Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - September 24, 2010

Editorial: Time to give kids a real winter break

Long-debated issue in Palo Alto schools evokes strong opinions, but the school district leadership's priority needs to be what's best for the students

It is heartening that Palo Alto school officials have established emotional well-being of our children as a top priority this year.

It is even more heartening that steps are being taken at both Gunn and Palo Alto high schools to ease up a bit on the students in terms of demands of homework, scheduling and school start times, and to seek ways to increase a sense of "connectedness" for all students.

The district properly is moving step-by-step and judiciously, trying to weigh the ramifications and possible side effects of actions, and to enlist support of individual school administrators and teachers. It also is building or strengthening alliances with the broader Palo Alto community, through its longstanding partnership with the PTA and a new entity, Project Safety Net, that includes representatives of the city, community nonprofit and medical organizations and others.

That group is promoting a proven program, Project Cornerstone, that focuses on how to increase "developmental assets" of young persons, based on a set of 41 assets that help young people manage and balance their lives.

We have a significant way to go to achieve a truly effective, lasting change in the high-pressure environment with which many students struggle — as outlined powerfully in two Weekly cover stories in the past month.

And we are concerned about softening the message, and its urgency, through use of terms such as "encourage" in the latest draft (Sept. 14) of the "Focused Goals for 2010-2011." It is hard to disagree with an overall policy that reads: "Improve student connectedness and strengthen support systems for student social, emotional, physical health." But it also is hard to know what to do with such a policy.

The goals themselves are soft, as in: "Encourage site-developed approaches to improve student connectedness." That is more of a nudge than a high-priority directive. It raises the question of whether district-level policy decisions have any real substance after being filtered through school site-based decision-making and individual teacher decisions, as in the widely ignored "no homework" policies for some nights or breaks. Some policies need enforcement.

One important area awaiting a decision is moving final exams to before winter break.

It is time to end the Palo Alto-style debate of the past four years on when to schedule important end-of-semester tests, and it's overdue to give students some real time off during winter break. Scheduling the end of the semester in mid-January forces many students to study or complete projects during the break, either by internal pressure, parental pressure or assigned homework.

One school board member cited an extreme case where one high-school study group convened on Christmas Day to work on a project assigned over the break. Perhaps that was their preferred way to spend Christmas, but we doubt it.

There is a vigorous dialogue underway in the Town Square forum on www.PaloAltoOnline.com, ranging from thoughtful, informational postings to hard-line "toughen up" opinions.

Numerous other school districts have already shifted to before-the-break finals. Palo Alto needs to do so now, even if it means shortening the fall semester or starting school sooner in August, or perhaps finding ways to compress the semester schedule a bit.

Summer vacations are important also, and families with younger children have a right to be concerned about shorter windows for taking trips or family schedules that an earlier start-of-school schedule would entail.

There are no easy solutions, but it's time for the school administration and board to address the issue head on in light of strong evidence that pre-break testing would be a significant encouragement for students to take some real time off.

Districts all around Palo Alto have made the move, including a growing number of unified (K-12) districts. The private Castilleja girls middle and high school in Palo Alto has pre-break testing. Few schools if any seem inclined to go back to post-break testing, if they ever had it.

Superintendent Kevin Skelly has hinted he might support pre-break exams, but was awaiting results of a Calendar Committee meeting Thursday afternoon before finalizing his recommendation. Public comment before the school board will start next Tuesday night. A decision is expected by the board in October or early November.

It's time. Do it.

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