Palo Alto Weekly

News - April 12, 2013

Survey: Pluses of new school calendar outweigh minuses

Palo Alto board members disagree on interpretation, say they'll develop 'values' to guide process

by Chris Kenrick

The benefits of recent changes to Palo Alto's school calendar outweigh the tradeoffs, according to high school students, parents and teachers surveyed earlier this year.

Despite vocal opposition by some to the calendar reform — which moved this year's school-start date to mid-August in order to finish the first semester before the December holidays — a solid majority of every group surveyed said the goal of giving students a work-free holiday break was more important than various inconveniences.

But Palo Alto school board members Tuesday disagreed about interpretations of the survey data.

"There are a lot of concerns with the new calendar despite the headlines glowing," said board member Camille Townsend, who opposed the calendar change in an emotional 3-2 vote in 2011. "There are issues here."

Board President Dana Tom, who supported the new calendar, said, "I have a different view of the data."

The survey was designed by an advisory committee of students, teachers, administrators and parents — including some of the most outspoken opponents of the calendar change.

More than 1,385 high-school students, 3,600 parents and 520 teachers of all grade levels returned the detailed online questionnaires.

School district officials said the advisory committee would analyze the raw response data and come up with suggestions for future school calendars, beginning with 2014-15. A second survey is also planned, probably in early fall, to capture opinions about the earlier end of the new school year.

Board members said they wanted to generate a set of "values" about the calendar to provide guidance for the recommendation process.

The board will vote this October or November to determine the district's next set of calendars, which will take effect in 2014-15.

Majorities of all groups in the recent survey — including elementary and middle school teachers — said, "If I controlled the school calendar I would want first-semester finals to occur before winter break."

Although many said they'd prefer school to start no earlier than the third week of August, greater numbers in all response categories said that giving students a "schoolwork-free winter break" was the most important factor in designing the next cycle of school calendars.

Questions to teachers probed their level of tolerance for uneven semesters. In order to end the first semester in December an earlier school-start date is needed to create equal, or roughly equal, semesters that add up to the 180-day school year required by state law.

In the first year of the calendar change, students and parents indicated adjustment problems so far had been tolerable, or at least not as dire as some opponents predicted.

More than 60 percent of seniors and nearly 70 percent of all high school parents said they or their children had not had to miss any extracurricular activities in December because of the demands of homework or exam preparation.

About 70 percent of parents of all grade levels said ending the first semester before winter break posted "little or no challenge" in terms of conflict with family activities. Eighteen percent said the new calendar presented a "moderate challenge" and 12 percent said it posed a "substantial challenge" to family activities in December.

Twenty percent of seniors said having finals in December either positively (10.9 percent) or "somewhat positively" (9.1 percent) affected their work on college applications.

Thirty-nine percent said December finals "somewhat negatively" (22.5 percent) or "negatively" (16.7 percent) affected their work on college applications.

Thirty-two percent said December finals "made no measurable difference" in submitting college applications.

Twenty-seven percent of high school teachers said the level of stress among their students just before winter break was "higher than in past years," but 44 percent said the stress level was "about the same ... as in past years."

In extensive comment sections, parents expressed wide-ranging views on the calendar, with some requesting alignment with Stanford University's calendar and others asking for conformity with "the Silicon Valley calendar, which goes on vacation in August and shuts down one to two weeks before New Years."

Others noted the many families in Palo Alto are from countries where August is the traditional vacation month.

"People outside of the U.S. cannot believe the schedule or the rationale," one parent wrote. "Our families miss out on participating in family events that occur during August in Europe and other countries."

But many parents expressed satisfaction with the new arrangement.

"I was ambivalent of the new calendar," one parent wrote. "However, after seeing my junior daughter have a stress-free break, the calendar made sense. Also, looking forward to an early end to school in the spring has been a great motivator for the second semester."

Student comments on the new calendar were overwhelmingly positive.

"It was the most amazing feeling to submit all of my college applications by Jan. 1 and have nothing to worry about," a senior wrote.

"I am very thankful that we have finals before winter break, and it allowed me to enjoy the second half of my break immensely more than if I had finals in the back of my mind (regardless of if I would have even studied for them over break)."

Teacher comments indicated support for the change.

"Keep finals before winter break," a high-school teacher wrote. "It's tougher on teachers but easier on students."

Said another: "I wholeheartedly approve of the calendar adopted for 2012-2014. It is one of the most sensible and courageous things that the school board has ever voted to do."

An elementary teacher wrote: "Student mental health at the high school level must be this community's first priority. As community leaders, PAUSD teachers must acknowledge that we teach in beautiful schools with supportive families and ample resources.

"We can give a little when it comes to our summer plans. Summer vacations, matching Stanford's break schedule and arranging child care are luxury problems we are lucky to have. The health and safety of our at-risk, stressed-out high school students trumps our scheduling challenges."

But another elementary teacher said: "I feel if we want to lessen the stress on high school students the calendar is nearly an inconsequential factor. Community, teacher and parent pressure as well as the onslaught of constant digital communication and the need to be 'perfect' or needing to get into the right college is important."

Staff Writer Chris Kenrick can be emailed at ckenrick@paweekly.com.

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