High school stress-busting initiatives working well, principals say
Later start time, major schedule changes greet Paly students this fall
Initiatives to cut student stress at Gunn and Palo Alto high schools this fall are working well, according to principals at both schools.
Paly students have experienced the most dramatic changes: a later morning start time, a new weekly "tutorial" period and a "block schedule" in which classes meet every other day but for twice as long.
There are fewer obvious changes at Gunn, where the weekly tutorial has been a staple for at least a decade. Last weekend (Oct. 16-17) the school sent a team of students, teachers and parents to brainstorm stress-reducing ideas at a national conference on youth well-being at Stanford University.
Both campuses are awaiting an imminent decision likely to have a major impact on high-school-student life in Palo Alto — the Board of Education's Nov. 9 vote on whether to shift first-semester final exams to before the December break.
Superintendent Kevin Skelly has recommended the calendar change — which also shifts the entire school year from mid-August to the end of May — starting in the 2011-12 school year. Most high schools in the area, including Menlo-Atherton, Los Altos, Mountain View, St. Francis, Castilleja and Menlo, already have moved to pre-winter break finals.
Paly's stress-busting initiatives this fall are a legacy of former Principal Jacquie McEvoy, who convened a task force that recommended the changes last spring.
"It's something we've been working on for a very long time," Paly Guidance Counselor Susan Shultz said.
Shultz said when the school's "stressed-out students committee" was unsuccessful in its campaign for pre-break finals calendar several years ago, it began focusing on "things we could do on our own campus for our kids" — and McEvoy supported those efforts.
This fall, Paly's morning start time was moved from 7:50 a.m. to 8:15 a.m.
Under a new "block schedule," students have no more than three or four classes per day — except on Mondays when all seven periods meet, as was traditional in past years.
A mandatory "tutorial" period every Thursday encourages students — after check-in with their sixth-period teacher — to scatter around the campus to seek assistance from teachers or simply study in the classrooms of their choice.
All changes at Paly are being tested under a one-year pilot. Student, parent and teacher feedback will be solicited before a second-semester evaluation of the initiatives, Shultz said.
The concept behind the tutorial is to give students an opportunity within the regular school day to gain extra access to teachers in whatever way they feel is necessary, Paly Principal Phil Winston said.
"If a student goes to an English teacher's classroom but does math homework there, I find that acceptable," Winston said.
"It means they're comfortable with that teacher, which draws them in.
"When we talk about the social-emotional needs of students, there are simple things we can do to increase people's connectedness, such as offering them the ability to go to any teacher they choose.
"These kinds of conversations build relationships, and make students more connected and comfortable at school."
If a student wants to check in to P.E. and shoot baskets for 20 minutes, "I want them to have that flexibility. Or maybe they just want to read a book in the quad," Winston said.
"It's about meeting them where they are."
Winston said the new 8:15 start time has been "enormously beneficial."
"Students come in vibrant, awake and ready. There's a different level of energy with just 25 extra minutes of sleep."
Start time at Gunn this fall is 7:55 a.m.
Gunn students have had a weekly tutorial period for at least a decade thanks to former Principal Noreen Likins, who instituted the practice.
"Teachers and students utilize it in a variety of ways: setting up student-teacher meetings; classwork, homework and/or project help, review assignments, test review, make-up tests and/or test re-take," Katya Villalobos, Gunn's new principal, said.
"It is an invaluable time built into the school day for students to access a valuable resource — their teachers," she said.
At last weekend's Stanford conference on teen well-being, the hot topics were block scheduling, later school start times and pre-break finals, according to Gunn Assistant Principal Tom Jacoubowsky, who accompanied the Gunn team. The conference was convened by the Stanford-based organization Challenge Success, founded by Senior Lecturer Denise Pope, psychologist Madeline Levine and education consultant Jim Lobdell.
Gunn already runs on what Jacoubowsky called a "modified block schedule," in which students have no more than five or six class periods in a day. The sixth and seventh period rotate in and out on alternate days.
Villalobos said Gunn's "big push" in the area of student social-emotional health this fall is adoption of the "Developmental Assets" approach, developed by the Minneapolis-based Search Institute and promoted locally by Project Cornerstone of San Jose.
The developmental assets are "the positive relationships, opportunities, values and skills that young people need to grow up caring and responsible," Project Cornerstone says.
Students across the Palo Alto school district took a baseline survey on Developmental Assets this month.
The results, which will be available in February, "will provide a road map of where our kids are and how we can build on those strengths," Villalobos said.
Staff Writer Chris Kenrick can be e-mailed at email@example.com.