CUYAHOGA FALLS — Elementary school building principals on Wednesday apologized to residents for how they communicated their decision to change their approach to holiday parties and encouraged community members to share ideas on creating new celebrations in their buildings.
With her fellow elementary building principals standing with her, Catherine Perrow, principal of DeWitt Elementary School, read a prepared statement at the Board of Education meeting Wednesday night. Perrow said while she and her colleagues collectively made the decision on building parties, they "did not coordinate the timing" on the official announcement.
"We are sorry that these actions have created so much stress and confusion for our students and families," said Perrow.
She noted some community members believed Cuyahoga Falls City Schools Superintendent Dr. Todd Nichols had issued the directive. Perrow noted that while Nichols was aware of the discussion the principals were having, he was not aware of when the decision would be made or how the community would be notified. She added there was "no part of the decision that was strategically made after the passing of the levy and the bond in November."
Perrow emphasized that, "classroom and building-wide celebrations will continue in each of the elementary buildings. We are committed to them being better than ever as they include all students."
She said building principals will meet with students, parents, guardians, teachers, and community members during the next few months to "explore options" for building celebrations.
"We want your engagement in these plans and invite you into our schools and classrooms to help us celebrate our students," stated Perrow.
Perrow said there were about 15-20 students in her building who do not participate in the celebrations. Another principal said there was about a "classroom’s worth" of students who did not participate. A couple other building principals said the number of students was a little lower than the 15-20 cited by Perrow. The reason most often cited by the principals for non-participation was religious beliefs. Other reasons included cultural, medical and dietary issues.
Board member Dave Martin expressed concerns about the decision.
"I’m interested to hear the conversations that we’re going to have with our community residents and … I’m still not comfortable with some of the changes, but I will at least approach this with an open mind," said Martin. "There’s still some convincing that needs to be done."
Board member Kathy Moffet noted that students can experience joy by sharing celebrations with their classmates.
"I don’t think something like this should divide our community," said Moffet.
Board member Anthony Gomez said while he agrees with the principals’ decision, he noted he felt the manner the decision was communicated "wasn’t good." He questioned whether parents and other stakeholders were consulted before the principals made their decision.
"I hope we learned a really good lesson from this," said Gomez.
Board president Karen Schofield said "we are very sorry" to the 40-plus community members who attended Wednesday’s meeting and emphasized school officials did not intend to confuse district parents and grandparents.
"We could’ve done it better," said Schofield.
Nichols said the elementary school principals are "committed to making celebrations better than they’ve ever been before."
Several residents shared their thoughts on the issue. While the opinions about the principals’ decision varied, nearly everyone who spoke said they appreciated officials acknowledging that they could’ve handled the delivery of the message better. Many also said they were pleased that they would have a chance to participate in a dialogue to reshape building parties.
Regina Wilson said she hoped many people participated in the development of the new types of parties.
Tiffany Chrien said she heard some comments that some students may not have the monetary means to participate in the parties. She said she felt there ways "we can work around that."
Chrien said she felt the three parties that the buildings currently had — harvest, winter and friendship — were a chance for children to share cultural traditions with peers who may not observe the same traditions.
"This is where the unity really comes in and saying these are our traditions and sharing them with [other students] will help strengthen that unity," said Chrien. "
Alecia Coco, who is PTO President at Richardson Elementary School, said she supports the principals’ decision toward "making a more inclusive atmosphere for our students."
Coco recalled having to buy a costume for a child after none of the donated ones they had available fit.
"I am in support of making an atmosphere that’s more inclusive," said Coco. "If we are failing 10 to 20 kids in each school by doing what we do now, that means it needs to change in some way. I have faith in us as a community that we can do that."
Melissa Mitchell noted the announcement about the parties prompted negative comments on social media.
"There was very little discussion, but a whole lot of hate at minorities," said Mitchell. "I know that the majority of us are on Facebook and saw it: ‘Why should minorities take this away from us?’ A lot of hate, when it should’ve been ‘Why don’t we celebrate a Tiger Pride Day?’"
Mitchell said she felt the district should work make sure "every student that walks through those doors feels included."
Sunny Matthews noted "inclusion does not mean you take away. You add to."
Matthews said she felt some dialogue in the community took on an "us vs. them" perspective.
"I don’t want it to become an us vs. them," said Matthews.
Kacy Hudak, PTO President at Price Elementary School, said she had "a problem" with the change. She noted her school’s winter celebration is not "holiday-related," and the harvest event allows children to dress up in costumes, but costumes are available for youngsters who do not have one.
"In creating more inclusion, we’re creating a great divide," said Hudak.
She noted "refugee families" are being blamed for the ending of holiday parties, but said those families enjoy participating in the celebrations.
However, Nicol Gruska said she felt the parties were a way of sharing American culture with children who had different traditions.
"These traditions are the foundation of our society and what makes us Americans," said Gruska. "Our rich history has made our American culture what it is today and these parties give insight to others to our culture. These events are educational."
Reporter Phil Keren can be reached at 330-541-9421, firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter at @keren_phil.