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School board: College-essay writing help needed

Original post made on Apr 25, 2012

Palo Alto students' need for help with college essay-writing emerged as a theme Tuesday in a Board of Education discussion of the school district's transition to a new academic calendar.

Read the full story here Web Link posted Wednesday, April 25, 2012, 9:55 AM

Comments (52)

Posted by moi, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 25, 2012 at 10:44 am

Editor --

Your title makes it sound as though ringers will be hired to co-write the essays!

Posted by Mom, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Apr 25, 2012 at 10:52 am

If students take English for three years at Paly before they write their college admissions essays, why do they still need help?

Posted by Observer, a resident of South of Midtown
on Apr 25, 2012 at 11:04 am

Students who take classes in our district should be capable of writing a creditable essay by the time they apply to college. If they choose to apply for ten schools, which is too many, they need to start the process of applying for college earlier due to the new schedule. Since this is not going to be a surprise, they all have the option of applying to a reasonable number of schools, and also of managing their time by starting early.

As for the renting out of the San Antonio property, they had better write into the contracts that renting out the place to these groups does not mean they will then be entitled to stay there in perpetuity. Many of those renting at Cubberly feel entitled to the low rents for as long as they'd like to have them.

Posted by Carolyn, a resident of Downtown North
on Apr 25, 2012 at 11:24 am


Re Paragraph 2:
Shouldn't the students be representing their OWN skill (or lack thereof) in their essay? That is the purpose of the essay. Help from another person is just another form of cheating.

With all due respect, the Board (and a good portion of our parents)need character rehab.

Posted by Anne Knight, a resident of Fairmeadow
on Apr 25, 2012 at 11:53 am

Having been a professional tutor for the past 11 years, I have long worked with rising seniors on their essays. I do not write those essays; rather, I help students think more deeply and write with greater precision and panache. The experience of working on the essays is itself educational, NOT a form of "cheating," as has been suggested in this thread.

Ideally, by the time students have completed junior year, they will have developed the cognitive and expressive skills to write compelling essays. I agree with Superintendent. Skelly that top colleges would prefer that students take AP English than a class dedicated to college essays, but, especially for top colleges, the essay can be the differentiator between admission and rejection. Still, all students cannot afford private tutoring, yet even the most gifted benefit from expert guidance in crafting essays.

Consequently, I believe that early in their high school career, students need to understand the lifelong importance of literature and writing, learn what constitutes effective expression, and develop the habit of reflecting on their own experience.

Rather than offer a semester-long course, the School Board should consider offering a full-day or even half-day workshop. I would be pleased to teach one for Palo Alto students at no charge.

Posted by adcomm, a resident of Crescent Park
on Apr 25, 2012 at 12:19 pm

I worked in admissions at Stanford and have helped a number of applicants (to various programs) with their essays. All have been good writers, but writing an application essay is much different from writing an analysis of Canterbury Tales. In fact, students often need to let go of their most cherished beliefs (instilled in them by English and social studies teachers) to compose a successful essay.

Posted by Plain Silly, a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Apr 25, 2012 at 12:27 pm

In defense of parents, they just asked the board to figure out a way to free up time for their seniors so they could work on their college essays at home, not help writing them.

The "help" part was the board's overlay since it cannot recapture the time seniors loose under the calendar. That is one of the calendar's niggling adverse side effects that there is no cure for short of going back to the old calendar or opting for a different calendar configuration - options both the majority of the board and the district refused to consider.

If you haven't been following this, this calendar takes away almost two weeks of vacation this summer which seniors could have used to write their college essays. It also takes away one of two weeks of vacation in December (moves it to after lots of colleges' application due dates) and long weekends in between. And it fills whatever free time students might have had on November and December nights and weekends before winter break with extra school work, tests, projects ... as teachers almost always seem to step things up at the end of the semester to catch up on materials they didn't quite get to. Then, any time left after all of that, seniors will have to use to study for and take finals.

I watched the board meeting and think that its solutions are ludicrous.

The only idea that makes some sense is after school workshops but there were promises but no details so we'll have to see if they even materialize and are helpful.

But giving students 1 English class (read "one hour") to work on their college essays without instruction or review is a token and is hardly worth the disruption, but it does allow the district and board to say that they helped seniors in school with their college applications.

And some good a UC approved college essay writing class will give our students. It's too late to help any seniors this Fall.

And the others? Would you rather have your kid spend 18 weeks learning the classics in English class or learning how to write grammatically correct diary entries, which is basically what college essays are? Sure seems that colleges wouldn't be too impressed to see on a student's transcript a core English class which was all about college essay writing where teachers graded college essays before the student submitted them. I agree with the posters above - that certainly seems like board-endorsed cheating and is just plain silly.

Posted by moi, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 25, 2012 at 12:29 pm

With all due respect, anyone who helps a student to "write with greater . . . panache", or to formulate, fine-tune, or "think more deeply about" an essay destined to be part of a college application is, indeed, assisting cheating and thus short-changing the student.

And I agree: Ten colleges? Are you making a scrapbook of your child's acceptance letters? Narrow it down. Who needs the stress?

Posted by Me Too, a resident of Adobe-Meadows
on Apr 25, 2012 at 12:47 pm

Using an editor (paid or free, teacher, family or outsider) isn't cheating. Discussing essay themes and ideas with friends, family, or advisors isn't cheating. This isn't a proctored or even honor-code exam - it is a personal statement. So long as the ideas and expression are the student's own, they are well in the clear.

Ten colleges is probably the median - it may even be higher. Given the low acceptance rates and, even more, the random-ness of the process, as well as most students' evolving ideas of what kind of school they want, they need to apply to multiple places to make sure they get a spot they want. The effort to apply is low - all UC's are one application (with a couple supplemental essays maybe), and most colleges use the Common Application. So ten apps, including, say 3-4 UCs, is probably the same effort as 3 apps in the "olden days" when we applied.

Posted by Paly Parent, a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Apr 25, 2012 at 12:57 pm

As a rising senior, I am saddened for all the seniors next year.

As it is, this summer is shortened and the last week will be useless since school resumes on a Thursday. Saying that they can take summer school on an already shortened summer break to teach essay writing skills is a poor start to their senior year.

The English classes at Paly have basically been literature classes and the writing that I have seen has been critiques of the literature and not college essay practice.

This is the last summer for seniors to do something interesting and unique before getting to college and full summer ministry programs to give them something to write about in essays and to "look good on their college apps" is what they should be doing rather than taking more classes to teach them what they should have already been taught.

I am already worried about next year and we haven't even finished junior year.

Posted by Me Too, a resident of Adobe-Meadows
on Apr 25, 2012 at 1:27 pm

@Paly Parent (who seems to be in fact a student) - take a deep breath, it will all be fine. You don't need to do "something interesting to write about" or to make yourself look good - believe me, whatever your life is, it is interesting enough. My senior wrote about her relationship with her brother and love of sports - no special preparation needed!

The stress in our family's experience doesn't come from the volume of work required or even the preparation - it is the worry about "getting in." But having just gone through the final scene this last month, our observation is that when it is over, everyone seems to feel ok about how things came out. A few tears, a few cheers, but mostly sighs of relief (and hard-core senior-itis).

My only advice is start writing early (like September) so you don't feel rushed - in fact, apply Early Action somewhere, even if it is just to get a dry run at finishing. I bet you'll do fine.

Posted by local gurl, a resident of Greenmeadow
on Apr 25, 2012 at 1:43 pm

My high school English and social studies teachers assigned essays to us that could be easily modified to be submitted with college applications.

Posted by It is doable , a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 25, 2012 at 2:09 pm

My kids seemed to have time in their sophomore or junior year to write a college essay that was part of their class. This essay was used by them to springboard ideas for the colleges that they chose to write essays for later. This may be because they took high school classes and did not try to jump to the "college classes" before they were seniors in high school.

BTW, they did get their applications in before Winter Break, played sports, had jobs, hobbies, and did get into fabulous universities without all of the bother of a multitude of APs and they have actually performed well in college. There is more to life than APs.

Posted by Preeva Tramiel, a resident of Professorville
on Apr 25, 2012 at 2:19 pm

My own experience with my own college essays, colors my opinion that a REAL break is what is needed. I took three APS my senior year, and had a menial job, and edited my (inferior) school paper.
I did not have any adult help with my college essays, interesting travel, or anything like that.
I had what I needed the most. Quiet. So I could concentrate, feel the pressure, think, and rise to the occasion.
I got into every school I applied to. Brown, Barnard, UPenn.

Posted by Teacher mom, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Apr 25, 2012 at 2:56 pm

Having had two students go through PAUSD schools K-12 I can attest that the writing instruction in the district is severely lacking once they move out of middle school. Kids still need writing instruction in high school, even in Palo Alto.

Posted by adcomm, a resident of Crescent Park
on Apr 25, 2012 at 4:09 pm

It's not 1980 any more. Getting help with your applications and applying to multiple schools is essential for most schools. That is, if you want to go to a decent school and not one that is "fabulous."

Posted by Mom, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Apr 25, 2012 at 5:00 pm

Here's the first essay prompt for the Common App (250 word minimum):
Evaluate a significant experience, achievement, risk you have taken, or ethical dilemma you have faced and its impact on you.

If a senior is not capable of writing that essay without assistance, they should not be graduating from Paly.

Posted by adcomm, a resident of Crescent Park
on Apr 25, 2012 at 5:09 pm

The difference between writing an essay that is grammatically correct and competent and writing an essay that will have an impact on an admissions officer is the difference between going to an expensive noname school that is desperately trying to attract paying students and getting into an Ivy/Stanford.

Posted by Paly Parent, a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Apr 25, 2012 at 5:12 pm

Thank you Teacher Mom for your insight and agreement. Yes this is not 1980 and very few kids accepted to all the schools they apply for from PAUSD, rather than other Districts.

Yes, I am a parent of a senior next year and it looks like I need help editing as well as my teenager.

The prompts above show not only that I question the ability of a senior to write an adequate essay but also whether they have had the experience to <Evaluate a significant experience, achievement, risk you have taken, or ethical dilemma you have faced and its impact on you.> Writing about a love of sport or interaction with a sibling doesn't appear to be what is requested. Perhaps having a summer job, volunteering with the less fortunate, travel to a foreign culture or dealing with some physical hard work might give them something to experience in life, rather than more time in a PAUSD classroom!

Posted by Teacher, a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Apr 25, 2012 at 5:24 pm

I am aware that many students and parents want teachers to help kids with these college application essays. I am also aware that many kids have private tutors to help with this. OF COURSE they should be able to do it by themselves, and most of them can, but the admissions climate these days is so stressful that many feel they must have help.

While I understand the Board's and the community's desire, I do wish that they would realize that we can't do everything. We told them that the new calendar would actually increase stress for seniors in this regard. They KNEW something would have to give if they adopted the new calendar -- we TOLD them over and over that one of the things that will likely get cut from teachers' curriculum is the College Essay Unit.
For them to expect us to do more and more, with increasingly larger classes, not enough time in the day, and when we have not had a raise in 4 years is absurd. We can't do everything they want us to do. If they want to create a separate course called "College Essay Writing" that's fine, but then they will need to address the graduation requirements for English courses at Paly. You can't expect kids to take an extra English class senior year to decrease their stress. They'd have to be excused from one of the required English courses.

We did offer several college essay workshops outside of the school day, and I don't think it's reasonable to expect us to do more than that.

Posted by Me Too, a resident of Adobe-Meadows
on Apr 25, 2012 at 5:40 pm

@Paly Parent - on the topic of the essay, those topics worked well for my kid - pretty much anyone would be happy with her results. There are meaningful challenges and achievements in all our our everday lives.

A book I would highly recommend is On Writing the College Application Essay: The Key to Acceptance and the College of your Choice (Amazon link: Web Link). It gives you an application reader's eye view of the process and where that essay fits. It is humorous and short - your kid might actually read it! To give you a flavor, the author a couple times mentions that one of his all time favorite essays begins "I do my best thinking sitting on the toilet..." (no kidding).

You definitely don't need to 'manufacture' an experience for your kid to talk about - the app readers get pretty tired reading about life-changing volunteering trips to Costa Rica, etc. The key is that it be significant to YOUR KID and tells about them as a person.

Best of luck!

Posted by Paly Parent, a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Apr 25, 2012 at 5:53 pm

Me Too

I appreciate your comments and I know exactly what you mean. I just envision something inbetween the Costa Rica trip you mention and sitting in a classroom learning how to write about it.

I was picturing something more like being a counselor for one of our local summer camps, a trip to visit family overseas or getting a job in a local pizza dive! These are the sort of values and experiences I would like my teenager to experience in the last summer of high school and would definitely provide fodder for a college essay.

Teacher, it is a shame that writing is not part of our education curriculum and reading some often of questionable value literature is. Without joining too much the "when I went to school" chorus, I did have teachers who were able to teach the required literature coursework and expect my fellow students to write about life issues with good English skills and supportable opinions. However, I am truly grateful that you and your colleagues made your arguments to the school board in an effort to prevent this new calendar being approved.

Posted by Mom, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Apr 25, 2012 at 6:25 pm

Perhaps the English department is the real problem, not the calendar.

Posted by Chris, a resident of Midtown
on Apr 25, 2012 at 6:51 pm

My kid had very average grades and test scores at Paly. He was not a good test taker. However, he had a good, but tough, life experience, and he wrote his essay on his own. No tutors. No help from me, even on his homework. I just told him that life is tough, get over it.

His essay was great, and I never saw it until he got accepted at a good university. He now has a high-powered job in private industry, and he is climbing the ladder very quickly. He is in high demand at his work, because he is not a whiner. Neither his mother nor I coddled him. We both spanked him, when he went over the line, when he was young. We both feel like we did the right thing, and that we are superior parents, relative to the whiners on this board.

You reap what you sow.

Posted by moi, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 25, 2012 at 6:51 pm

>>>> "Here's the first essay prompt for the Common App (250 word minimum):

"Evaluate a significant experience, achievement, risk you have taken, or ethical dilemma you have faced and its impact on you."

Need help coming up with an essay subject? Might I suggest writing about how important it is for the State of California to use grammatically-correct and carefully-crafted prompts on its Common App?

To wit:

"Evaluate a significant experience YOU HAVE HAD, or achievement YOU HAVE EARNED, or risk you have taken, or ethical dilemma you have faced. . . ."

Posted by another Paly Parent, a resident of University South
on Apr 25, 2012 at 6:59 pm

This discussion--and indeed the meeting last night--has gone off onto a discussion of college essays, how much help should be provided, what it takes these days, etc etc. All interesting discussion points, but none address the issues the parents raised at the meeting--and indeed the problem the district was supposed to look at addressing, which is the issue of time. The seniors under the old calendar barely, just barely, had enough time to do everything they needed to do in fall semester; the new calendar takes time away. So exactly how are they supposed to get it all done? That's the question we're not getting an answer to, and sidetracking of the board discussion to talk about a future essay writing class to be offered to JUNIORS is, frankly, offensive to the worried parents of next year's seniors.

A number of years ago an experienced parent, explaining high school load to me, said "Think of your child's weekend as having 5 blocks. It has Friday evening, it has two half-day blocks on sat into sat eve, and two more half-day blocks on sun into sun eve. Freshman year the kids will be using 2 of those 5 blocks for school work. Sophomore year that goes up to 3. Junior year it goes up to 4. And senior year the 5th block is taken up by college applications, your child will have no time for family or friend activities, every weekend minute will be taken up by work. That analysis proved true.

And when I look at the missing 3-day weekends and other "catchup" days sacrificed in the new calendar, I realize that that 5th block, previously used for college essays, is going to be used by seniors (and juniors) for school work. For the juniors, it just destroys their remaining free time. For seniors, there was no free time, so we have absolutely no idea where they're going to get that additional time block--right now, it simply doesn't exist. And the board and district is not giving us answers. My guess--it'll come from sleep, so key for physical and emotional health. Not a price I think is worth paying.

Posted by At the end of the day, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 25, 2012 at 7:16 pm

I am confident in the ability and resilience of next year's seniors. They have worked hard in school, know what's coming, and will write to the best of their ability. They will get into schools and will choose one that they will most likely love. In December, they will experience the first true break of their high school years - a luxury that literally over 100 thousand of San Mateo and Santa Clara County teens have enjoyed for years. At the end of May they will graduate and start perhaps the longest summer of their teen years. Much deserved. Off they go. Their future is bright.

Posted by Me Too, a resident of Adobe-Meadows
on Apr 25, 2012 at 7:46 pm

@At the end of the day - amen to all that. I'm confident the kids will rise to the challenge and do fine. Parents, if you show anxiety about whether they are up to the task, that message is heard by your teen loud and clear. Your kids are great; they'll do great; have confidence in them and enjoy the result.

Posted by Kate, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Apr 25, 2012 at 8:12 pm

And there was such a broo-ha-ha about Algebra II??? Grammar, spelling, editing, writing, composition, and critical thinking will last students through their lives. I did editing for a living. I remember very little about Algebra II or Trig.

Posted by Sawyer, a resident of Barron Park
on Apr 25, 2012 at 8:21 pm

" Might I suggest writing about how important it is for the State of California to use grammatically-correct and carefully-crafted prompts on its Common App?"

Good thing the Common App is not used by public California universities.

Web Link

Posted by Paly '80, a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Apr 25, 2012 at 9:16 pm

PAUSD English departments were excellent when I went through but now they are terrible. I have reconnected with Paly alums via Facebook and it's wonderful to see the good writing skills we learned. Nowadays, many English teachers don't teach students how to write, perhaps the most important skill for a person to learn in school. What's appalling is that almost all English teachers do not correct papers. Besides lectures, I learned how to write by seeing the corrections on my returned papers. How can students learn to write if their papers are not corrected? How can one call themself an English teacher if they don't want to put in the extra time to correct papers? One teacher at Jordan asked me to check my child's paper and have my child make the corrections I recommend. I've had two children progress through Jordan and not one has had an even decent English teacher. They are all terrible.

Posted by Paly parent, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Apr 26, 2012 at 4:46 am

The very first essay my kids wrote in their senior English class at Paly was about a personal experience. It was edited several times by the teacher and became the springboard for any college essay requirement without the pressure of labeling it that way. I thought it was the perfect get-to-know-you/college essay prompt, and was being done in all the senior English classes. I guess not. Perhaps it should be.

I agree that we should have more confidence in the students to meet their own challenges and changes, and that parent anxiety and criticism does undermine their confidence in ways they often can't or won't express. Embrace what you cannot change (next year's calendar and teachers, thanks to tenure) and celebrate your child's resilience. They deserve it.

Posted by paly parent, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Apr 26, 2012 at 9:54 am

39 of 46 public schools in Santa Clara county have made this schedule work. The only big difference I see is that I suspect PAUSD students apply to significantly more private schools. The UC and CSU application process is pretty simple and needs to be done by the end of November, so the schedule change wouldn't make a difference. Private schools are the ones that want more essays and their application are often not due until January. And as the parent of a recent graduate, some kids applied to 25 schools - a lot of work (not to mention $$$).

During the 2nd semester of Junior year, English teachers could devote a couple classes to College Essay writing. Students could start their essays in the summer, instead of waiting until Senior year. Many of the teachers would be willing to read over and comment on their essays, as would the college counselors.

Unfortunately, I have to agree with Paly '80 about English teachers at both Paly and Jordan. I have 2 kids, one had a one great English teacher in 8th grade, otherwise, they had very little writing instruction at Jordan. The English teachers at Paly don't provide much writing feedback, relying on "peer edits" instead. There is also an emphasis on analyzing the literature vs. good writing skills.

Posted by pamom, a resident of Barron Park
on Apr 26, 2012 at 10:04 am

My students got help getting ready for their college essays in 11 grade English classes. Then they had time in the summer (before starting 12th) to practice and prepare a college essay app. This worked well for them. (No tutors)

Aren't the 11th grade teachers still doing this?

But I think there is a problem with a lack of writing practice in the middle schools (don't know about Jordan). Very few writing assignments, very little grammar practice, and almost no corrections and or guidance. I have seen much better program/curiculum in 7th and 8th in Los Altos not to mention what the privates do. We need to improve our 7th and 8th grades English program.

Posted by observer, a resident of Gunn High School
on Apr 26, 2012 at 11:11 am

My kids have been assigned pre-college essay topics every single year since the 3's in PreSchool Family. There was always a Me-book, self-reflection poster or an introduction letter to one or more teachers every single year. In addition to serving the immediate purpose it got them in the habit of writing, speaking or designing a piece of work to make an impression or introduction.

It is unfortunate that PAUSD doesn't a more through job in mechanics. But topic-wise these kids should be ready.

Posted by kk, a resident of Barron Park
on Apr 26, 2012 at 11:39 am

The essay represents the KIDS skills, its not a class paper and NOR is it the taxpayers responsibility to spend money on the application process. Writing papers was already funded and delivered in english classes.

Posted by Years to go yet (parent of middle-schooler), a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 26, 2012 at 12:48 pm

Is there some reason that seniors need to wait until Fall to begin writing their college application essays?

I just did a quick check and found that the six Common Application essay prompts have not changed since 2008. (I just Googled "Common Application pdf" and the years 2011, 2010, etc. backward to 2008. I couldn't find any from years earlier than that.) You can see a preview version of the 2012-2013 Common Application here: Web Link

Likewise, although the UC essay prompts won't be made officially available until October 1, it appears that the UC prompts have not changed in the last several years either. (Again a quick Google of "UC application essay prompts" yielded this information.)

Other colleges and universities may change their prompts year by year, and the dates they publish their prompts may vary.

However, it would seem that a resourceful student who had narrowed down their college list by late summer might be able to actually complete several essays in August before school ever starts.

The new calendar has not taken "time away" from the seniors. The calendar requires these students to shift their schedules. The college application deadlines are published well in advance and shouldn't sneak up on anyone. Learning to manage one's time is part of life.

Posted by baytoo, a resident of Menlo Park
on Apr 26, 2012 at 1:00 pm

To Paly '80:

"How can one call themself an English teacher if they don't want to put in the extra time to correct papers?" You composed that sentence and did not bother to correct it.

But yes, teachers should figure out a way to make more corrections. I believe that at Menlo-Atherton HS, some of the English teachers have "readers" on contract to correct selected assignments, which is a practical approach.

Posted by Paly Parent, a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Apr 26, 2012 at 1:03 pm

I would just like to say that I don't think good writing skills is something that should be glossed over by our English teachers.

Our English classes seem to be focused on literature, and very little literature overall, with often a leaning towards titles written in very poor English. From kindergarten onwards, there is a feeling that reading anything is good for children, but I strongly feel that the choice of reading material is very influential on the children's writing ability. When reading good English, our children get a feel for good English - what it sounds like, how it "feels". But when so much of the literature choices contain poor English with very poor sentence structure, written in dialect with no spelling or grammar conventions, then how on earth do the children realise what constitutes good writing.

I say, start teaching writing skills to our kids from elementary up and play down the bad English in their literature. Reading is a good skill and takes them down all sorts of roads, but it should give them more than just critical thinking skills. If we want our kids to write well, how about giving them some good examples from what they read? They may or may not choose to read much as adults, but they will need to be able to write in more than textspeak, the latest slang expressions or geographical dialets.

Posted by Mom, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Apr 26, 2012 at 2:03 pm

I agree with Years to Go's above post. The essay prompts are well-known and available now. Rising seniors should get started writing long before the due dates.

Posted by woulda coulda shoulda, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 26, 2012 at 3:09 pm

Yes, students should get started early, and they should get feedback from teachers (not peers), etc. We all should exercise, eat balanced diets, and brush our teeth regularly, too.

However, the survey results show that our students apply to 10 schools on average, the vast majority of which are due in December and January. Further, they work on those applications during December and January. I truly doubt that all students and teachers (recommendation letters) will be savvy enough to be ahead of the game next year with the overlapping deadlines. I think it will be a shock to everyone.

Posted by Palo Verde Parent, a resident of Palo Verde
on Apr 26, 2012 at 3:29 pm

The college application process is always a grind. Some kids are very well organized and driven and complete things well ahead of time, while others procrastinate and wait until the last minute. The calendar does nothing to change this. I am a little frustrated by the attitude that this calendar change is some "grand experiment" being done to Palo Alto students. This calendar has and is being used by the majority of high schools in the area. The idea that our population is "different" is rather elitist in my opinion. Kids from Los Altos, Mountain View and Menlo Atherton High school certainly attend top flight colleges - and have the semester end before Winter break. I think people who don't want to return to school in August and don't like the late December start of winter break are using the college application process as a "reason" to dislike the calendar. I think the real reason most people don't like the new calendar is because they want to have August for vacation. Citing "stress for seniors" just sounds better than "I want to have an August vacation".

Posted by moi, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 26, 2012 at 3:30 pm

Sawyer --

Thanks for the web link.
I appreciate the correction!
And I feel a bit better now.

Posted by Plain Silly, a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Apr 26, 2012 at 4:17 pm

Years to go yet, Mom and Palo Verde Parent,

School starts 12 days earlier under the new calendar so it doesn't leave many August days free to work on applications.

College supplemental applications - where the 30-50 other essays, etc that a typical senior will write this fall are found - don't come out until August 1. So while students can certainly get a head start in August, they can't make much of a dent on all the work that they need to do.

Not much free time at the other end either. The two weeks of break in December seniors used to use to work on applications are now cut in half - one half before applications are due and the other half after.

In between the two, the new calendar replaces huge blocks of time that seniors could have worked on their applications with school work and finals.

Seniors losing substantial free time under this new calendar wasn't lost on the Board. Here are some of Barb Klausner's comments during the board meetings discussing the new calendar (the "compressed fall semester" is referring to this coming Fall 2012):

"There are hours for homework or studying that the current fall semester has that will not exist in the compressed fall semester. Piling on those additional hours on our already overburdened high school students is not going to reduce stress. There is some level of workload that needs to be modified significantly. I expect reductions in homework, projects, reading assignments that include every single high school teacher, that took careful consideration of student perspective of what the difference would be in non-instructional days as well as instructional days."

She even said "I can't vote for this calendar if I don't have a sense of the accommodations in place before the start of the 2012-13 calendar year."

The mitigation report she insisted on does not provide the assurances she asked for. Maybe teachers will make significant cuts to what they teach, maybe they won't. But since they have lots to cover, mu guess is that they can't.

(BTW- My family doesn't take vacations in August so we have no stake in which calendar would be better from that perspective.)

Posted by JordanPalyParent, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Apr 26, 2012 at 5:31 pm

I agree with the previous poster about the quality of English instruction - it ranges from non-existent to poor. We have yet to have a really good English teacher in 3yrs at Jordan and 3 years at Paly. Maybe they are out there, but I have not seen them. Peer edits are the norm; you are lucky if you get one good edit/year from a teacher. Asking for this is viewed as some outrageous imposition. In fact, asking for anything is viewed as impossible - even a clearly written description of the assignments is often lacking. From English teachers.

That is why there is an entire industry to teach kids how to write, and to write for them. You can buy a full package of essays for up to 10 colleges for $10K, or ala carte $3k for the first essay, discounts for volume. Visit any tutor in Cupertino.

Whatever the school can do to help students learn to write should be embraced. Summer programs are great, as are course alternatives, or... anything. We need to help the students compete, even in the cheating culture of today. It is a disgrace that Universities accept this state of affairs, but they are engaged in the cheating as well:

Web Link

Posted by Me Too, a resident of Adobe-Meadows
on Apr 26, 2012 at 8:07 pm

@Plain Silly - I'm not sure if you have a rising senior, but I hope you express to them confidence that they can manage the schedule and succeed with their applications - as I'm sure all the kids will.

In my opinion you exaggerate the effort required - most of the supplements are quite short (max of 200-300 words - half a page) and some schools don't have any (e.g. the UC's, Dartmouth). A few require more than one, but again, quite short. And of course the topics often overlap. So to get to 30-50 essays, you'd have to be really running up the applications to non-UC schools - I imagine some do, but that's a choice.

My kid applied to a dozen schools, started working on it in Oct, procrastinated, but got it done fine. I did not get the sense that she, nor her friends, found it overwhelming - in fact, some kids said they enjoyed about the chance to think and write about themselves. In my opinion, if college apps are your biggest concern about the school calendar, we will all be fine (as I'm sure we will).

Posted by Gunn high school student, a resident of Barron Park
on Apr 26, 2012 at 8:49 pm

For all those telling people to "narrow their choices down" and not apply to 10 colleges or more, let me enlighten you on how the application process works. You generally apply to 2 or 3 reach schools (schools like stanford that are considered very unlikely to get into), 4-6 regular schools (schools you should get into but its never sure), and then 2-3 safety schools (schools you should most definitively get into to). I am confident all the writers on this feed can do 1st grade math, and can realize that the range is around 8 to 12 schools. This is the ideal process, because even if an individual does not get into any reach schools, and only into a couple of his "regular" schools, he still has a good selection of colleges to decide from, and is not stuck being forced into a college he does not want to spend the next four years of his life at. Next year I will be a senior, and am definitively not looking forward to this schedule. I happen to know ms. Foung (the lady mentioned in this article), and thank her with the bottom of my heart for taking a stand on the part of us high school students.

Posted by other gunn high student, a resident of Palo Alto Hills
on Apr 26, 2012 at 8:54 pm

@Me Too
There is nothing enjoyable about the application process, and the number of friends I have seen breakdown mentally because of the stress level is immense. I ask you please ask your kid to give me whatever drug he or she is on as either your kid is a relative of superman and able to churn out college applications like an industrialized factory, or your child didn't put in the hours and hours of work the rest of the kids of the community put into these essays.

Posted by Me Too, a resident of Adobe-Meadows
on Apr 26, 2012 at 9:14 pm

Sorry that you didn't enjoy it, Other Gunn. The whole college process has become quite stressful, you are right. My kid's view, for what it's worth, is that the essays/applications are not the primary reason for the stress - it is more the obsessive worrying, discussing, being asked, etc. over the whole process.

Posted by Paly '80, a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Apr 27, 2012 at 10:15 am

@baytoo: Re your statement, "How can one call themself an English teacher if they don't want to put in the extra time to correct papers?" You composed that sentence and did not bother to correct it.

It is universally accepted to use "they" because if "he" is used, feminists throw a fit, and "he/she" is awkward. Also, A.M./P.M. has evolved into lower case letters, to my disappointment. Read comments from the people of our nation, either on forums or below articles, and realize we are in a bubble here with generally excellent grammar on this Palo Alto forum.

The only type of corrections on papers students at Jordan receive are peer corrections. How can a middle school student know as much about grammar as an adult English teacher? They end up making stupid comments just to write something.

And elementary school books which are written as if a child wrote it (so kids can relate) with poor/incorrect grammar? I never let my kids read them and they shouldn't even be published.

Posted by Observer, a resident of South of Midtown
on Apr 27, 2012 at 2:33 pm

Once again we are faced with the sad truth about the quality of teaching in our famous schools. Great test scores as the result of private tutoring and classes taken elsewhere are taken as proof that we have great teachers. In fact, we have many great teachers, but we also have plenty who are skitching off the tutors. This is especially true in all math lanes here in town, where teachers take credit for the teaching of others and brand anyone who can't get the instruction elsewhere as being dumb, relegating them to lower and lower lanes instead of teaching them. The shortcomings in English instruction, which are evident in these comments, are further proof that we have teachers who do not have to teach the basics. Instead of learning to diagram - and therefore understand - sentences, and being taught how to write an essay, with very important feedback from the teachers, our students are being assigned books to read which are targeted to expanding their knowledge of and experience with considering other points of view. While worthwhile, this curriculum is over emphasized at the expense of basic skills, such as essay writing.

Posted by Anne Knight, a resident of Fairmeadow
on May 3, 2012 at 12:57 pm

I've already made a comment, but here I'd like to provide some facts:

-UCs DO require applications, most likely 2 essays with combined word count of 1,000 words. California state colleges require no essays.
Although UC topics are not officially posted until fall, in July I routinely phone UC Berkeley admissions office to see if topics have changed from previous year. As soon as I have my answer, we can work on UC essays.

-Common Application essays: the objective is "to get to know you as a student, aside from grades and scores." Topic 6=Topic of your choice, which can be written at any time. This topic is the most demanding but also the most critical for admission to select colleges.

-Many select colleges require 2-5 supplemental essays in addition to the Common App while a few colleges do not accept Common App and require responses to their own topics.

Given demands of senior year, wise rising seniors will try to complete essays before fall classes begin. Since many deadlines are Jan 1 to Jan 15, however, seniors can now devote their "vacation" to polishing essays.

Writing their essays ideally better acquaints students with themselves. Crafting essays enriches students' self-awareness and helps them identify what is important in their lives.
Most of my students, while relieved to complete their essays, express satisfaction from having learned to improve their writing and their understanding of themselves.

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