High school students soundly endorsed recent reforms to the Palo Alto's academic calendar in informal interviews conducted at Gunn and Palo Alto high schools this week.
Among 17 students interviewed one-to-one, all but three were enthusiastic about the new calendar, which launched the school year earlier in August in order to squeeze in the first semester before the December break. Previously, the school year began in late August and first-semester exams were held in late January.
Nearly all the students said the clean semester break over the holidays had allowed them to relax in a way that had not been possible when they faced post-holiday finals.
The value of that, they said, outweighed any inconveniences with the new calendar.
"In high school, especially at schools like Paly and Gunn where the curriculum is so rigorous, it's rare to have a period of time where there's no work," said Paly senior Emma Ketchum.
"Having that break with no homework was really, really nice."
Ketchum, who said she originally had been "worried" about the new schedule, found the experience better than she expected.
"I thought it would be hard (to take finals in December), but it really wasn't," she said. "And after everything was done, having that break without any homework and minimal college applications you have left was really nice. You could relax and just had that time to breathe."
Like most others, Gunn senior Katherine Zu echoed those sentiments.
"Having a stress-free winter break is really great, and I think that's what makes this calendar change awesome," Zu said.
"My winter break was relatively stress-free although I did have college applications. For the first week I could just focus on college apps instead of having to balance out both finals and college apps," she said.
"With the old calendar, finals were three weeks after winter break, and sometimes -- even if I reviewed during winter break -- I'd still forget some stuff and have to review again, so it was relatively ineffective."
Two of the 17 students interviewed said they'd prefer to go back to the old calendar and a third student, Paly senior Bria Vicenti, was critical of the new calendar but believes it should be retained and tweaked.
"I'm not a fan of the new calendar," Paly senior Charlie Dulik said. "Maybe I had a little less stress over winter break, but I had a much greater amount right before the end of the semester," he said, noting that some teachers had scheduled big unit tests the week before finals just as many seniors were also dealing with college applications.
Gunn sophomore Erica Watkins said the new calendar made it nearly impossible to get feedback, or have discussions with teachers, about final exams because grades were not due until after break. Worrying about those grades created stress for her over the break, she said.
Vicenti -- who received early acceptance from a college the night before her final exams in December -- said the new calendar was particularly rough for some students hit with unwelcome early-decision news from colleges just as they were taking finals.
"I do think in the long run (the new calendar) is a good idea, but it was rough to have it switch my senior year," Vicenti said.
"I think it will take them a few years to work out the kinks."
Vicenti said the mid-August school start forced her to leave early from her camp-counseling job on the East Coast.
"I wish they could find an alternative to starting school so early," she said.
But most students interviewed said the early start had not been a problem for them or their families.
Paly senior Elisabeth Yan said she'd had to come back early from a summer internship in London, but the earlier end to first semester was worth the tradeoff.
"We used to study during winter break, and it was nice just to have that closure so there was nothing you had to worry about," Yan said.
Yan, who spent part of her break finishing college applications, said it was nice not to have to think about upcoming finals at the same time.
"And since (college applications) were due Jan. 1, we had a week left of break where there was nothing to be done.
"It was relaxing and really nice."
Paly sophomore Daniel Gleeson got his wisdom teeth extracted over winter break but said he still preferred it to last year's winter break.
"It's the first time the break is actually a break and that teachers don't expect you to remember everything after you come back," Gleeson said.
"They don't have to keep re-teaching the same thing. They just move on, which is good."
As for the mid-August school start, Gleeson said, "I wasn't too happy about it, but I'm going to be really happy to get out in May and I'm looking forward to that."
After heated debate, the new calendar was adopted by the Board of Education in an emotional 3-2 vote in 2011. It applies to the current school year as well as to 2013-14.
Board action on future school calendars, starting with 2014-15, is expected late this fall, and the school district has appointed an advisory committee to evaluate the recent reforms.
The committee will help survey students, parents and teachers about the pros and cons of the new schedule.
Committee members are elementary parents Amy Kacher, Stuart Friedman, Lance Martin and Kathy Jordan; middle school and high school parents Susan Usman, Howard Lee, Mukund Sreenivasan and Tekla Nee; Gunn teacher Laurie Pennington; Walter Hays Elementary School teachers Abby Bradski and Michelle Ketcham; Paly teacher Debbie Whitson; Gunn Assistant Principal Trinity Klein; Jordan Middle School Principal Greg Barnes; Gunn students Justice Tention and Sarah Dukes-Schlossberg and Paly student Jessica Feinberg. Gunn student Neel Guha was chosen as an alternate and one more Paly student representative is to be named.