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Great Neck schools urged to observe Lunar New Year as holiday

Members of the New York Chinese Drum School

Members of the New York Chinese Drum School perform on stage at the Chinese New Year celebration held at the Great Neck High School, Sunday, Jan. 31, 2016. Credit: Steve Pfost

The Lunar New Year is like Thanksgiving and Christmas combined for Asians celebrating the holiday, but Great Neck residents say something is missing from what’s considered the most important holiday for Chinese people around the world: its recognition by schools.

The Great Neck school district, with Asians making up 34 percent of the student body, does not recognize the holiday on the school calendar, which parents say forces them to choose between academics and honoring their culture.

Families face the decision Monday.

That morning, Lingling Liu will wake up at 7 a.m. to watch a livestream of China Central Television’s annual Spring Festival Gala and make dozens of dumplings with her family. To include her daughter, Keshin, 6, Liu must keep her home from school.

“It’s a great opportunity for me to teach my kids about the culture, how their parents and their grandparents grew up,” she said.

Liu said she is hoping a campaign urging the school district to recognize Lunar New Year as an official school holiday is successful. The Great Neck Chinese Association and the Great Neck Korean Civic Association on Jan. 11 submitted a petition to the school board asking for the designation. It gathered more than 700 signatures.

Lunar New Year falls on a Saturday in the 2016-2017 school year. The first opportunity to observe the holiday on the school calendar is in the 2017-2018 academic year.

District Superintendent Teresa Prendergast could not be reached for comment. Barbara Berkowitz, president of the Great Neck school board, said a decision on the petition request would be made, though no date was specified.

“It would be premature to speculate on any aspects of the 2017-18 school calendar without first obtaining all pertinent holiday dates, as well as scheduled dates for testing, many of which are out of our control,” she said.

Saddle Rock resident Mimi Hu, a member of the Great Neck Chinese Association, said the request was one Asian-American communities had been considering for years.

“There are just a lot of Chinese-Americans moving to the area every year,” Hu said. “There are more voices and they’re getting louder every year. I want my son to grow up in a community where he feels proud that he’s Chinese-American.”

Youngsoo Choi, a board member of the Great Neck Korean Civic Association, said many families pull their children out of school for the holiday, a decision he said is not taken lightly.

“It’s really not fair for the kids or the parents to choose between academics and culture or values,” said Alice Ngai-Tsang, a member of the Great Neck Chinese Association.

A decade ago, the Great Neck school district was 19 percent Asian. In the past school year, Asian students made up half of Great Neck South High School’s student body with 607 Asian students of the total 1,218, state figures show. At Great Neck South Middle School, Asian students make up more than 53 percent of the school’s 774 enrollment.

According to the most recent U.S. Census American Community Survey, Asians make up about 14 percent — 5,505 — of the Great Neck peninsula’s 39,496 residents, up from 10 percent a decade earlier. The Chinese and Korean populations are the fastest-growing ethnicities within the peninsula, and combined, have more than doubled over the past decade.

“We now have the population to support our request,” Ngai-Tsang said. “I really want them [school district officials] to know we’re serious about this request.”

Residents said they are hoping Great Neck will follow school districts in New York City and Tenafly, New Jersey, that have designated Lunar New Year as a school holiday. If the petition is successful, Great Neck would be the first district on Long Island to add the holiday to its school calendar.

“People are looking at us to see if we can make this happen,” Hu said.

Great Neck School District

6,308 students

2,188 Asian students

•3 high schools

•2 middle schools

•4 elementary schools

•1 nursery school

Source: The district, New York State Education Department

Great Neck Peninsula population

•Asian residents: 5,505

•Total residents: 39,496

Source: US Census American Community Survey 2010-2014


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