Muslims seek input into school calendar

THE BALTIMORE SUN

While her friends stress over their midterms today, Aisha Hasan won't be with them in school. Instead, the 15-year-old sophomore at River Hill High School in Clarksville will be at home observing a sacred Muslim holiday that marks the end of pilgrimage to Mecca.

This year, the three-day Eid al-Adha celebration, which began yesterday, falls on midterm week for Howard County high school students such as Aisha. It is one example of Muslim students in the Baltimore area balancing academic commitments and their faith.

"I was worried because I didn't want to choose between having to stay and take the exams or going to prayers and not knowing whether I could retake the test at a later date," said Aisha. "Friday is pretty important. It's our holy day. You go to religious prayers in the morning, and then you celebrate with friends and family throughout the day. It's like Christmas."

In Howard County, Muslim students can make up missed exams next week, although confusion over the policy prompted worried parents to lobby the school board. Leaders of the Howard County Muslim Council, which estimates that 3,000 to 4,000 Muslim students attend Howard schools, are working with school officials to avoid such scheduling conflicts - and confusion - in the future.

In recent years, a growing number of Muslim parents and students have been lobbying Baltimore-area school districts to adjust school policies to accommodate their religious practices, including the types of school lunches served and the times and places students can pray.

At the forefront has been a push to close schools on the Islamic faith's most sacred observances, Eid al-Adha and Eid al-Fitr, which celebrates the end of Ramadan. Baltimore County Muslims have been spearheading calls to close school, attending every school board meeting for the past year.

"The problem is really about recognition, and with recognition comes respect," said Dr. Bash Pharoan, president of the Baltimore County Muslim Council.

In response to that effort, a state education committee proposed last month that Maryland public school students be given up to two "floating holidays" for religious observances, a recommendation being considered by state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick.

In the meantime, most area systems, including Howard County, allow students who miss school for a religious observance to receive excused absences. They still can qualify for perfect attendance.

The Howard school system can do better in spreading the word about observing religious holidays on school days, said Patti Caplan, spokeswoman for the Howard schools.

"I'm looking at ways to get information to the parents so they understand from the beginning of the year that their child will be excused," Caplan said.

Howard school officials are sensitive to numerous faiths' holidays when they draft the yearly instructional calendar and try to avoid scheduling exams on such days, said Caplan, who chairs the calendar committee.

"Every once in a while it's going to happen," she said. "We are limited in how much we could move things."

At last week's Howard County school board meeting, several Muslim parents said that their children of high school age faced a dilemma over missing midterms or not observing their faith. And they were uncertain whether and how students could make up tests.

"They were concerned about Friday with midterms and what should we do," said Anwer Hasan, president of the Howard County Muslim Council and Aisha's father.

Howard County central administrators have sent out a notice reminding principals and teachers that Muslim students will be observing Eid al-Adha and that they will be allowed to make up work or exams.

Meanwhile, Hasan and leaders of the Howard Muslim group are meeting with Superintendent Sydney L. Cousin to avoid similar situations.

For example, next year's proposed school calendar calls for a professional development day for teachers Nov. 4. That is also Eid al-Fitr.

"I believe in working together," Hasan said. "I admire what the Baltimore County [Muslim group] is doing and their approach. If that happens all over Maryland, that would be a wonderful thing and we would appreciate it. I think we have taken a different approach ... and hopefully that will work out in the end."

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