For a community that claims to thrive on innovation and an openness to new ideas and experimentation, the debate over whether the mid-year semester break should occur in December or January created more angst and despair than genuine out-of-the-box thinking.
The idea of moving the end of the first semester to coincide with the December holiday break has been vigorously discussed in Palo Alto for years while many other school districts quietly made the change without controversy, divisiveness or horrible consequences.
The theory is that middle and high school students and their families are better served by having a winter break with no school obligations, projects or finals hanging over them during vacation and return to start a new semester more motivated when they don't face final exams in mid-January with no break afterwards.
Opponents to this idea don't like shifting the school year earlier and compressing the first semester, and believe the current calendar allows winter break to be a "catch-up" period for students needing it, as well as time for high school seniors to focus on completing college applications. Much of the debate has centered on whether families can shift their traditional August vacations forward, as has occurred long ago in most school districts.
No new alternatives
After lengthy discussion last year, the school board was unable to navigate to a decision and instead asked for more study, surveys and new ideas on how to avoid encroaching on summer vacation time in August. Regrettably, administrators didn't respond with any new creative alternatives similar to the ones offered by two parents in a Weekly opinion piece last week, so little changed from the debate last fall.
While expressing frustration that a more creative calendar couldn't be developed that addressed parent objections, the board Tuesday finally made its long-overdue decision. All five trustees should be credited with weighing the data and input and casting their votes as they saw fit, rather than continuing a probable futile quest for consensus through more study.
But the school board's 3-2 split (Klausner, Tom and Mitchell voting for the calendar change, Townsend and Baten-Caswell voting against) reflects the sharp divide in the school community, at least among the most vocal.
Important work ahead
While we expressed support for the calendar change in an earlier editorial, we think its importance has been overstated by many, and are concerned that the divisiveness over the issue could get in the way of the more important work that lies ahead in addressing student stress and school climate and culture, including policies on homework and school projects.
We are also worried that some are characterizing the calendar debate as dividing along high school lines, with Gunn parents supporting the change and Paly parents opposing it.
The school community must strongly reject this notion. While the Gunn community may have organized more effectively in support of the change, parents from both high schools were on both sides of the issue and both sides articulated legitimate and well-reasoned arguments. Neither side should be shamed for its position.
Lots of other school districts have successfully moved to a calendar similar to the one adopted Tuesday night and there is little reason to believe that our experience with it will be significantly different. And the change is for only two school years, beginning in 2012-13.
The new calendar is not perfect, and there are many variations that might be worthy of trying, including a few that surfaced for the first time in recent days. Some, such as switching to trimesters similar to the Stanford calendar, are interesting but come with their own set of problems. We look forward to the new calendar advisory committee looking at these other ideas.
The school calendar issue has consumed an inordinate amount of time, energy and emotion over several years, and should be put to rest for now. It's time for parents, teachers and administrators to pull together and work toward successful implementation.