Will local public schools be in session when the next Martin Luther King Jr. Day rolls around in 2016?
The Grand County Board of Education may have an answer to that question as early as Feb. 18, when its members are scheduled to review the school district’s calendar for the 2015-2016 year.
The local school district is currently one of several in Utah that holds classes on the state and federal holiday that memorializes the slain civil rights leader.
But officials are taking another look at the existing schedule in response to a Jan. 21 request from Grand County High School junior Madison Johnson, who rallied a group of about 10 students in front of the school on the morning of King’s birthday.
Grand County Board of Education President Jim Webster said the board’s members will have to weigh a calendar committee’s recommendations as they decide which approach is the most appropriate one to take.
“It’s a question of how to honor Dr. King’s legacy – not whether to honor it,” he said Jan. 24. “That’s what it’s about: We’ve got to balance our schedule with that question.”
Webster sees some official momentum to change next year’s schedule.
“I think that there’s a fair amount of interest among individual board members to see that as a holiday,” he said.
If the board decides to recognize Martin Luther King Jr. Day as an official school holiday in 2016, Webster said he will fully support that decision.
At the same time, though, he said he can see the educational value in holding same-day classes and activities that teach students about King’s life and legacy, as well as human rights issues.
Other factors must be considered, as well, he said: Any schedule they ultimately settle on will have to adhere to state requirements mandating 180 school days per year.
“There are lots of competing interests that come into play when you’re creating the calendar,” Webster said.
Grand County High School Principal Stephen Hren said the campus has gone back and forth between years when Jan. 19 is celebrated as an official school holiday, and years when classes are in session.
This year, Hren spent much of his time presiding over educational activities that highlighted the reasons why Jan. 19 is a special day in American history.
According to Grand County School Superintendent Scott Crane, the high school held quizzes that focused on King, his role in history and his accomplishments. Other schools within the district organized similar events, Crane said.
Johnson credits Hren for his efforts, but she said she believes that the school should do more to teach students about King and the civil rights movement.
She said she first decided to protest the school district’s current schedule during a recent history class. Johnson – a former Kentucky resident – said she was surprised to learn that school would be in session, so she chose to read King’s speeches in front of the campus.
Her six-year-old sister, who is biracial, was on her mind that day: Johnson hopes that future generations of students won’t be exposed to the kinds of racist attitudes she says she’s encountered in Moab.
Both Johnson and fellow student Brooke Mick pointed to a Facebook post from one high schooler who used a derogatory word to describe African Americans. The student, who repeatedly stated that he isn’t racist, ranted about black people on welfare, according to Mick and Johnson.
“There needs to be more education in Grand County for that reason,” Johnson said. “We have ignorant people like this who don’t even know what they’re talking about.”
While some students frowned upon the protesters, and many others ignored them, Mick and Johnson said they also heard words of encouragement from passers-by.
“People just liked the fact that students were taking a stand,” Johnson said.
Contrary to some rumors, Hren said that no high school teachers were involved in the protest.
Some educators were supportive, according to Johnson, although she said she also heard from one teacher who dismissed the protest as “stupid.”
“She said, ‘I just don’t see the point in where you’re trying to go with this,’” Johnson said.
But Johnson certainly did.
“I learned more on that curbside than I did in school that day,” she said.
Mick said that many other students were no-shows on Jan. 19.
“I think that half of my math class was gone because they felt there was no use in coming to school on a federal holiday,” she said.
As for those who joined the protests, they will be marked absent from the classes they missed, but no sanctions will be taken against them, according to Hren.
If the current schedule remains in place next year, school officials can put Johnson down as absent once again: She said she plans to hold a communitywide rally at Star Hall in honor of King.
Webster said he appreciates Johnson’s interest in the issue, and he lauded her for taking the time to make her case in front of the education board during its Jan. 21 meeting.
“I was proud of her,” he said.
Education board to consider recommendations in mid-February
“It’s a question of how to honor Dr. King’s legacy – not whether to honor it … That’s what it’s about: We’ve got to balance our schedule with that question.”