Muslims urge board to recognize holidays

The Baltimore Sun

Flanked by her two young daughters, Nazma Khan-Edwards sat in the front row during last night's Baltimore County school board meeting to support a years-long push to close schools for Muslim holidays.

Her girls, 11-year-old Shazia and 6-year-old Elyse, needed to be there, she said, so that they could see fellow Muslims standing up for themselves.

"We Muslims have to hold our heads high," said Khan-Edwards, whose family emigrated from Bangladesh in 1977. "It's important for my kids to be recognized for what they are. It's important for us to have the Muslim holidays off to celebrate with our families. Asking for two days is not asking for too much."

The family, including her husband, Robert Khan-Edwards, do not live in Baltimore County but were among about three dozen people who attended the meeting in support of closing schools there for two of the most holy Muslim holidays, Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha.

Most held white 8 1/2 -by-11-inch sheets of paper with messages such as "Diversity and Equality" and "Got Equality? Let Us Share," and stood while others in their group addressed the school board.

Last week, Bash Pharoan, president of the Baltimore chapter of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, e-mailed about 250 area Muslims to encourage them to attend the meeting. He said he wasn't calling for a protest but planned the show of solidarity as an appeal to Superintendent Joe A. Hairston and school board members.

"I'm thrilled by the number of people who came out," he said after the meeting, adding that each person probably represented about 1,000 Muslims in the community. "It's like writing to your congressman," he said. " One letter represents so many others."

Pharoan - who has waged a long campaign to persuade school officials to close the schools for the holidays - maintains that it is a matter of treating all faiths equally.

Muhammad Jameel, who proposed the closings in 1984 when he was PTA president at Sussex Elementary School, said in his appeal to board members, "It's the right thing to do. It's the moral thing to do."

Nazma Khan-Edwards, who lives with her family in Howard County, said she felt compelled to attend last night's meeting after a co-worker told her about Pharoan's effort. She said she wanted her daughters see the challenge they might face someday.

After the meeting, board President Donald L. Arnold said he respects the Muslims' faith and their opinions but that the board can't give them what they want.

"The bottom line is, we will not break the law," he said. "It would be irresponsible of us."

State law requires schools to be closed from Christmas Eve through Jan. 1 and the Friday before and Monday after Easter to avoid widespread absenteeism. In addition, schools are required to be closed on Thanksgiving and the day after, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Presidents Day, and primary and general election days.

Although Maryland law doesn't require schools to be closed for Jewish holidays, Baltimore County schools have closed for the Jewish observances of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur since 1995. Schools spokeswoman Kara Calder said the decision was made to address concerns about student and staff attendance on those days.

Because the system isn't allowed to ask about religious affiliations, the district doesn't have statistics on how many students or teachers might be absent if schools were open on the Jewish holidays.

This year, Pharoan served on the county school system's calendar committee, a group of about 20 people - mostly school system employees - who met four times in February and last month to make suggestions for the 2008-2009 school year.

Pharoan said he attended three meetings and that most of the group favored closing schools on Eid al-Fitr, which celebrates the end of Ramadan, a month of daylong fasting and reflection.

Several committee members have supported his contention, but others dispute that the group agreed on the holiday closing. Instead, they said, the idea was one of many to be sent to Hairston.

Hairston is expected to propose a 2008-2009 calendar at the board's May 8 meeting. The board is expected to vote on the calendar in June.

School calendar timeline

Under Baltimore County school system policy, the calendar for any given school year is adopted and publicized at least one year before the school year in which it will be used.

February/March - The 2008-2009 calendar committee met four times to make suggestions, such as the scheduling of professional development days for teachers, for the superintendent to consider.

May 8 - Superintendent Joe A. Hairston is expected to propose a calendar.

May 22 and June 12 - The proposed calendar will be reviewed during county school board meetings.

June 12 - School board members are expected to adopt a 2008-2009 calendar.

Source: Baltimore County Public Schools

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