For decades, students at elite New York City public high schools faced an unusual requirement: To graduate with full honors, they had to complete a semester of swimming classes or pass a swim test.
Some girls who attend courses traditionally opt for an all-girls section. Many of them cite religious guidelines dictating modesty in dress; others are uncomfortable wearing a swimsuit around boys.
But after administrators at the school, Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan, abolished the all-girls class in favor of a sorority class, swimming requirements became the focus of debate about how to balance religious accommodation with social integration.
The school had stopped offering all-girls classes last spring. But some Muslim students said they didn't know about the shift until a the latest report in the student newspaper. The administrator said it was impossible to fit classes into the schedule; class might also run afoul of the Ministry of Education gender inclusion guidelines.
The New York Council on American-Islamic Relations criticized the changes as “disappointing and unacceptable.” New York City is home to more than half a million Muslims, and advocates of religious freedom say the strife reflects the broader challenges some young Muslims face.
“Ultimately, Stuyvesant has a responsibility to accommodate its students,” said Sophia Dasser, 17, a junior at the school who is Muslim and who wrote an article about the change for the student newspaper. “There is this idea that Muslim girls can find another way. But no, some can't. And it needs to be addressed.”
Some Muslim students said they felt their academic goals were being pitted against their religion. “It doesn't matter if I am Muslim, Jewish, Christian, if I personally feel uncomfortable,” said Ms. Dasser.
After protests, which too reported by the New York PostDepartment of Education officials said this week that students who need accommodation will soon be able to receive full appreciation through other life skills classes.
Only a handful of high schools statewide require swimming tests. Mandates were once prevalent, particularly in the nation's colleges and universities: Decades ago, more than one in three treats swimming as an important life skill that students must demonstrate in order to graduate.
In New York City, where more than 58 people have drowned in public pools and beaches since 2008, many see a need for stronger swimming education. And at Stuyvesant, with an Olympic-sized swimming pool on campus, many say the course is an integral part of the student experience.
Students must complete a swimming requirement to receive what is known as a “Student diploma,” the seal on their regular diploma denotes completion of an extensive series of credits beyond what most schools require. Most of the students get seals, and some feel depressedalthough it rarely carries weight in college admissions.
City schools must make “reasonable accommodations for students to be able to exercise their religious rights,” while balancing several factors, according to Department of Education rules.
Nathaniel Styer, a spokesperson for the department, said that Stuyvesant would continue to “explore options” with the family.
When New York scrapped women-only swimming hours at a public pool in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, popular with its Orthodox Jewish population, in 2016, the move kicked off. heated national debate. Critics argued the hours were a violation of the separation of church and state, but a limited period of segregation was later reinstated.
Also in 2016, New York became the first major city to close schools to commemorate the two Muslim holidays, Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha.
But Ahmed Mohamed, legal director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations of New York, said the changes at Stuyvesant were a high-profile example of the challenges discerning young Muslims continue to face in K-12 schools. etc.
“We're seeing a trend where there are Muslim students across the city who are really struggling to find accommodation in their schools,” he said.
At Hillcrest High School in Jamaica, Queens, Muslim youths are hoping to get permission to use an empty meditation room for their daily prayers.
But city schools “should not set aside rooms or designate special areas” for prayers to “avoid the appearance of support for a particular religion,” education Department regulation says.
So Muslim students at Hillcrest pray in 4-foot wide cupboards filled with class materials.
“We are very discouraged,” said Ariyya Mohsin, 16, a Muslim sophomore at Hillcrest, adding that she sometimes struggles to feel like a “valued member of the community.”
Tamiyyah Shafiq, 14, a Stuyvesant sophomore who received permission to cancel swimming classes, said she hoped students' concerns were not taken lightly.
“People think, ‘Oh, this is an elite school. It means these special girls can take private swimming classes,'” she said. “But for many of us, that just isn't true.”