony-New Brighton School District is another district within close proximity to the urban core. The St. Anthony district is less diverse than Roseville and North St. Paul, but still has a variety of different ethnicities represented in its student body.
St. Anthony-New Brighton Schools Superintendent Robert Laney said that there is not a district-wide policy regarding holiday celebrations.
He did say, however, that teachers do try to limit class time devoted to celebrations.
"If we do hold celebrations, they are nothing elaborate. ... We try to temper it with the notion that we have a limited amount of time with students, and we try and maximize instructional time," the superintendent said.
Second-ring suburban school districts, such as Mounds View and Inver Grove Heights do not have holiday celebration policies.
Both cities have seen the demographics of their schools change, but have not experienced the rapid growth in ethnic and cultural diversity that many first-ring suburbs have seen.
John Ward, director of human resources and operations, said the Mounds View School District has reviewed the use of class time devoted to parties, but has not banned any holiday festivities from classrooms.
"If we are going to promote activities in the classroom, they should be educational. And if those activities are parties, they should be neutral," he said.
Ward said that years ago Christmas parties were replaced by nonsecular December parties, for example.
A lot of the decisions on what holidays are celebrated are made on the site level, according to Ward.
"I recall a kindergarten teacher recently who helped her students make Valentine's Day cards which the students sold to raise money for a local food shelf," Ward said.
He said that perhaps the biggest issue associated with classroom parties is protecting kids with food allergies from eating certain foods, especially snacks containing peanuts.
Inver Grove Heights Public Schools communications coordinator, Johnny Germscheid said that District 199 does not have a policy in place that determines which holidays can be celebrated in its schools.
"Those decisions are typically made on the site level," he said.
Like all of the other districts, Inver Grove Heights schools are trying to dedicate as much class time as possible to the core curriculum.
Joshua Nielsen can be reached at or 651-748-7824.

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