Graduation date change prompts petition effort

By Eric Berger, Staff Writer

The Parkway School District has moved graduation for three of its high schools to a Saturday in May 2018, prompting an outcry from Jewish students and parents and communal leaders. 

In response, Parkway superintendent Keith Marty and members of the Parkway Board of Education are now looking for a different date, according to a district spokesman.

A Parkway Central High School student who will graduate next spring started an online petition Aug. 24 asking the district to move the school’s graduation back to a weeknight — when it has usually taken place. She explains that because graduation now falls on Shabbat, she will not be able to participate in the ceremony.

“While a good portion of the Parkway students do not have this conflict with their schedules, many of us Jewish students do,” Hannah Maurer wrote in the petition that was directed at the district superintendent. As of Tuesday, it had more than 1,900 supporters. 

Marty and Parkway Central Principal Tim McCarthy met with local rabbis in early August to get their input on the decision. The rabbis advised against it, saying that it would create a conflict for Jewish families who do not drive, and observe other restrictions on Shabbat.

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The school board ultimately voted Aug. 23 to move the schools’ graduation from Queeny Park to the St. Charles Family Arena on May 19. They made the change, in part, because at Queeny attendees often had to walk as far as half a mile from their cars to the ceremony along gravel roads and over hills, said Beth Feldman, president of the Parkway school board. 

There was also limited seating at the park — some of it high on bleachers — and each family was given a set number of tickets. At the arena, there is additional handicapped parking and families can bring as many people as they would like, among other advantages. The following Sunday had already been reserved by Wentzville School District, Feldman added.

“We as a school board and school district have a very broad perspective of all the things that we have to take into consideration when we make this kind of decision,” said Feldman, who belongs to United Hebrew Congregation. “We were trying to do the best that we could with what we have to work with, and what we did, did not work out.” 

Parkway South and West had their graduations on Friday and Saturday nights last school year. Parkway North and Central, had graduations on Tuesday and Thursday nights. Now they will all take place on Saturday. That night also marks the start of Shavuot, a holiday that has similar restrictions to Shabbat.

“While Queeny Park has served Parkway well for a long time, we have received a number of concerns from parents over the years and believe the Family Arena will provide a much improved and safer graduation experience for students and families,” superintendent Marty stated in a letter to families. He and McCarthy, the principal at Central, did not return calls seeking comment. 

The district does not have data on the number of Jewish students at each of its four high schools, but, for example, more than 70 students at Central and more than 40 at North are members of the Jewish Student Union clubs, according to the director of the organization. At West there are less than 10, and South is just starting a club this year.

“I tried to communicate to them how misguided I thought this decision was,” said Rabbi James Bennett of Congregation Shaare Emeth. “They were putting all these concerns about convenience ahead of the morals and principles and values that the district has emphasized so strongly in their curriculum.” 

Bennett, whose three children graduated from Parkway Central, also sits on an interfaith advisory board that meets several times a year with district leaders.

“We tried to warn them that therecould be a backlash, particularly in the current divisive climate in this country and in light of recent events,” Bennett added. He was joined by Rabbi Brigitte Rosenberg of United Hebrew Congregation at the meeting.

Despite his disagreement with the district, Bennett emphasized that he does not believe “this was motivated by any kind of prejudice or anti-Semitism.”

Feldman, along with superintendent Marty and the board vice president, Kim Applebaum, met Monday night with the heads of the local chapters of the Jewish Community Relations Council and the Anti-Defamation League. The goal was to try to “figure out how we can make this right,” Feldman said. She said she was not yet ready to talk about possible alternatives. 

“At a time when we are witnessing an increase in divisions in our country and in fear and anxiety within marginalized populations, this decision, even if unintended, is needlessly insensitive to our Jewish community,” JCRC and rabbis from Shaare Emeth, United Hebrew, Traditional Congregation and Congregation B’nai Amoona said in a statement. “We want to reassure you that we are engaged in strategic conversations with the district to try and arrive at a resolution to this error of judgment on the part of the district leadership.”

Dr. Ken Levy has a daughter, Adina, who is graduating from Parkway Central next year. He said his wife received a phone call from the school principal informing her of the board’s decision. 

The principal made the call, Levy said, “because he knew it would be a conflict for my daughter.”

Levy, who belongs to Traditional Congregation, also has triplet boys who had to miss their graduation in 2013 because it occurred on Shavuot. The school “very graciously” arranged a private graduation ceremony, Levy said.

“I would use the words shocking, appalling, very disappointing in view of the recent history we had with the scheduling error that affected our sons’ ability to be at their own graduation. My first reaction was, here we go again,” said Levy, a pediatrician. “Parkway has made another major mistake.”

Feldman, who has served on the board for 10 years, said that because the private ceremony worked out in 2013, she thought it would again be an acceptable option.

“I think a lot has changed in the mood of the country since 2013. There is a rise in anti-Semitism, and I think people don’t want to be separated because of their faith; they want to be included, just like everyone else. As a Reform Jew, I misjudged that,” said Feldman.

And for Jews who are not shomer Shabbos, Rabbi Rosenberg said, “it does do a disservice to the sanctity of Shabbat.” 

Her daughter Zoe is scheduled to graduate in May. “I don’t know what our family will decide to do,” said the rabbi.

Feldman said she did not anticipate a petition. 

“The thing that I had trouble understanding is the number of people who felt personally wronged by this decision,” she said. “There was no bad intent.”

Read the petition online at http://bit.ly/parkway-petition.

Correction: An earlier version of this story gave two figures for the number of students in Jewish Student Union at Parkway West. There are less than 10.