November 2, 2011
It was a brisk fall day, and I was home alone. All the kids were at school. The bags of Halloween candy were still sitting on the counter and I was searching for peanut butter cups without much success, when the phone rang. It was my daughter's tax payer-funded Park District preschool calling.
The sight of the school's phone number coming up on the caller id caused dread to wash over me; it is never a good thing when the school calls. I answered the phone wondering what was going on. The Director of the preschool was on the other side. She was calling to discuss the plans for December. Since I had an issue with a few of the holiday projects last year, she wanted to make sure that I was aware of the Christmas concert they were going to have. She explained that the kids would sing a few songs at the mall, go see Santa and have cookies.
The prior year, I had been told that they do not focus on any holidays in December and only do winter. I was left wondering, what exactly does any of this have to do with winter and why are we doing it, because it sure was focusing on a specific holiday. When the Director detailed the songs that the kids were singing it confirmed my suspicions that what she had said in the beginning about this being a Christmas concert was in fact the case. During the course of our conversation the concert became a Holiday concert. I asked to have the Dreidel song included. I was told no, that it was religious. Why, I wondered, it is ok to sing White Christmas and not Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel?
Now, this is where the argument really began. If you are going to sing Christmas carols, granted all about Santa and reindeer - which are considered cultural by the US Supreme Court - it still might be nice to include the Dreidel song for the Jewish kids. The Director dug in her heels and said no. We spoke to her boss, and were also told no.
The issue was that no one could tell us why they were saying no, just that it was no. We kept asking for an explanation, that was more meaningful than "Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel is religious." Finally, we frustrated them and they referred us to the Park District's lawyer (who, as luck would have it, was Jewish). But in spite of the fact that what we wanted to do was confirmed as being legal, the song list for the concert still did not change. The minor accommodations that were made were that we were allowed to read a story about Hanukukah to our daughter's class and that they would sing the Dreidel song once in class.
We took to social media. We tweeted, we facebooked, we blogged and we got the word out. We got the other Jewish families in our area to call the Park District, post on the Park District Facebook page, blog and tweet about how wrong this was. But still nothing changed.
In late May, after our daughter graduated, she asked me if she could speak to the "Boss of the Park District" about the fact that Jewish kids have to sing Christmas carols at the "tax payer-funded preschool." (Guess you know what sort of talk she hears around the house.) I wrote a letter to the Director of our local park district, asking for a meeting. In early June, my daughter and I, armed with arguments and counter-arguments, attended a meeting. My then 5-year-old daughter told the "Boss of the Park District" that she was sad that they didn't care about her, and that she didn't want other kids to be excluded.
That is when the Director told us about the new curriculum for the preschool. He showed her the types of projects that they would be doing, and how the kids next year would learn about Ramadan, Hanukkah, Kwanza and Christmas. That if a family is not Christian and they want to share something about their faith with the class, they would be allowed to do so in an age-appropriate way.
We did not need our arguments about how teaching kids about different cultures and religions is good for all of us. We did not need the competitive analysis we had done on all area Park District Preschool programs (there was only one other in the greater area that would have excluded our daughter they way ours did). We did not need the testimonials from parents saying they would not be sending their kid to that program.
We asked why he made the change before our meeting. He explained that all the negative feedback he got in the form of phone calls, Facebook posts, tweets and letters made them reconsider, but the fact that we stuck with it after the fact confirmed to him that this was important. He then apologized to us for our negative experience.
What I learned from this was:
- The power of social media. It is a great tool to get like-minded folks to help support your cause. Used effectively it can have a big impact.
- The power of sticking to it and asking questions. At no time did we accept no for an answer. While we did not initially have the outcome we wanted, we did end up making a bigger change.
- The power of legal support. While the Jewish Federation could not help us, because technically the school was not doing anything illegal, perhaps they or a similar group could help you.
While my daughter did not have an inclusive preschool experience, she will know that the next kid that is different has a better shot at having one. She is happy to have left a positive legacy at her preschool. It was a great learning experience!