In a discussion that stretched until midnight, many argued that pre-break finals would significantly ease academic stress by giving students a clean break over the holidays and allowing them to begin second semester rested and refreshed.
But an equal number argued that moving finals to December would exacerbate stress by overloading the busy pre-holiday and college-application season. Additionally, the proposed calendar shift would disrupt summer traditions for many families by starting the school year in mid-August rather than late August.
Though a majority of high school students, parents and teachers in district surveys indicated they favor pre-break finals, preferences became murkier when people were asked if they were willing to begin school earlier in August.
A large contingent of Gunn High School teachers testified in favor of the calendar switch, saying the current late-January finals schedule and one-day semester break render students exhausted as they begin second semester, leading to a well-documented "third-quarter slump."
The board is expected to vote May 10 on calendars for 2012-13 and 2013-14.
Two options have been presented for each year. If finals were to be held before winter break, the 2012-13 year would start Aug. 16, with the first semester ending Dec. 21 and encompassing 86 days. The second semester would start Jan. 7, 2013, and end May 30, encompassing 94 days.
If finals were held after winter break, as is currently done, the first semester would last 90 days and stretch from Aug. 28, 2012, to Jan. 24, 2013. The 90-day second semester would run from Jan. 28 through June 13. The proposed dates and options for the 2013-14 school calendar are similar.
Among board members, Vice-President Camille Townsend expressed the most skepticism about a shift to pre-break finals.
"I'm not there yet," she said. "For students in K-8, this would substantially change a whole lifestyle so the question is, 'Who in the high schools are we really benefiting?'"
The other four board members indicated varying degrees of support for shifting the calendar, with board President Melissa Baten Caswell and member Barbara Klausner listing a number of questions they would still like to have answered.
"I think this is the right move in the right direction for our students," board member Dana Tom said, adding that the proposed calendar is not perfect and will not magically "solve" the problem of stress.
Tom noted that a shift to pre-break finals has been overwhelmingly successful in the many Bay Area districts that have tried it.
"Every time I meet somebody from a place that has finals before winter break I ask about it, and it's just overwhelming the number of people who support it — parents, teachers and board members, even people who were initially skeptical," he said.
For members of the Palo Alto school district, analyzing the decision "amounts to a lot of conjecture because we haven't experienced it directly," Tom said.
Caswell listed a number of questions she still has about the new calendar.
"I'd really like to have a work-free break, but I'm not willing to do it without mitigating some of the problems," she said, mentioning early June child-care issues for working parents, among other concerns.