Celebrations of Valentine’s Day and the other “dominant holidays” are ending at one St. Paul elementary school, according to a letter from the principal addressed to families.
Principal Scott Masini of Bruce Vento Elementary School, whose student body is overwhelmingly nonwhite, explained in the letter that “my personal feeling is we need to find a way to honor and engage in holidays that are inclusive of our student population.”
With Valentine’s Day a little more than two weeks away, Masini noted, “I have come to the difficult decision to discontinue the celebration of the dominant holidays until we can come to a better understanding of how the dominant view will suppress someone else’s view.”
Masini said there will be no cards or treats brought to school to mark Valentine’s Day.
The letter listed the holidays that the East Side school will no longer celebrate as Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas and Valentine’s Day. Masini said the decision was made in consultation with his staff.
“One of the concerns that I have,” Masini wrote, “ … is whether or not this practice is encroaching on the educational opportunities of others and threatening the culture of tolerance and respect for all.”
Masini, who has been with the district for roughly 20 years and principal at Bruce Vento School since fall 2013, acknowledged that shelving these celebrations “will be an unpopular decision with some of you.” He said school administrators would be happy to discuss the decision with concerned parents.
"Because Saint Paul Public Schools is a diverse district that is filled with families from around the world we strive to respect all cultures and all students. We recognize that not every student celebrates or participates in some or all holidays. We have a board policy that discourages programs and festivities that celebrate observances unless they are required by law," a statement from St. Paul schools later Thursday said.
The statement included comments from Masini: "I'm struggling with this and I don't know what the right answer is. But, what I do know is celebrating some holidays and not others is not inclusive of all of the students we serve."
The letter surfaced Wednesday evening on an invitation-only Facebook page titled “Supporting St. Paul Students and Teachers.” By daybreak Thursday, there were dozens of comments left on the page, which was started by parents in the district two years ago in connection with teacher contract talks.
“Very sad. All the fun is gone,” read one posting. “Totally ridiculous” and “Tired of the PC,” read two others.
In support, one commenter said she believes Masini and his staff are “being sensitive to children at their school who do not practice these holidays due to religious beliefs. … Holidays are very personal. Every family has a different take on how they celebrate or do not celebrate them.”
Another commenter said she teaches at Bruce Vento. She wrote that the principal “is under an immense amount of pressure from many of his own staff who dispute his decision. … Masini is truly trying to be inclusive of his student population … ”
School board policy regarding holidays, last revised in 2008, says that schools “shall discourage lavish programs and festivities arranged to celebrate holidays and other special days, and shall strive to eliminate them, if possible except where such observances are required by law.” Those holidays: Washington’s Birthday, Lincoln’s Birthday, Martin Luther King’s Birthday and Veterans Day.
Some schools across the country have been deciding to forgo Halloween celebrations, including schools in New Jersey, Connecticut and Pennsylvania, citing concerns for student inclusiveness.
But Thomas R. Scarice, the superintendent of Madison Public Schools in Connecticut, promotes celebrating holidays in schools while remaining inclusive.
“Children are predisposed to have fun, and once we take those opportunities away, learning suffers,” Scarice said. “While being sensitive to backgrounds of all different folks, I think school should be a place that children want to run into every morning rather than run out of out of every day at 3 p.m.”
Around the metro area, there’s no clear consensus on how holiday traditions should be balanced; in many cases, decisions are being made on a case-by-case basis.
Wayzata schools have turned to seasonal celebrations rather than recognizing specific holidays, said spokeswoman Amy Parnell. Valentine’s Day, however, is the only exception to the rule — certain schools still decide to recognize the holiday.
“We do not have a specific policy, but the practice has been for a number of years that we celebrate more generic events like fall harvest, winter celebration and spring party,” she said. “It’s very generic. We’re sensitive to being inclusive, but do feel that these celebrations are important for building a sense of community in our schools.”
Schools in the Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan district have also shifted from holiday parties to seasonal parties. For example, students celebrate a harvest party around the time of Halloween, and a winter party near the start of winter break, said spokesman Tony Taschner.
The district eliminated student birthday party celebrations a few years ago to ensure inclusiveness, meaning no more goodies brought into classrooms on special days, Taschner said.
“If you’ve got some kids who bring stuff in and some who can’t afford to bring stuff in, certain kids feel bad,” he said.
Elsewhere in Minnesota, Lane Schliem, of Rochester, said her children’s public elementary school “stopped recognizing Halloween about 10 years ago in place of a ‘fall festival’ which did not allow costumes to be worn to school.”
Schliem said that in another gesture of sensitivity, father/daughter dances were renamed parent/daughter dances, but “changing the tradition led to reduced participation and [it] ultimately was terminated.”
It appears that attention to ethnic sensitivity has been a mission of Masini’s at the school. In May, a conservative education watchdog website posted a photo of a KKK hood that was displayed during a teacher training session. Below the image were the words: “When do you wear the hood?”
“ ‘The principal allegedly displayed the picture and asked the staff to sit in silence and reflect on it for 3 to 4 minutes,” according to EAGnews.org.
Masini’s e-mail response to the website read, “The hope was that by doing the activity … that we could change any practices at our school that were unfair to students. I also thought we were ready to take this deep dive into a difficult conversation on race, white privilege, and practices that don’t serve all students. The image that was provided to you was completely taken out of context.”
Shortly before taking over as principal at Bruce Vento School at the start of the 2013-14 school year, Masini said in a note to students, families and staff that “I am extremely passionate about continuing the work to achieve equity for all students.”
According to the latest state demographic data, the student body at Bruce Vento school is 52.3 percent Asian/Pacific Islander, 35.4 percent black, 6.9 percent Hispanic, 4.3 percent white and 1 percent American Indian/Alaskan Native. More than half the students are learning English as a second language, data show.
The district is one of the state’s largest and most ethnically diverse. As of October, its student body was 31.5 percent Asian-American, 30.3 percent black, 22.5 percent white, 13.9 percent Hispanic and 1.82 percent American Indian, according to the district’s demographics Web page. Among its 37,000 or so students, more than 100 languages and dialects are spoken, the Web page added.
Star Tribune staff writers Zoë Peterson, Beena Raghavendran and Anthony Lonetree contributed to this report.
Paul Walsh • 612-673-4482