Hamilton schools find creative solutions for Ramadan grad dilemma

Hamilton schools are finding creative solutions to make sure fasting Muslim students can take part in graduation celebrations during Ramadan.

Schools adjust grad celebrations to be inclusive to fasting Muslim students during holy month

Young volunteers greet visitors to Hamilton Mountain Mosque during a celebration for the end of Ramadan in 2013. This year's holy month coincides with graduation period, and the city's schools are finding creative solutions to make sure fasting Muslim students can also take part. (Sunnie Huang/CBC)

Some Hamilton elementary schools are adjusting Grade 8 grad celebrations because the timing of the event falls within the Muslim holy period of Ramadan. 

Muslims observe Ramadan, a period of self-discipline and reflection, with dawn-to-dusk fasting, creating a dilemma for students when it comes to celebrations and events with food.

Because of that, two central city schools, Hess Street Elementary School and Dr. Davey Elementary School, have decided to hold their Grade 8 grad celebrations a week before the actual graduation ceremony — before Ramadan begins— so that the events could be inclusive to all students. 

It's a very Canadian thing for them to do.- Louise Quinn, teacher

About half of the students in the two downtown schools are Muslims. Other schools are making other adjustments. 

The graduation celebration is a rite of passage for the Grade 8 students and it's important that everyone takes part, said Louise Quinn, a Hess Street teacher who was involved in the date change.

"It's a big deal. It shows you've grown up," she told CBC Hamilton.

'Very Canadian thing'

Even though the Grade 8 grad may not be as elaborate as a high school prom, it's still a milestone for many, especially for the newcomer students and their parents, Quinn said.

"It's a very Canadian thing for them to do," she said.

Non-Muslim students were also on board with the decision to separate the celebration and the ceremony, she added.

"They said [the Muslim students] are part of the family. They didn't want to leave them out," she said.

Because the holy month of Ramadan follows the lunar calendar, every so often it takes place in early summer and coincides with the graduation month. 

Ramadan hasn't taken place during graduation period in recent years, according to Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board.

But this year, Ramadan starts on June 18 and will continue for a month, while the board has mandated grad events happen between June 22 and 25. That puts Muslim students in the position of having to navigate between religious devotion and end-of-year school events.

The board mandates that the graduation ceremony has to take place at the end of the school year, because often, students don't go back to class afterwards.

Earlier this year, the board consulted with religious leaders and determined that the graduation ceremony itself doesn't pose a challenge to Muslim students. However, it found that the grad celebration — which may involve food consumption — might be in conflict with Ramadan.

The board then advised schools to work with students and parents to find appropriate accommodation. 

Student-driven effort

In the case of the two downtown schools, the celebrations are student-organized events, and the solution to move the date also came from students, according to Peter Joshua, a superintendent who works with inner city schools.

"Students in the graduating class came up with the decision together to set a date that honoured the need to have it outside Ramadan," he said.

In other examples, a school will begin the dinner and dance celebration an hour later; another is considering different seating times for dinner, according to the board. 

The solutions differ from school to school based on the type of grad celebrations, said Jackie Penman, a spokesperson for the board.

"We continue to encourage schools to work closely with their communities to find solutions that work for their schools," she said. 

The school community's effort to co-operate and be inclusive embodies the spirit of Ramadan, said Wahed Al-Jabry, board director of Hamilton Downtown Mosque. 

It is also a sign that the Muslim community, along with its religious practices and traditions, is increasingly recognized in Hamilton, he said. 

"We are happy to see people start knowing about Islam," he said.