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.

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.

  1. Listen MPR News Bob Collins and Tom Weber discuss if public schools should celebrate holidays?

    February 3, 2016

  • AD

    Why not choose a reasonable number of holidays to celebrate (say, 4?) and have the kids at each school vote on which holidays to celebrate each year? That way, there’s a chance to observe some holidays, and the holidays that get chosen are more likely to represent the culturally important holidays for the kids at that school.

    Educational components could even be rolled into the selection process. In the few weeks prior to voting, kids get to work on a project related to the holidays they want to celebrate. (e.g., write a story about a holiday that is important to your family, or interview an elder in your family or community about holidays when they were growing up, or learn about elections by “campaigning” for the holiday you want to celebrate, or do a research project on a holiday from another culture (that’s different from your own and maybe strategically chosen by the teacher)

    • That’s a very intriguing idea.

      FTR, there are four holidays that must be celebrated under state law. MLK, Lincoln’s birthday, and Washington’s birthday , and Veterans Day.

      • lindblomeagles

        I’m not a Minnesota State or US Federal Holiday scholar, but my kids attended Saint Paul Public Schools. President’s Day (2-15 this year) in the past represented both Lincoln and Washington’s birthdays (though the District DID make Friday, February 12, officially Personal Development Day). When I went to school, we got both Lincoln and Washington’s days off and had lessons around these two in junior high during February. The District did not have Veteran’s Day off, November 11. I don’t remember if the school had celebrated that day in several years. The District does have Memorial Day off, and Martin Luther King’s Birthday has been a holiday (and celebratory occasion) for awhile now. One other note. Even if schools don’t celebrate Thanksgiving and Christmas, the majority of the country has at least Thanksgiving, Christmas morning, and New Year’s morning off. Several other businesses close early Christmas Eve evening and New Year’s Eve evening. Thus, without calling these day offs something else, the children are still going to know something about them even if they their families don’t celebrate those holidays.

        • BJ

          “celebrated” doesn’t need to mean a day off, or a party.

    • lindblomeagles

      Actually, it now sounds like Vento’s Principal was headed in your direction. I think he even said something to the effect that a meeting was held to discuss among the staff which ones to celebrate and which ones to hold off on, but the meeting didn’t progress much further and before he knew it Valentine’s was coming up, and the school had to make a decision, and then communication broke down to such a fragile state that the Principal received a lot of bad messages from people.

  • ec99

    Or, he could have simply said the Catholic Church removed Valentine from the General Calendar in 1969 and said he was following their lead.

    • But he was following the lead of the district which has a policing discouraging holiday celebrations. Not having it as “Catholic holiday” actually would take out a good reason to get rid of it in a public school.

  • MrE85

    Nice “get,” newsman.

  • Nicholas Kraemer

    Quick summary of the facts taken directly from this article: Principal decides to change status quo, principal polls teachers and 60% favor keeping status quo, principal makes change, principal promises a staff discussion and does not deliver, principal thinks solution is to do things his way and have parents take the time to come into his office and discuss any apprehension they have about an already decided policy in a 1:1 setting (where the principal has the power).

    • No, that’s not really a proper summation. Principal and teachers planned to meet again but things got in the way and the reason the letter had to be sent out without having another meeting was made pretty clear in the story.

      There’s no edict from the principal to do it his way. But he had Valentines Day coming up and parents that couldn’t afford it and the quick and best thing to do was tell the parents .

      None of that precludes the discussions with staff nor does the policy constitute being decided.

      Had parents been given the opportunity to get the letter and talk to him, he probably would’ve told them that.

      The people who seem to be most upset by this, it’s interesting to observe, are the people who don’t have kids in that school.\

      BTW, he didn’t poll teachers. He had a staff meeting at which a third of the teachers showed up. Of those, the breakdown was 60-40. The teaching staff as a whole had not yet been polled and an effort to do so couldn’t be accomplished before parents had to be told not to buy Valentines.

      • Nicholas Kraemer

        Now I’m concerned that only 1/3 of teachers show up to staff meetings.

      • Nicholas Kraemer

        “Principal and teachers planned to meet again but things got in the way and the reason the letter had to be sent out without having another meeting was made pretty clear in the story.” The letter was never sent, so the reasons couldn’t be that clear. “Instead, Masini pulled the letter before it could be distributed.”

        • No, I’m saying I was confused by your inaccurate summary since it wasn’t all consistent with what the post said.

          The letter was going to go out the next day. The teachers saw it first. One of them tried to torpedo the effort by sending it to a teacher in another school, asking her to put it on a Facebook page for SPPS.

          Masini talked to that second teacher today to explain his side of this, and she was to encourage that first teacher to talk to him.

          But this is who we are now. We’re not going to let information stand in the way of our outrage. Not until AFTER will we stop to find out what the real story is.

          • Nicholas Kraemer

            I did not say the meeting didn’t happen in January because “things got in the way”. Ok, things got in the way. The meeting still didn’t happen. What else did you find confusing?

          • How you reached your summary that had so little accuracy compared to what you were told

            Actually, I don’t find that confusing. Never mind.

            Here’s Masini again:

            “I am trying to get the message out that at Vento, we want to continue the conversation around the marginalization of our students. I also wanted to keep this in house meaning our school community to continue the conversation…we need to have courageous conversations in order to close the achievement gap…I have to hold up the mirror to say, in what ways can I interrupt racially disproportionate systems so kids can do better! ”

            That sounds like a pretty solid way to START a conversation.

          • Nicholas Kraemer

            My summary is an accurate restatement of the basic events that occurred and the order they occurred in. You assertion that it lacks accuracy strikes me as an attempt to stifle, not start a conversation. I’ve done a break down of my entire comment (below). The first line is what I said and the second line is the portion of the article that supports that statement. I repeat that pattern until reaching the end of my original comment.

            “Principal decides to change status quo”

            “It started innocently enough, with a staff meeting in December at which he wrestled with the question of how and whether to celebrate holidays”

            “principal polls teachers and 60% favor keeping status quo”

            “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”

            “principal makes change”

            “We just had this honest conversation and said, ‘Let’s pause , let’s not celebrate anything until we can figure it out,”

            “principal promises a staff discussion and does not deliver,”

            “so they agreed to resume the conversation after the holiday break. … And then January got away from us and we didn’t reconvene”

            “principal thinks solution is to do things his way”

            “We can’t really get a meeting together … I have to alert the parents before they go out and buy Valentines”

            “solution is to do things his way and have parents take the time to come into his office and discuss any apprehension…”

            “come into my office and talked to me about it and we would have had a conversation”

          • Actually, they’re not AND if you look your word choices you’ll see how you attempted to assign personality and character via innuendo In the absence of knowledge, assuming you’ve never met nor talked to him.

            The conversation the principal wants to have isn’t with you. It isn’t with me. It isn’t with you and me, and it sure isn’t about a trivial holiday.

            It’s between him, his staff, and his school’s parents, and it’s about the achievement gap.

            Everything else is Internet noise of no value and deserving of no accommodation.

          • Nicholas Kraemer

            No. That has no basis in fact nor in the basic understanding of the English language. You’re taking your bias and your belief and interpreting what I’m saying and attaching meaning and innuendo to that (where none was intended). I tried to clarify a confusing article (so confusing that within this line of commenting you couldn’t remember if the principal sent out a letter or not; he didn’t). You’re the one reading far, far too much into what I’m saying for reasons I can’t possibly fathom.

            Moreover, if the conversation that needs to happen does not involve you or me (which you just said) then why did you write not one but two posts about this? Personally, I think the matter of publicly funded education creates the opportunity for everyone to be involved in the discussion, but it is fine if you don’t; why then start a blog post to create such a discussion amongst people who don’t need to be having it?

          • It boils down to this: You’re wrong. Everything you’re attempting to write, you’re getting wrong, and the reason you’re wrong is you built a foundation on facts you got wrong. It really isn’t any more complicated than that.

      • Nicholas Kraemer

        “BTW, he didn’t poll teachers.” Not to beat a dead horse, but “poll” has many meetings. You’ll note that I used it as a verb and as a verb it means: to take a sampling of the attitudes or opinions of. So yes, he polled the teachers.

  • Al

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

    I don’t think I’d have a problem with this for our kiddo. Our online parenting board recently discussed the pseudo-ridiculousness of our infants at day care receiving valentines from the other infants. And I never got all that into Valentine’s Day as a kid, myself.

    So I’m not sure my kid would be missing all that much if her school nixed it, really. It’s not like skipping school celebrations means our kids can’t celebrate it at home, on their own turf.

    • I think it’s safe to say that very few people really give a damn about Valentines Day. As I said on Tom Weber’s show the other day (link above), it’s a proxy to have a conversation about race and ethnicity.

      that conversation has many layers to it that have to be peeled away before we get to a more honest version of the conversation, all of which has to happen in order to get to the whole point of the effort: the achievement gap.

      That people are picking up pitchforks over Valentines Day (or any other holiday) and not over the achievement gap, shows the difficulty of the conversation, and the need for someone to force us to walk through the twelve rings of hell before we get to it.

      • Postal Customer

        I was disappointed to find out that my kindergartner’s school does nothing for Halloween or Christmas. I had fun with those events when I was a kid.

        It is possible to do those things, and/or Valentine’s Day, and simultaneously address the achievement gap.

        • The marginalization of students is at the heart of the achievement gap. Poverty is at the heart of the achievement gap.

          Celebrating Valentines Day is not important. At all.

          I am intrigued, as I was on the show the other day, by the number of people who say “when I was a kid, these were fun” etc.

          So what?

          Educators have challenges in schools today that were unimaginable back in the day, and the least of their priorities should be accommodating the nostalgia.

          The only thing that matters are the kids in that school and the parents in that school. By what rationale are our particular memories important?

          Also, please explain to me how you celebrate a Christian holiday in a public school?

          • Jesse

            Thank you. So sick of seeing nostalgia determine our opinions on issues like this.

            Public schools should be a place for these kids to learn and grow. Celebrating holidays is unnecessary in that regard, and may even be detrimental.

            Instead of celebrating the holiday, teach the kids about cultures that celebrate the holiday.

            What about the children from poor families that are left out of the celebrations, because their parents couldn’t afford costumes? Should we rely on the teachers to have to manage that as well? Teachers are already spending their own money on supplies as it is.

          • Every single one of the kids, Masini says, qualifies for free lunch, an indication of the poverty in the school.

            So why is our outrage about a holiday as trivial as Valentine’s Day and not about THAT?

            As I said on the show the other day, THAT’S the exercise that has value here. Forget about the pitchforks, we need to examine what it says about our values and our priorities when we choose what it is that motivates us to pick them up in the first place.

            “And a lot of our kids only eat when they come here,” Masini said.

            And the story here is Valentines Day celebrations?

            You know, I just don’t think that’s the story here.

          • Postal Customer

            “Every single one of the kids, Masini says, qualifies for free lunch, an indication of the poverty in the school.

            So why is our outrage about a holiday as trivial as Valentine’s Day and not about THAT?”

            Believe it or not, a lot of us are outraged about that. Which is why a lot of us are supporting a certain presidential candidate. Many people do care; they just don’t scream as loud.

          • ec99

            But it isn’t “free” lunch; someone else is paying for it. But no one is going to criticize parents for having kids they can’t afford.

          • Mike Worcester

            //I am intrigued, as I was on the show the other day, by the number of people who say “when I was a kid, these were fun” etc. So what?

            I believe that is the “nostalgia” factor coming into play. We tend to view that which we did as kids through a bit of a filter. Never mind that there is lots we did as kids that when viewed through a modern lens was shockingly inappropriate. For example like our slave auction during homecoming week. Our social studies teacher would lead the auction. One would think they would have realised the inappropriateness of the action. Apparently not. That particular “tradition” ended not long after I graduated. Thankfully.

          • Postal Customer

            Yes, thankfully, no one is lamenting the loss of slave auctions.

          • Postal Customer

            I did say that I was disappointed, not angry. I am not outraged. I did not leave angry messages with the school’s principal. You cannot possibly tell me that you didn’t want to share experiences with your children that you enjoyed as a child. That’s all it is in my opinion. It’s not worth getting upset over.

            If canceling cultural rituals helps administrators feel as though they accomplished something to fix the achievement gap, then by all means, cancel them.

            Also, you’re not intrigued, you’re dismissive.

          • lindblomeagles

            Bob, school achievement gaps, especially among inner city minority students, particularly my group, African Americans, is not new. The gap was large when I attended K-5 back in the 1970s when the school did still celebrate Columbus, Thanksgiving, Valentine’s, Halloween’s, etc. It was an issue during Arne Carlson’s Governorship in the 1990s (remember his school voucher program idea?). An old book entitled Savage Inequalities by Kozol provides a lot of insight into how old the achievement gap problem is. Poverty also is not new to inner city children either. More media driven cities like Chicago, Saint Louis, Detroit, Los Angeles, etc. have well documented recent poverty histories (remember North Minneapolis in the 1980s and 90s?). It’s become fashionable to expel holidays in the hopes that students can focus with pride on their academics. The truth Bob is its going to take MUCH, MUCH, MUCH more than cancelling the holidays to reverse both gaps. Cancelling Valentines still won’t feed Vento’s students when Summer arrives. Cancelling Valentines still won’t held Vento’s students read any better next school year than they are today. For me, the question isn’t why aren’t we focused on poverty or student achievement. It isn’t about should we cancel Christmas, Valentine’s or Who-Ha’s either. The question is when will we stop looking for a ONE SHOE FITS ALL SOLUTION to poverty and the achievement gap, and admit to ourselves that it is going to take multiple solutions, quite a bit of time, and a lot of hard work to fix this problem?

          • BJ

            >stop looking for a ONE SHOE FITS ALL SOLUTION to poverty

            Except the solution was found a very long time ago. Education.

      • Fred, Just Fred

        If the public school leadership put 1/2 of the effort expended in socio-economic and cultural experimentation, into academic improvement, your consternation would be understandable.

        • BJ

          Man oh man, you have not been in a failing school to see the armies of teachers and assistants doing incredible work improving the lives of the students they teach.

  • There’s another letter that Masini sent out. He sent it in 2013. It didn’t elicit as much response and demand for action:

    Dear Parent/Guardian:

    Bruce Vento Elementary School continues to be designated by the Minnesota Department of Education as a Focus School under the federal Elementary Secondary Education Act (ESEA). The designation is based on student testing data that placed our school among the 10% of schools with the largest achievement gap between white students and students of color. In order to no longer be designated, we must reduce the gap two years in a row.

    The 2013-14 school year is the second year in a three-year process of school improvement. The planning for this process is aimed at improving the performance of student groups within the school that are currently not performing at their potential. While many of the improvement activities will be targeted toward students from those groups, many changes will take place across the school and will be aimed at improving the academic performance for all students.

    In order to accomplish this important work, we will put together an Improvement team that includes many interested people, including parents. You are highly encouraged to be a member of the improvement team; if you are interested call 651-293-8685 and ask to speak with Scott Masini, Principal.

    Families and communities will be at the center of our school improvement plan. Your engagement and support in your child’s education is critical to his or her success. Contact your child’s teacher(s) about how you can best support the work they are doing in the classroom. All staff email addresses and the school phone numbers are posted on our school’s website, vento.spps.org as is our school’s Family Engagement Plan, where you’ll find other ways you can be involved in your child’s educational success.

    Sincerely,

    Principal Scott Masini

    Bruce Vento Elementary School

  • Fred, Just Fred

    Our traditions once bound us together as Americans; but that is quickly coming to an end.

    Leftists love to remind that we are a nation of immigrants, and that is true. What they don’t want to talk about, is the differences between the immigrants of yesterday, that were encouraged to make American traditions a part of their lives and those arriving today expecting America to make their traditions a part of our laws.

    In short, the left is using immigration not only as a source of new voters, but as a tool to slice America up into seperate fiefdoms; each speaking a different language, abiding a different set of morals and laws, celebrating different traditions. And rather than adding to the once celebrated tapestry, each fiefdom takes a slice out of the culture that made America attractive to them in the first place.

    Mind you, voluntary separation is not new to America. The “Chinatowns” found in most large cities have existed since the early 1800’s. But Chinese immigrants were not immediately encouraged to set up special interest groups bent on recreating a new China at the expense of the country, or the people that took them in. In fact, they are the relics of a campaign of deliberate exclusion by society taken to its logical conclusion.

    But I can understand how leftists have become such self-loathing, miserable people. Early on in the Russian revolution, Marxists realized that before an all powerful state could be created, people had to be stripped of their identities. Religion, culture, traditions, morality, family, all were ground into the dust from which the new state would be built.

    That is clearly the machine at work in America today, and a reading of the sad commentary here tells us it is working perfectly.

    • lindblomeagles

      If I understood Vento’s Principal correctly, he and the staff at Vento, who may or may not be leftists, considered economic and academic reasons for curtailing holidays. It could be inferred, loosely, from his comments, that if the students and their families wish to celebrate the holidays a) perform better on the standardized tests; and b) improve your economic station in life. Both of these reasons would be conservative values rather than leftists ones.

      • Fred, Just Fred

        Those are conservative goals, but not a conservative method for achieving them.

  • Nonny Moose

    Can’t they make their own cards in art class?

    • TAJ

      the kids see handmade as “lame”… unless it is from Frozen or Spiderman the cards are not cool… trained early in consumerism… sad times…

    • Brian Simon

      Do they have art class?

  • JulieBlaha

    I remember the moment I decided to stop celebrating religious holidays in my classes.

    I was a student teacher in Minneapolis and my supervising teacher was big into Christmas. I handed a small gift to a Hmong girl, new to the U.S., smart, funny, and eager to please the teachers she adored. Her normally sparkling eyes flashed confusion, then embarrassment, then quickly sunk to compliant neutrality. I realized that what seemed like an innocent nicety to me made her feel like an outsider. Neither her nor her family would ever breathe a word of protest, she may not even consciously remember the slight. But I saw it and will never forget.

    No heart shaped piece of chocolate, bunny nose, or green cupcake is ever worth adding even a millimeter more distance between me and my students.

    Besides Pi Day (March 14 – 3.14, get it?) has actual learning in it. And pie.

    • Fred, Just Fred

      And it was beyond your capabilities to smile, explain and include her in the fun. Some might have seen that as a teachable moment for both of you, squandered.

      • Brian Simon

        Is it likewise beyond your capabilities to demonstrate some empathy and compassion, Fred?

        • Fred, Just Fred

          Not when its called for, no.