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Prom dreams spark change: Schenectady district moves prom so Muslim students can attend

Prom dreams spark change: Schenectady district moves prom so Muslim students can attend

Prom dreams spark change: Schenectady district moves prom so Muslim students can attend
Schenectady High School seniors Jadeana Cognetta-Whitfield and Fatima Mohammad are pictured at the school.
Photographer: Peter R. Barber

SCHENECTADY & NISKAYUNA -- Fatima Mohammed, a Schenectady High School senior, has been excited about her senior prom since she was a little girl.

In the movies and TV shows she watched, the dream prom was always the culmination of your time in school. She has her hairstyle picked out -- even though she still needs an appointment with a stylist. She kept looking for that perfect dress – even though she was pretty sure she had already picked it out.

“I've had my prom dress picked out for a couple years now,” she said in a recent interview.

In April, though, when a friend texted Fatima to ask if she realized prom was scheduled during Ramadan, she realized her prom dreams may be dashed.

Schenectady's prom, along with the proms of many school districts around the Capital Region, has long been scheduled during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. Over Ramadan, Muslims fast during the day and pray regularly. But it's more than that, Fatima said. Ramadan is a time of spiritual growth, so Muslims also limit music and socializing as they seek peaceful reflection. So for many Muslim families, a party full of music and dance doesn't square with religious observation. For Fatima, she couldn't go to the school's prom originally scheduled for May 31.

“Even if they were cool, they just wouldn't let you [go to prom],” she said of Muslim parents.

So she got the prom moved to June 14.

The date change didn't happen overnight, though. After starting to ask around about getting the date changed, Fatima teamed up with Jadeana Cognetta-Whitfield, a fellow senior and budding activist involved with the school's Roots Club and other programs aimed at amplifying student voice and action.

“We are such a diverse school it didn't make any sense this is a conflict we are dealing with,” Jadeana said of her initial thoughts after learning of the overlap between prom and Ramadan and what it would mean for many of the school's Muslim students.

The students asked teachers and assistant principals if the prom data could be changed, taking their requests to Diane Wilkinson, the high school principal. While the adults held meetings to hear the students' concerns, the students kept hearing the same answer.

“We got the same answer over and over,” Fatima said.

The messages they repeatedly heard from principals and teachers:  "“It's unfortunate but there's nothing we can do. These events are planned years in advance. We have already signed a contract with the venue."

But Fatima said of adult resistance, “Sometimes it's not hard to change things. They are just so used to it.”

However, the students kept pushing and eventually caught a break after a teacher's call to the Saratoga Spa State Park's Hall of Springs, the school's prom venue, turned up a free night in June and a willingness to accommodate a date change. Even then it wasn't a done deal. High school staff organized a broader meeting of students to hash out the pros and cons of a date change, considering what students would have to do about already-booked hair appointments and limo rides. Ultimately, no hurdle was enough to keep the prom date from moving to June, after the end of Ramadan.

“There's always another option, another route you can take,” Jadeana said.

Jadeana said that students in Schenectady and throughout the region don't fully realize the impact they can have by speaking up and pushing their schools – schools that exist to serve and educate them – to change in ways that better meet their needs.

“It's that whole student voice thing,” said Jadeana, who has also helped organize art exhibits, school murals and student walkouts during her last two years in high school. “A lot of people don't think it's real.”

In Niskayuna, district officials are similarly considering how to better account for students' religious and cultural practice as they develop school academic and social calendars. At a recent school board meeting, Superintendent Cosimo Tangorra Jr. relayed a story about hearing from a middle school student who emailed him to express concerns about having to take important tests at the same time she was fasting as a religious observation. The student explained the importance of Ramadan and why it is hard to take tests at the end of a school day while fasting as well as the need for a place to pray. She also pitched making an Eid, the festival of breaking the fast and close of Ramadan, a school holiday, Tangorra said.

At the board meeting, Tangorra opened a broader discussion about developing a better understanding of just when families in the community are carrying out religious and cultural practices that may have an impact on students in the schools.

“Maybe we should have a calendar that represents every religion and every culture in the community,” Tangorra said.

A Niskayuna student school board representative at the meeting also mentioned that in Schenectady the prom date was changed after students had raised concerns about the conflict with Ramadan.

Tangorra said he planned to gather more feedback on the topic, engaging students, faith leaders and others and over time move toward potentially developing a formal board policy around religious accommodations.

“That caused me to want to consider some sort of policy to be more culturally responsive to all of our students,” Tangorra said.

In both school districts, officials are taking steps to open more dialogue with students and people from cultures, religions and backgrounds that historically have not been included when decisions have been made about scheduling prom or setting test dates.

Schenectady schools Superintendent Larry Spring, who has pointed to Fatima's and Jadeana's persistence as evidence of the impact students can make, said the history of scheduling prom during Ramadan is an example of the kinds of blind spots district leaders can have. He said district officials are working to bring more people into the discussion, always asking at the start of a meeting: Whose perspective isn't represented but should be? Who can raise the concerns that some of us can't even see?

“Rather than think I'm gonna learn everything I need to know about all religions, it's about how do I make sure I've got people at the table who know those things and can carry those concerns,” Spring said.

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