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Mayor on axing Columbus, Pulaski holidays: ‘I want ’em in school’

Mayor Rahm Emanuel | Rich Hein~Sun-Times

Mayor Rahm Emanuel | Rich Hein~Sun-Times

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Updated: May 1, 2012 8:22AM

Mayor Rahm Emanuel said Thursday he’s “very sensitive” to those who considered the Columbus Day and Pulaski Day school holidays a source of ethnic pride, but argued that lengthening the school year is more important.

Earlier this week, Emanuel’s handpicked school board added ten days to the 2012-13 school year—for a new total of 180 days.

The Columbus Day and Pulaski Day holidays were cancelled. The remaining eight days came from converting report card pick-up days to student days and moving some teacher development days to before and after the school year.

Polish and Italian civic leaders who fought hard for their ethnic holidays have branded the change a “slap in the face.”

On Thursday, the mayor who has made the longer school day and year a signature crusade, fired back.

He noted that Chicago Public School students currently spend 39 weeks in school and “half the time is a four-day week.”

“I want ’em in school so they know that [Casimir] Pulaski was recruited to come to America by Ben Franklin. I want them to learn what battle Pulaski was hurt at and that he helped create the modern cavalry,” the mayor said.

What about the ethnic pride associated with the two holidays?

“I’m very sensitive to it. But there’s pride in having your kids have enough school days,” Emanuel said.

“I’ll make sure leaders in both communities design a curriculum so all children don’t see it as a holiday. They see it as what Columbus did to help discover and create America.”

Dominic DiFrisco, president emeritus of the Joint Civic Committee of Italian Americans, was not appeased.

DiFrisco noted that the late U.S. Rep. Frank Annunzio (D-Ill.), an Italian-American, led the drive to make Columbus Day a national holiday.

“If the mayor thinks children would be better-served coming to school to hear teachers vilify and slander Columbus’ legacy, I don’t agree with him. That’s what’s been happening,” DiFrisco said Thursday.

“They teach that Columbus was a villain, a scoundrel and a slaughterer of Indians. They don’t discuss the fact that he was a great explorer who opened a new world. If the children would be listening to at least a fair assessment of Columbus’ achievements, I would have less objection. But they’re going to be subjected to distorted and revised history.”

Oscar D’Angelo, the self-proclaimed “Mayor of Little Italy,” was somewhat swayed by the mayor’s argument.

“Having the day off makes it a more dramatic holiday — akin to an agency being elevated to cabinet level. On the other hand, the goal to establish more hours in school is more laudable,” said D’Angelo, who had previously branded the change “reprehensible.”

“Reluctantly, you have to weigh the two. What’s more important — the recognition of the holiday by having the day off or the education of children in need of more time in the classroom? I opt for more time in the classroom, although it would be desirable to find some other time to do it.”

The state board of education allows schools to require attendance on holidays honoring Pulaski, Columbus, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Abraham Lincoln and veterans. CPS decided not to eliminate days off for Veterans Day and holidays honoring Lincoln and King — national heroes closely tied to Illinois and Chicago, officials said.

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