Firecrackers and Absenteeism: When Tradition and School Days Collide

Friday, January 31, 2014 - 04:00 AM

A Lunar new year celebration in New York City's Chinatown. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Updated Monday, Feb. 3, 2014:

Several schools in New York's predominantly Asian American neighborhoods recorded their lowest attendance rate on Friday, the Lunar New Year.

Overall, attendance was average throughout the city, with about 90 percent of students attending classes according to preliminary data from the Department of Education. But that was not the case for about 20 schools — almost all located in the lower east side of Manhattan or Southwest Brooklyn — which recorded one of their lowest attendance days this school year.

Schools with lowest attendance Friday

 Attendance Rate
P.S. 002 MEYER LONDON 29.11% 02 Manhattan
P.S. 105 THE BLYTHEBOURNE 30.33% 20 Brooklyn
P.S. 124 YUNG WING 32.17% 02 Manhattan
P.S. 130 HERNANDO DE SOTO 32.4% 02 Manhattan
M.S. 131 35.77% 02 Manhattan
P.S. 042 BENJAMIN ALTMAN 37.17% 02 Manhattan
P.S. 310 39.13% 20 Brooklyn


Low attendance rates have added fuel to the efforts to add several holidays to the school calendarWhen he was running for mayor, Bill de Blasio vowed to add two Muslim holidays, Eid al-Fitr, which marks the end of the holy month of Ramadan, and Eid al-Adha. Advocates for other religious and ethnic groups are clamoring for their days to be recognized, too, including the Chinese Lunar New Year which began on Friday, Jan. 31.

Appearing on The Brian Lehrer Show Monday, de Blasio said his goal was to make it happen.

"I've said repeatedly, it will take time. It is complicated in terms of logistics and the school calendar and budget, but it's something I want to get done in a reasonable time frame," he said.

For people of Chinese descent, the New Year is a time to share traditional foods and gifts with family. The city's three Chinatowns celebrate with dragon dancers, firecrackers and sweets. No one goes to work or school. It is the cause of the largest human migration on earth.

Almost 15 percent of public school students are Asian-American, and that percentage is much higher in certain neighborhoods. At some schools, the Lunar New Year coincides with the lowest attendance rates of the school year.  Being absent stalls instruction and could have an adverse affect on a school's progress report grade. 

WNYC looked at school attendance data from January 23, 2012, the last time the holiday fell on a weekday. On that date, eight of the 10 lowest attendance rates were at schools where Asians made up more than 70 percent of the student body, according to data from the D.O.E.

At P.S. 130 in Manhattan, where about 90 percent of the students are Asian, fewer than one-fifth of students attended. At P.S. 105 The Blythebourne in Brooklyn, less than one third of the students were in class during the 2012 holiday. The average attendance rate is close to 98 percent for both schools.

Efforts to make Lunar New Year an official school holiday are gathering strength, now that the plan is supported by the city's new mayor and other elected officials.

City Council speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito recently announced that she supports legislation, and so do Democratic Assembly leaders. State Assembly Member Ron Kim, who represents part of Flushing, said the school holiday would show respect for Asian Americans.

"This is more of a symbolic gesture to recognize the plight of Asian Americans and what they have contributed to our society," he said.

We celebrate the extraordinary diversity of those in our school system - and the Lunar New Year is an important part of that diversity," said D.O.E. spokesman Devon Puglia. "We're examining the possibility of making this a holiday for future school calendars."

Scheduling additional holidays could get complicated. School must be in session for at least 180 days to get state aid, although the calendar always includes extra time for storm or snow days. This is why Queens City Councilman Daniel Dromm, who chairs the education committee, said "there is some flexibility within the existing calendar to add those additional days" without losing the 180 days.

Dromm was previously a public school teacher in Sunnyside and introduced legislation to recognize Diwali as an official holiday.

The last holiday added to the school calendar was Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 1986.


Comments [6]

I'm Taiwanese-American and am generally opposed to adding additional ethnic or religious school holidays. Where do we draw the line for which holidays to give a day off from school? Why Lunar New Year but not Diwali? Are Indians not as important to NYC? I think the best option is to not create new school holidays. If the city feels it must add the holidats, however, I would strongly support eliminating February break. For me, it comes so close after December break which I took off from work, and it doesn't look good at work for me to take another week off in Feb.

Feb. 04 2014 02:45 PM

As a Chinese American teacher I would welcome the day off. It is the most significant annual holiday to my family. I would love to be able to spend New Year's with my mother and my family instead of being at work. We don't need a day off in June to honor the Boros. Give the Asian community the recognition they deserve and let us have our day.

Jan. 31 2014 05:01 PM
Grace Shanahan from Brooklyn

I would like to recommend an easy solution.
Simply by eliminating the winter/President's vacation week, we could find the days to provde holidays for a multi-cultural New York.
That week is the bane of working parents anyway. Kids off,cold weather, what do you do if you can't afford to go to Florida?
Let's take the high road, and make holiday time available for our Muslim and Asian neighbors.

Jan. 31 2014 12:02 PM
Bernie from Bronx

I agree with Lyn's concern that adding days off make things difficult for those of us who don't have someone home during the day. Plus, the school years goes on too deep into June as it is, especially since all learning stops at Memorial Day. If we do add days off, can we look at starting the year earlier?

Jan. 31 2014 11:43 AM from Pelham Bay

Maybe schools or students should be given a sort of holiday budget that they can "spend" however they decide. In areas where there are lots of Asian people, they'd spend a day or two for Lunar NY. Muslims would spend theirs on Eid, etc. In months when Xmas and Chanukah coincide, maybe that could be Winter Holiday. Non religious families could just chose whose holiday they decide to piggyback on to. If parents would tell the school adm. their intentions on observation of hols at the beginning of each term, it could help in staff planning how to handle it.

Jan. 31 2014 11:28 AM
Lyn from NYC

While I understand, I think that that adding more days off puts a great deal of strain on working families and makes it difficult for students as well. Everyone I know in our school is either a single parent or both parents work. If our kids were already succeeding I might feel differently. But so many already do not meet the standards. Add in all the 1/2 days (my daughter has at least 1 a month thru June) and it's no wonder that teachers complain there isn't enough time to teach things other than what's on the test. If they don't reduce the school year to accommodate the additional days off, then school would go into July (the last day this year is June 26). I'm not opposed to that but when many classrooms are not air conditioned and that is not conducive to learning. Currently one of our family holidays school is in session, some years I keep our daughter home, other years we celebrate after school and every few years it falls on a weekend, so there's no issue.

Jan. 31 2014 09:02 AM

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