Vilified for curtailing holiday celebrations, St. Paul principal still sees valuable conversation ahead

Scott Masini, the principal of St. Paul’s Bruce Vento Elementary School, has been in the education business a long time, but he’s never seen anything like the reaction he’s received since someone leaked his letter last week informing parents the school will no longer celebrate Christmas, Thanksgiving, Halloween, and Valentine’s Day.

“I can’t believe the hatred that’s out there,” he told me this afternoon.

Scott Masini. Photo: St. Paul Public Schools.He’s gotten hundreds of emails about the decision and been attacked coast to coast as unAmerican.

“I did not know this would blow up like this,” he said.

It started innocently enough, with a staff meeting in December at which he wrestled with the question of how and whether to celebrate holidays. Christmas wasn’t an issue. “Obviously we’re a public school so we wouldn’t celebrate that anyway,” he said.

But Hmong New Year was coming and there was no celebration of it planned.

He said the teachers who showed up for the meeting were “60-40 (percent) against” eliminating the celebrations at the school for holidays that were observed, so they agreed to resume the conversation after the holiday break.

“We just had this honest conversation and said, ‘Let’s pause , let’s not celebrate anything until we can figure it out, because the alternative is to celebrate everything and then we wouldn’t teach.

“And then January got away from us and we didn’t reconvene and I’m, like, ‘Oh … Valentine’s Day is coming. Do we be consistent? We can’t really get a meeting together and unlike Christmas, where I don’t have to alert the parents, I have to alert the parents before they go out and buy Valentines,” Masini said.

This is less the story about a class of cultures that’s been assumed by Masini’s critics, and more a story about socioeconomics and marginalization of students.

Not every kid’s family can afford to buy Valentines cards for all the other students. In those cases, teachers often buy the Valentines and give them to those who can’t afford to, so that they can give them to classmates.

“Every one of our kids eats free lunch and free breakfast. And a lot of our kids only eat when they come here,” he said. “I understand that kids that don’t bring Valentine’s Day cards, you’ll provide them, but if I’m that kid in poverty, I’m still seeing, ‘here’s the teacher supplying mine, and I’m marginalized again.'”

Masini’s letter to parents wasn’t an edict; it was an invitation to have a discussion about being marginalized. The online fury that erupted has made that more difficult.

“If this letter had gone out to my parents, they would have said, ‘Great, we understand,’ or come into my office and talked to me about it and we would have had a conversation just like my staff had done,” he said. Other than the staff member who leaked the letter to another St. Paul teacher, who posted it to a closed Facebook group.

Instead, Masini pulled the letter before it could be distributed.

“Even the 60 percent (of teachers who were against the idea) were, like, ‘Yeah, I get what he’s trying to do but I don’t like it. I don’t like the idea, so let’s talk.’ Because a lot of those 60 percent were saying, ‘Hey, what if we celebrate all the holidays?'”

That’s a non-starter because Masini’s priority here is trying to close an achievement gap. And, it’s not as if he’s killing off popular holidays to help do it. “If the holidays come up in the teaching, we teach it. We’re just not going to celebrate it in this way,” he said. That’s consistent with St. Paul Schools’ policy (pdf) which has been in effect since 1974.

As for the conversation he hopes to have, he thinks it’s occurring at the school, but the public conversation seems to be something different. “We go to this quick blame-and-shame piece,” he said. “We don’t like to be blamed and shamed. That’s truly what I’m trying to get at here is what are the dominant things we do that suppress others’ views or the way they come to school, the way they show up. So this holiday discussion is very, very racially charged, and that’s what I’ve seen from the 450 emails I’ve gotten.”

How many emails has he gotten from parents of the kids at his school? None.

Masini says he’s not saying he’s right. “I’ve never once said, ‘this is the way we should do it.’ But I think we should look at what we do and why we do it.”

In the resulting uproar, has he considered backtracking on the effort?

“Never,” he said quickly. “I knew everybody took it way out of context. They were taking it like I wrote the policy.

“My one regret is not being prepared that this could go big,” he said. “I was not prepared for that.”

“My kids at Vento still love me. I still love them, and that’s all that matters,” he added.