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Italians, Poles fight CPS plan to end Columbus, Pulaski holidays

Italians Polish civic leaders lambasted plan by Chicago Public Schools have students attend school instead take holidays for Christopher Columbus

Italians and Polish civic leaders lambasted a plan by Chicago Public Schools to have students attend school instead of take holidays for Christopher Columbus (left) and Casimir Pulaski.

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Updated: April 19, 2012 8:45AM

End the holiday treatment for Pulaski Day and Columbus Day at Chicago Public Schools?

Polish and Italian civic leaders say the proposed change in the school calendar backed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel is “a slap in the face.”

“It’s ironic that while the river flows green we hear the news,” Joint Civic Committee of Italian Americans president emeritus Dominic DiFrisco said on St. Patrick’s Day. “It’s very disheartening. This is part of an ongoing campaign to diminish ethnic recognition in the city. … We’re not marching in the street, yet. We may.”

Gary Kenzer, executive director of the Polish American’s Association, said the proposed holiday changes show “the Polish contribution to Chicago is less than primary in the city’s eyes.

“It’s shocking and disappointing considering that the mayor was elected to congress from a district with one of the largest Polish concentrations in the area,” Kenzer said. “To have the City of Chicago say that this is not a considerable holiday for kids to be off school is a bit of a slap in the face.”

For Italian-American Chicagoans, the proposed change also undercuts the legacy of one of their own — late U.S. Rep. Frank Annunzio (D-Ill.). Annunzio, who was known on Capitol Hill as “Mr. Ethnic,” led the push to honor Italian explorer Christopher Columbus with a national holiday.

“It’s reprehensible. Columbus Day wasn’t exactly something that came casually,” said Oscar D’Angelo, the self-proclaimed “Mayor of Little Italy.”

“Frank Annunzio worked hard for that. One great hero we have and they try to take it away from us.”

The proposed changes to the school calendar — which would make good on Emanuel’s campaign promise to extend the school day and school year — were influenced by a report by Voice Ideas Vision and Action, an “independent organization” of more than 600 educators.

The state board of education allows schools to require attendance on holidays honoring Pulaski, Columbus, Martin Luther King Jr., Abraham Lincoln and Veterans. CPS brass decided not to eliminate days off for Veteran’s Day and holidays honoring Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. — national heroes with closely tied to Illinois and Chicago, CPS spokeswoman Robyn Ziegler said.

Columbus and Pulaski, not so much.

“The mayor honors and respects the contribution of Italian and Polish-Americans made to the city, but the new schedule is about the children of Chicago,” Emanuel spokeswoman Jenny Hoyle said. “The important thing about the schedule is it gives students the best opportunity to learn and achieve.”

CPS spokeswoman Becky Carroll said city schools plan to dedicate classroom time educating students about the history of Pulaski and Columbus on the former holiday, as well as provide more instruction in other subjects including math, science and reading.

D’Angelo said Chicagoans of Italians and Polish descent deserve better.

“I think we can walk and chew gum at the same time,” said D’Angelo, once a powerful ally and friend of former Mayor Richard M. Daley. “I don’t think this is an either or situation. We can find the methodology to do both. Rahm is an inventive fellow. He’s quick. I’m sure he can figure it out.”

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