School calendar consensus emerges

Members agree to pre-break finals going forward, without rancor of 2011

A consensus emerged on the touchy issue of the Palo Alto school calendar Tuesday as Board of Education members indicated they'd stick with a key reform enacted last year – placing first-semester finals before the December holidays.

By year's end, the board must determine district-wide calendars for 2014-15 and a year or two beyond. Superintendent Kevin Skelly will return to the board Nov. 5 with a specific proposal, with a possible final vote Nov. 19.

The question of when to place first-semester finals – which provoked tears and door-slamming at rancorous, late-night board meetings little more than two years ago – prompted none of that this time around.

Even the most skeptical board members appeared to be swayed by poll numbers indicating more than 85 percent of high school students, when asked where they'd place first-semester finals if they controlled the school calendar, said "before winter break." Until the calendar change enacted a year ago, Palo Alto students took first-semester finals in the third week of January.

"We've (polled) our students in 2011, 2012 and 2013 and they want finals before winter break," said parent Susan Usman, a member of Project Safety Net, which is working to give youth a greater voice in the community.

"I don't understand why we would ignore 88 percent of our students."

More than 50 percent of high-school students polled said the greatest benefit of December finals is that "students get a 'real' work-free break" over the holidays with no January finals looming.

Nonetheless, board members said they want to mitigate the calendar's effects on families and particularly on seniors, many of whom are applying to colleges or getting not-always-positive news from their early-decision applications just as they're taking finals in December.

Forty-five percent of seniors polled said college-application deadlines posed the biggest challenge with the December finals schedule.

"I just hate that we crunch December," said member Camille Townsend, who two years ago voted against moving finals from January to December. "It's a great time of year and we just put finals on top of it.

"That being said, let's do finals before break but make sure those kids are out for the last two weeks of December when it's important they be with their families."

Board member Melissa Baten Caswell, who also opposed moving finals to December in the 2011 vote, said, "I still kind of prefer the old, old calendar, but I've moved on."

Caswell appeared interested in an unusual calendar proposal that places finals in December but does not actually end first semester until Jan. 22, with a "stand-alone unit" occupying the first weeks of January. That option would accommodate the later August start date preferred by parents while preserving the preference expressed by teachers for two semesters that are even in length. It was not clear she could get two additional board votes for that route.

Caswell also asked district staff members to explore the possibility of making finals optional for seniors in good academic standing.

Board member Heidi Emberling said she preferred pre-break finals, and Board President Dana Tom and Vice-President Barb Mitchel have advocated pre-break finals for years.

All members asked Skelly to find an August start date that's as late as teachers – who prefer two semesters that are even in length – find acceptable.

Before returning to the board with recommendations next month, Skelly must get agreement on calendar proposals from the district's teacher's union, Palo Alto Educators Association, and staff union, California School Employees Association.


Like this comment
Posted by David Pepperdine
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 23, 2013 at 10:51 am

Only in Shallow Alto could such a straightforward decision use up so much bandwidth.

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Posted by Wow
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Oct 23, 2013 at 11:15 am

I don't think there was a consensus. It would be great if there was but that didn't really happen. Townsend also wanted the weird calendar that Caswell wanted. Emberling -- it just wasn't clear. What was clear was that there are 2 votes to do the right thing. Skelly does not plan to let the board screw this up again. And the time to thrivers were neutralized by being on the committee. Kudos to Scott Bowers -- why isn't he in Charles Young's job? If you have a competent manager use them. He managed this in a very impressive manner.

Like this comment
Posted by High School Parent
a resident of Professorville
on Oct 23, 2013 at 11:28 am

the "weird" calendar is an interesting idea that potentially solves a number of problems if the teachers are willing to implement it. (late start, even semesters, and finals before break.) If the problem is that students will work ahead, the ones inclined to do that will do it in full-year classes, which are most of the classes, anyway. If the problem is that they'll still be worrying about their first semester grade, well, this year that grade wasn't due from the teachers until mid-January, not before break, so the semester end didn't end the worry. So why doesn't this deserve a "2-year-experiment?" It might just turn out to be a win/win.

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Posted by Not Happening
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 23, 2013 at 11:36 am

I've said it once, and I've said it again: having a standalone unit in January isn't going to make finals before winter break. Teachers will still assign projects over winter break to prepare for the standalone unit, or (more likely) just have a long lecture in the supposed "final" period before break, and then place the final in January.

It's not going to work. The only way to actually make sure there is no work over break is to end the semester in December.

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Posted by High School Parent
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Oct 23, 2013 at 11:43 am

You must know different teachers in this district than I do. Because the teachers I know would give a final during the December finals week if that's when it was scheduled, and then do the end of semester project in Jan. Because group projects must be done in class these days, it couldn't be assigned over break even if the teachers wanted to subvert the intent of the calendar. Which I don't think they do.

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Posted by 10 minutes more
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Oct 23, 2013 at 12:59 pm

If they add 10 minutes more to the school day that would shave off over 2 1/2 weeks from the school calendar. Then classes can start in late August, mid year finals could happen before winter break and everyone could be happy. Oh wait- maybe not the California teachers union who has restrictions on how many minutes a week a teacher can teach class.

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Posted by Paly Parent
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Oct 23, 2013 at 1:23 pm

The only real problem is with semester classes. Year long classes can have "finals, or mid terms" whenever. The class can divided into two unequal sessions without any problem. In any of these year long classes, a teacher can still assign work over winter break to get a head start on the second semester work. Finals are not finals until the end of the school year for year long classes.

The semester classes are the only ones that cause problem with "finals" as being a final exam. A semester class could in theory have a mid term with a unit test in January. I see no problem with that.

Calling them finals is the real problem. Change the name to mid terms, change the semesters to end where they used to, make the semesters the same length. Use midterms in December with a final unit test in January. Use midterms in December with a final in May. Call them what they are. The term final is a misnomer.

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Posted by surrender Dorothy
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Oct 23, 2013 at 1:39 pm

Give up. You lost. It's over. 90% of students want the new calendar. Armageddon never came. No one ended up, in the words of prohpet Phil, with "blood on their hands." It's over. Slink away.

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Posted by palo alto resident
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Oct 23, 2013 at 1:50 pm

@paly parent - Year long classes are two separate semesters, two separate grades and two separate finals.

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Posted by High School Parent
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Oct 23, 2013 at 2:00 pm

To be clear, the survey showed that the students preferred finals before break. They did not comment on where the semester should end.

The parents clearly preferred a late August start.

Are you really unwilling to consider that we could have both?

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Posted by surrender Dorothy
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Oct 23, 2013 at 2:12 pm

This is the most cockamamie development yet. In order to satisfy the "French Vacation" constituency, and in the face of all the evidence, we would somehow foist upon our kids THREE sets of exams. The fake set in December, that do not really end the semester, whatever evaluation occurs at the actual semester end in January, and then in the spring.

[Portion removed.]

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Posted by Momof3
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Oct 23, 2013 at 2:18 pm

I've seen a couple of comments saying that that group projects in high school must be done in class now... For the person/people posting that, where did you get that info? That certainly hasn't been our experience this year. My junior has had multiple group projects/assignments that have all required significant outside-of-class work and coordination.

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Posted by Blurred Lines
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Oct 23, 2013 at 2:55 pm

What makes a calendar like this effective in giving thousands of hard-working students (and teachers) a true and needed break is the physical hard stop of the end to semester 1, followed by finals and the Winter holidays.

As for creative structuring - the least amount of ambiguity or reliance on hundreds of individual teachers to comply with a no-assign rule, the better. It protects against drift.

Structuring the semesters so it's a (near) practical impossibility to assign or have work over the winter break is essential -- just like Paly's block schedule makes it practically impossible to have to turn in more than 3 or 4 pieces of homework on a given school day (and so many other benefits). The structure itself is what ensures the outcome we are looking for.

Clear, clean break. Refreshed clean start. Healthy.

Like this comment
Posted by Hannah Montana
a resident of Esther Clark Park
on Oct 23, 2013 at 4:32 pm

Brilliantly stated.

Like this comment
Posted by LOL the Survey
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 23, 2013 at 6:49 pm

LOL the survey

Like this comment
Posted by Parent and teacher (not in PAUSD)
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Oct 23, 2013 at 8:57 pm

In listening to the meeting, the things that really made sense as a parent and a teacher are: 1) to really note which classes we are talking about that need a final before break (I think I heard science and history). Core subjects (math and english) are year long and so there is no issue in giving a unit or final test before the break. 2) the suggestion of having a project for the semester subjects (again I believe these are science and history but may be incorrect) would align perfectly with the movement to common core and to having students work in groups (like is done in real world jobs). 3) the notion of a day a month for a break for students and teachers to relieve the stress is an outstanding idea -- relieving stress appears to be the reason for the change in calendar. 4) starting later in August and going into the beginning of June to minimize the craziness at the end of may -- another idea that makes so much sense and once again reduces stress. Lots of great points now all that is needed is a calendar that incorporates these points and clearly articulates that the motivation is to minimize stress for the students and teachers.

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Posted by palo alto resident
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Oct 23, 2013 at 9:40 pm

@parent and teacher - While all your ideas are great, the problem with the lack of a "hard stop" or not ending the semester before break is that too many teachers feel they are exempt from any rules or guidelines put forth by the BOE because their subject/class is too important. These teachers will assign projects, etc. over Break.

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Posted by High School Parent
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Oct 24, 2013 at 11:07 am

@pa resident. But the only classes that have a "hard stop" anyway are the semester classes. So if you really think that only hard stop would work, we'd have to turn all the classes into semester and have the kids rotate teachers after the first semester.

Why not at least try the "weird" calendar? We might learn something.

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Posted by Palo Verde Parent
a resident of Palo Verde
on Oct 24, 2013 at 11:39 am

Year long classes at the high school are broken into two distinct semesters. Some students do change teachers for the 2nd semester. The grading starts over in the 2nd semester and no grades from the 1st semester count in the 2nd semester. It is a hard stop as far as I can tell. We really liked the complete break from any school work over winter break. At least for my kids it seems as if it is just one thing after another during the semester. They get one step ahead just to fall two steps behind. They finish studying for one test/do a project or HW in one subject and another looms around the corner. There is just no down time. They now look forward to winter break where they know they will not have to worry, think or do anything school related.

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Posted by Another Palo Alto Res
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Oct 24, 2013 at 6:30 pm

Hard Stops "Deadlines" are important. A chapter ends, a unit ends, vocab lists have an end....if there aren't 'hard stops' when do the teachers and students know when to 'stop' and 'start'?

College Semesters and Quarters have defined Starts and Stops! Job Performance and Projects have Starts and Stops! What are Palo Alto parent's thinking? We collectively need to 'teach' our children about the 'real' world, not a 'fictitious' world.

Townsend and Caswell sound like they are trying to accommodate the 'students' and 'parents' who want 'hard stop' testing/project due dates after December break and placate the 'students' and 'parents' who want 'hard stop' testing/project due dates before December break. Their thinking has just lost them my vote if they run again for the Board of Education.

I also think many parents don't realize that if Senior students haven't started writing their college application essays before October they might as well go to a local Community College or a college that doesn't require them. Many Palo Alto Students apply 'early decision' which require college applications by November 1st. The other factor in high school education is most AP classes - Photography, Fine Art, English, US History, etc. have summer assignments that are required to be turned in the first two weeks of the school semester.

Palo Alto is 'not an island'; we are part of the greater United States! Our community needs to awaken to the responsibility to teach our children that they are not soooo 'special' that they can dictate when a semester/quarter starts and ends, and when they will be ready to be tested or have their projects due. Welcome to the 'Real' world!!! Please read the Palo Alto Unified School District's Handbook, Subject Requirements, AP Contracts Students and Parents sign and the Web Link Educated parents make a world of difference for a calm and peaceful home life.

Like this comment
Posted by Another Palo Alto Res
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Oct 24, 2013 at 6:34 pm

Thank you Susan Usman for your hard work to include Palo Alto Student's voice. They are the most important people to poll for the school calendar. They know what is 'really' expected of them in high school and to apply to college. While they dream and plan their futures.

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