Will GN Schools Close For Chinese New Year?

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Mimi Hu, communications committee chair for the Great Neck Chinese Association, address the board of ed.
Mimi Hu, communications committee chair for the Great Neck Chinese Association, address the board of ed.

Spokespeople from Great Neck’s Asian community asked the board of education to consider adding the Lunar New Year as an official school holiday during its packed Jan. 11 meeting.

Great Neck Record columnist Mimi Hu, who serves as communications committee chair for the Great Neck Chinese Association (GNCA); Shuna Luk, GNCA president; and Father Joseph Pae, director of the Great Neck Korean Civic Association, wrote letters to the board explaining that Lunar New Year is their community’s most important holiday.

“Lunar New Year is the singularly most important holiday celebrated in many Asian-American communities here in Great Neck,” said Luk and Pae in their letter, which was read by Hu. “Many Asian-American students will celebrate their cultural heritage and tradition with their families on this holiday. For years, a significant percentage of Asian-American students in our schools had to miss school in order to celebrate, which has become a growing concern in the Asian-American communities. Just as students of other ethnicities in Great Neck enjoy their important holidays off, Asian-American students and their families should be afforded the same and should not be forced to choose between celebrating such an important holiday as Lunar New Year and missing school.”

Father Joseph Pae, director of the Great Neck Korean Civic Association, explained the importance of Lunar New Year.
Father Joseph Pae, director of the Great Neck Korean Civic Association, explained the importance of Lunar New Year.

Celebrated at the turn of the traditional lunisolar Chinese calendar, the New Year festival celebrates a year of hard work and makes way for incoming good luck. Observers are meant to rest and relax with family. Though the customs are different, the significance is not unlike the high holy days that Jews observe from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur. In modern China, working professionals have seven days of holiday, including the weekend, to celebrate.

“As you know, the Asian-American population is growing fast in Great Neck,” continued Luk and Pae. “Currently, Asian-American students make up about 33 percent of the Great Neck school district population. And the percentages of Asian-American students in the South Middle and South High are approaching and exceeding 50 percent respectively. We believe that making Lunar New Year a school holiday would help honor the cultural heritage of the many Asian Americans living in Great Neck and enhance the cultural richness and diversity of Great Neck.”

Luk and Pae concluded with their request, “Many other American cities, including New York and San Francisco, have designated Lunar New Year as an official school holiday. We hope you will recognize the importance of this holiday to many of our students and their families and make it an official school holiday in Great Neck as well.”

Hu then discussed research she conducted. “I would like to submit the results of a survey we conducted within our Chinese-American community over the weekend before this meeting. Due to short notice, we had to use an online survey form, however the word spread quickly through social media and within 48 hours, we gathered 522 responses,” noted Hu. “It is my belief that we should treat this online survey result as a traditional signed petition, because I heard that people actually brought their phones and iPads and knocked door to door to get their friends and neighbors to sign,” Hu continued. “Of the 522 people who responded to the question, ‘Do you want to set Lunar New Year as an official school holiday on the Great Neck Public School calendar?,’ 519 responded yes and 3, no. Our fellow Korean Americans have gathered close to 200 signatures on their petition as well. These numbers are significant and they are hard to ignore.”

Of course, adding a day to the already precise school calendar poses a challenge. To receive full state aid, New York public schools must be in session for 180 days. Adding another day off could mean losing a day the students typically have off or beginning the school year a day sooner. But the members of the school board appeared to take this request under serious consideration.

“I have a feeling that the school board does recognize the need for change, but we do not know how soon they will implement the change,” said Hu. “[School Superintendent] Dr. Teresa Prendergast did note that she looked at school districts that had begun recognizing Chinese New Year. In addition to the examples of New York City and San Francisco that we gave her, she mentioned that Tenafly, NJ, recognized Chinese Lunar New Year this year on their calendar. I am hopeful because it appears to be a general trend in the areas surrounding NYC, where there are large populations of Asians. If implemented, Great Neck will be the first district on Long Island.”

According to Hu, GNCA board member Alice Ngai-Tsang spoke to Board of Education VP Larry Gross after the meeting and reported that the 2016–17 calendar had been adopted at the meeting, and though the Lunar New Year falls on Saturday in 2017, it should be stated in the school calendar. “Both the Chinese and Korean signatures were submitted to the BOE and given to Dr. Prendergast for review,” reported Ngai-Tsang. “She will work on fitting Lunar New Year into the 2017–18 calendar if her investigation of the district student body and request ratio warrants it.”

At the GNCA New Year Celebration at Great Neck North High School on Jan. 31, Dr. Prendergast explained that the school calendar is much more complicated than most people would imagine. For starters, there’s a minimum number of days required for both student attendance and faculty development days. New York State requires a start day in September, which can be tricky based on when Labor Day falls, and mandated state test days affect the school end date. All of the federal holidays must be observed, too.

“Since Great Neck is so diverse, if we observed all the religious holidays of all students in the district, we’d have more days off than days where school is in session,” noted Dr. Prendergast. She also explained that these calendars are planned for years into the future. “We would hate to start including the Lunar New Year and not be able to include it every year,” Dr. Prendergast explained. “That being said, the board is working very hard to figure out how to include the new year celebration.”

Hu concluded her presentation with a note from a GNCA member named Tom, who said, “Lunar New Year is the most important holiday for us. We used to fight for this holiday but failed because there were too few of us [Chinese Americans] in the community. However, I still decided to give my daughter a day off on Lunar New Year day till she went to high school. Now she is in college and still treasures her memories of celebrating Lunar New Year with our families.”

The Great Neck Asian community is hopeful. “Like Tom, most of the 522 people who signed our online survey are hoping to provide a happy and meaningful memory for our children growing up as Asian Americans in this multicultural community,” said Hu. “I hope that our voices are heard and our request honored.”

To read about the historic announcement, click here.

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