As the district prepares to end the first semester before winter break beginning in 2012-13, officials have promised to address in advance some of the nagging questions about the controversial new schedule.
In a rare split vote, the Palo Alto school board Wednesday decided to make the calendar switch, despite emotional pleas from a roomful of parents that the new system — which requires an earlier-in-August school start date — would wreak havoc on family traditions during late summer and end-of-year holiday season.
A majority of the board — Barbara Klausner, Barb Mitchell and Dana Tom — said giving high-school students a stress-reducing, clean break over the December holidays was worth the tradeoff of the earlier August start date. Dissenting were board President Melissa Baten Caswell and Vice-President Camille Townsend.
Under the new calendar, the academic year 2012-13 will run from Aug. 16 to May 30, with first-semester finals ending Dec. 21, with a similar structure the following year.
The current academic year, by contrast, began Aug. 24 and runs to June 9, with the first semester ending in late January.
But in voting for the change, board members insisted on a staff report by this November — nine months ahead of implementation of the new calendar — with specifics on how schools will manage a first semester that begins in mid-August and is eight school days and 16 calendar days shorter than second semester.
In particular, they asked schools to explain how they will calibrate student workloads to adjust for the uneven semesters, deal with classroom heat and support seniors who are applying to colleges as they're preparing for first-semester finals.
Sixty people — most of them parents — signed up to address the board about the calendar Tuesday night, with the vast majority asking board members to reject the change.
But board member Barbara Klausner, who cast the tie-breaking vote, said she was persuaded by a Gunn High School poll taken last week in which 74 percent of students preferred an "early start (to the school year) with exams before winter break" and 78 percent saw "less stress with exams before winter break."
"I know that starting school earlier in August will impose burdens on families in our district," Klausner said. "I happen to be in one of those families, so I know what it feels like.
"But overall I do find it compelling that, if we can create a two-week, relatively carefree (winter break) for our students, that's a benefit that's worthwhile."
Explaining her dissent, Caswell said, "I don't think I can vote for a calendar that creates problems for so many people."
Beyond disliking the earlier start date, parents opposing the calendar change argued that it fails to address what they said are more fundamental, stress-causing problems in the school district, including excessive homework loads and uncoordinated testing schedules.
"As a nurse, I see firsthand the chronic effects of stress on the health of our students," said Kelly Reilly, the mother of a third-grader at Walter Hays School and a seventh-grader at Jordan Middle School.
"I'm just beside myself with concern about homework overload, day-to-day stress and the hours of lost sleep by our high school students."
Reilly said she did not believe the new calendar would help but rather would exacerbate stress by creating "overload" from Thanksgiving through December and "mayhem in May," when second-semester finals occur alongside SAT tests, AP tests and athletic playoffs.
Several board members said they were intrigued by a compromise idea offered by Palo Alto High economics teacher Debbie Whitson, which would maintain the traditional calendar but have all classes give finals before winter break, with a two-and-a-half-week, "stand-alone" unit in January.
They also expressed interest in further research of a trimester plan similar to that of Stanford University. Such a calendar is rare among high schools but not unheard of, and Superintendent Kevin Skelly said he would research it.
In opting for the calendar reform, Palo Alto joins a majority of area schools that have already made the move, including Menlo Atherton High School, Los Altos High School, Mountain View High School, Woodside High School, Castilleja School, Menlo School and St. Francis High School.
The district said it will convene a "calendar advisory committee" of staff, students and parents to gather stakeholder views and to advise district staff on issues regarding the calendar. The calendar is the subject of negotiations with the district's two bargaining units, representing teachers and non-teaching staff.
The calendars voted on this week apply to the academic years 2012-13 and 2013-14. Calendars for subsequent years will be considered at a later date.