[Editor’s Note: This is the second installment of “The Grazing Ram,” an opinion column by New Canaan High School sophomore Leo Mikkola-Patel.]
The Board of Education last month voted not only to make Columbus Day a holiday but also to extend school by one day in the summer. This decision is detrimental to students and also demonstrates a broader issue in the Board—namely, that its members are putting personal political interests above the general interests of the student body and town.
The Educational Drawback
It’s obvious why taking away a day in October is extremely detrimental to learning. As school is starting up, having every day that we can in school is extremely important. In early October classes start to get into the rhythm and large projects, assignments and tests are assigned. Having fewer days during this crucial period will mean that teachers will be forced to get rid of review days, science lab activities or not cover material, all of which cause students to learn less.
Standardized courses such as AP or PLTW, which are a group of specialized career and technical education or “CTE” courses, have an important place in the New Canaan High School CTE curriculum. These classes have a standardized, summative exam at the end of the year and every day before the exam is important. For example, in 2023 AP tests will be given May 1 to 12. So, an extra day in June is not the equivalent of a lost day of learning in October. Given that more than 80% NCHS students take AP classes, this lost learning time is meaningful. In October, very important material is covered and missing any of this will mean lost points or lack of background knowledge on the exam. As someone who is planning on taking multiple AP courses next year, losing even a day is extremely concerning.
A school day in June is also not comparable to a day in October, because at the end of June, not only is there little learning going on, but for high school students, after finals are completed attendance is not mandatory. This means that this day would just be lost for students. To quote Penny Rashin, the longest serving and most experienced member on the Board, at the Dec. 19 regular meeting, “There is no teacher or administrator that I have heard of that has said that the day at the end of June is equal educationally to this Monday in October.”
Extracurricular Activities and Sports Also Matter
Another important point to consider is that October is a very important month for clubs, fall sports and other extracurricular activities. With school well underway, and the Club Fair at the beginning of October, many clubs are starting to get into the rhythm of weekly meetings. Especially for clubs that are working towards a larger goal or on a big project, every meeting is crucial. Having a day off throws off schedules for teachers, club advisors and students.
Fall sports also take a blow by having a day off. Every day of practice allows for New Canaan teams to be some of the best in the state, including becoming state football champions.
This is a viewpoint shared by members of the board. Katrina Parkhill, vice chair of the board, said in the Dec. 19 Board of Ed meeting that October is “a really busy time of the year” and missing that day means a “lost day of athletics” and a “lost day for practice for the plays.” There are very few sports still practicing, clubs still meeting or shows still happening on the last day of the year, again illustrating how a day in June is far less productive than a day in October.
A Broader Issue
The real reason that Columbus Day is even being added to the holiday schedule appears to stem from an ongoing problem, which is the politicization of the Board. Julie Toal, a member of the Board and an advocate of this movement to not have school on this important day of the year, appears to be putting her own political views above what would be beneficial to the student body. Toal said during the Dec. 19 Board meeting that Columbus Day not being a holiday “comes down to cancel culture.”
Cancel culture is a buzzword used by fringe groups to publicize random senseless things in the interest of getting votes. Notably , TV personality Tucker Carlson said that “They’re trying to cancel Columbus Day” and that GOP officials had moved toward making it a holiday. Toal appears to be using this type of hysteria to garner attention. She also said during the same meeting that “Columbus Day is a cultural holiday” and to “let families celebrate it.”
If the BOE cared about celebration of cultures, then why is it only celebrating the holiday that is associated with Italians? Historians say that Columbus came on behalf of the Spanish because his journey to “India” was not worthy enough to the Italians. He reached a land that he thought was India that had, in fact, been “discovered” by another European, Leif Erikson, 400 years earlier. There were already millions of Native Americans living in the land that Columbus “discovered.”
As a person of Finnish-Indian descent, none of my holidays have been celebrated. Is my culture not worthy of celebration and discussion to you? What about Irish culture? Chinese? British? French? German? Are they all “canceled” because NCHS does not have a holiday for them? Indigenous Peoples’ Day falls on the same day as Columbus Day, yet is not loudly celebrated by a vocal group in the BOE. Why?
The answer to these questions is that many members on the board are using Columbus Day as a way to further pointless, narrow political interests. New Canaan is a diverse town and it is obvious that the BOE, specifically the members who were outwardly supportive of this — Toal, Hugo Alves, Dan Bennett, Bob Naughton and Phil Hogan—are not interested in furthering cultural representation, but rather in making empty political gestures.
When Columbus Day was removed from the holiday schedule in 2012, there were no complaints. Rashin, the only current Board member who was on the 2012 Board making that decision, said that the Board had made it clear during their meetings that if “If people are going to care about it, come tell us” and that close to zero people showed up to voice their dissent for this change. This further demonstrates the fact that the uproar over Columbus Day is a political puppet show rather than a meaningful measure.
A compromise raised was to have Columbus Day as a holiday but then to teach about it to further the knowledge of students. Even this is not necessary. From experience as a student, it is apparent that learning about Christopher Columbus already happens to an exceptional degree throughout all levels of the NCPS curriculum. Columbus is already represented thoroughly and it is not necessary for a holiday to be present for him.
The Problem with Politicization
The Board is meant to better the education of all students. When the Board starts to politicize drastically, it affects everyone in the community. New Canaan schools are regarded as some of the best in the state and the vast majority of the town budget goes to the schools to keep it this way. If the BOE takes actions which are educationally detrimental, students and schools will perform poorly. Most families move to New Canaan because of its excellent schools. If we diminish their quality , fewer people will want to move here and this will have an adverse impact on town finances and property values. The question that should be asked whenever any decision is made on the board should be a question from the students perspective: How does this benefit my education?
This question was clearly not considered when adding Columbus Day to the holiday schedule.
The BOE should be focused on improving education. We can do with a better BOE.