UPDATED: January 26, 2023, at 3:50 p.m.
Cambridge Public Schools established sacred spaces at each campus for students and staff to practice regular religious prayers, becoming the first public school district in New England to do so.
The initiative — detailed in a Monday press conference — launched last November and comes as the district works to foster increased equity and inclusion. CPS, which encompasses 17 schools and more than 6,000 students, began to offer halal meal options in school lunches in 2020. Last year, CPS also became the first public school system in the United States to officially recognize a Muslim holiday, Eid al-Fitr.
Even as the district made these advances, however, Muslim students and staff still had limited options for spaces to practice daily prayers. Zakkiyya Witherspoon, a confidential assistant in the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education, said she and other Muslim colleagues at times resorted to using closet space to pray. The experience led her to establish the Muslim Community of CPS with colleagues.
“For Muslims, we have an obligation to pray. It’s not something that we do just for recreation — it’s something that we’re required to do,” Witherspoon said. “When that space is not available to us, when we do have to sneak around or pray in closets, some Muslims forfeit the prayer.”
Selam Anwar, a senior at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School, recounted a similar experience of her own. She usually performs prayers in rooms of teachers she knows, but said that seeking out places to pray is “nerve-wracking.”
“The most tricky part was honestly finding a space just because, at times, even teachers’ classrooms, they might be on a break so they might have their doors locked, so I can’t go in,” she said.
In response to the lack of spaces for prayer, Witherspoon approached the CPS Office of Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging, which helped her organization advocate for sacred spaces throughout the district. Both students and staff can access these spaces at every campus throughout CPS. Witherspoon said the change has provided her “great comfort,” and she hopes that other districts will adopt similar practices for the sake of the students and their workforce.
“It is a right of Muslims to be able to pray in the workplace, where employers are supposed to make reasonable accommodations for religious practice to remove any undue harm,” Witherspoon said. “We should be able to come to work and perform our duties at work and also perform our religious obligations.”
Adelina R. Escamilla-Salomon, a Cambridge Rindge and Latin senior and a school committee student representative, said that while she is proud of Cambridge for setting an example, the measure is “long overdue.”
“People shouldn’t have to go out of their way and find an empty space and feel stressed or worried about being able to fulfill their religious responsibilities,” she said.
Although Anwar said she appreciates the establishment of sacred spaces, she said she needs “a little more information” on where to access such places on her campus.
CPS spokesperson Dana M. McLaughlin wrote in an emailed statement Thursday that students can ask their school’s family liaison or clerk for information on finding the spaces.
Sachi J. Kirby ’26, a Cambridge Rindge and Latin graduate, said she believes sacred spaces are a “positive addition to the schools” and supports more resources for all religious groups.
“I think it would be interesting to have more education on different kinds of religious beliefs that we might find in the area and even ways to respect, but also uplift one another’s backgrounds and cultures,” she said.
Correction: January 26, 2023
A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Cambridge Public Schools established sacred spaces on its campuses on Monday. In fact, CPS established these spaces in late November and detailed the initiative in a Monday press conference.
— Staff writer Ayumi Nagatomi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @ayumi_nagatomi.
— Staff writer Sally E. Edwards can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @sallyedwards04.