Palo Alto Weekly

News - October 1, 2010

Palo Alto examines finals before winter break

Neighboring high schools shifted their calendars years ago

by Chris Kenrick

A change in Menlo-Atherton High School's academic calendar, shifting first-semester final exams from January to December, has been "very successful," according to Steve Lippi, instructional vice-principal at the school.

Now in its sixth year, the pre-winter-break exam schedule is popular with students, teachers and families alike, Lippi said.

"It's been a win-win situation for everybody," he said.

As Palo Alto schools consider the contentious issue of shifting their own calendars to pre-break finals, officials from neighboring high schools said they do not recall the decision being terribly controversial in their own communities.

"Parents liked the idea of having finals finished before Christmas, and I don't think the teachers minded it either," Mountain View High School spokesperson Ginny Donaldson said.

Both Mountain View and Los Altos high schools shifted their calendars about three years ago, she said.

In Palo Alto, Superintendent Kevin Skelly has recommended a similar switch beginning in 2011.

The Board of Education is set to take a final vote on Skelly's proposal Nov. 9.

In the meantime, board members have urged citizens to weigh in by e-mailing their thoughts to calendar@pausd.org. District officials will track the comments and summarize them prior to the board's Oct. 26 meeting.

At Menlo-Atherton, the biggest drawback to the new calendar is that the first semester is "much shorter than the second semester, typically 82 days compared to 98," Lippi said.

"However, this is only a problem for semester-long classes, such as Government and Econ. The great majority of our classes are year-long, and therefore the fact that one semester is shorter than the other works its way out by the end of the school year," he said.

Other commonly cited difficulties — an earlier school-start date in August and stress-filled conflicts between finals and holiday music performances and other activities — have sorted themselves out, Lippi said.

"We just have to coordinate that a little bit differently," he said, adding that holiday concerts are scheduled the week before finals.

"That last week before break was always hectic anyway, with some students leaving to travel, so we tended not to schedule a whole lot of activities during that time."

M-A students began the current school year Aug. 18, eight days ahead of Palo Alto's start date. M-A's first-semester finals will be completed by the time students are dismissed for the holidays Dec. 17.

Second semester begins Jan. 3 and ends June 3.

Skelly's recommendation to shift Palo Alto's calendar springs from a desire to give students a clean, work-free break over the holidays, Assistant Superintendent Scott Bowers told the school board Tuesday, citing concerns expressed by students and research by Stanford University senior lecturer Denise Clark Pope.

For 2011-2012, Skelly's proposal calls for students to begin school Tuesday, Aug. 16, and for first-semester finals to end Wednesday, Dec. 21.

For 2012-2013, students' first day would be Tuesday, Aug. 14, and first-semester finals would conclude Friday, Dec. 21.

The 2011-2012 school year would end May 31, and the 2012-2013 school year would end May 30, under Skelly's proposal.

A survey of other school districts in Santa Clara, San Mateo and Marin counties indicates a trend toward moving finals to before winter break, Palo Alto district officials said.

The number of districts with pre-break finals went from 11 out of 21 districts in 2008 to 15 in 2010.

Forty-six of the 61 high schools surveyed have pre-break finals.

Many local private schools, including Castilleja, Menlo and St. Francis, also have made the switch.

"This has been quite successful for us," Castilleja Head of School Nanci Kauffman said.

"Not only do we find that it has reduced stress for the girls, but it has also allowed us to begin second semester in January with our Global Week Program, unencumbered by the need to tie up loose ends from first semester."

Palo Alto teachers' union representative Trina Gogarty said teachers are "willing to pilot this before-the-break finals idea."

However, teachers "are a diverse group with lots of diverse interests in the calendar." Some have expressed concerns about problems with uncomfortably hot classrooms if the school-start date is moved to the third week in August rather than the fourth week, as it is now, Gogarty said.

Tekla Nee, mother of three students in the district, told school board members Tuesday the calendar change "will require my family to make huge sacrifices with little benefit.

"This may be an experiment to you, but these are my daughter's only junior and senior year of high school. It's not an experiment to her; it's her life. Don't do this to her," Nee said.

The district's growing number of south Asian families would welcome a calendar change that included a three-week, not two-week, winter break, said Walter Hays and Jordan parent Ashima Agarwal.

"Talking with friends from the Indian and Asian communities, we often discuss how we can't go back to our countries to visit our parents in the summer because it's scorching hot," Agarwal said.

"Two weeks of winter break is not enough time to go back to India — you can't just go there for 10 days. Our concern is just adding another week to winter vacation so we also get to see our families," she said.

Among school board members, Camille Townsend appeared to be the most openly skeptical toward the proposed calendar change. Board member Dana Tom has indicated he leans in favor of pre-break finals.

Other board members expressed confidence in the process the district has established to gather comments before making a final decision.

TALK ABOUT IT

How would shifting final exams to before winter break affect your family? Share your thoughts on Town Square, the online community discussion forum, at Palo Alto Online.

Staff Writer Chris Kenrick can be e-mailed at ckenrick@paweekly.com.

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