Palo Alto school officials said they hope to ease academic stress by shifting the calendar to hold first-semester final exams before winter break starting in 2011.
But the proposed calendar change actually would increase -- not decrease -- stress among students, particularly seniors trying to squeeze in college applications and musical performances in addition to finals before the holidays, some irate parents told the Board of Education Tuesday night.
Tuesday's angst-filled discussion underscored the sensitivity and complexity of the calendar issue for the diverse families of Palo Alto's 12,000 schoolchildren.
Officials stressed the public will have ample opportunity to comment on the proposed academic calendars for 2011-2012 and 2012-2013 before the school board takes a final vote Nov. 9.
Superintendent Kevin Skelly's recommendation to shift the calendar grew out of a desire to give students a clean, work-free break over the holidays, Assistant Superintendent Scott Bowers said Tuesday, citing concerns expressed by students and research by Stanford University senior lecturer Denise Clark Pope.
For 2011-2012, Skelly's proposal calls for students to begin school Tuesday, Aug. 16, and for first-semester finals to end Wednesday, Dec. 21.
For 2012-2013, the first day for students would be Tuesday, Aug. 14, and first-semester finals would conclude Friday, Dec. 21.
A survey of other school districts in Santa Clara, San Mateo and Marin counties indicates a trend toward moving finals to before winter break, according to a school district staff report.
The number of districts with pre-break finals went from 11 out of 21 districts in 2008 to 15 in 2010.
Forty-six of the 61 high schools surveyed have pre-break finals, he said. Local private schools, including Castilleja, Menlo and St. Francis, also have made the switch.
Teachers' union representative Trina Gogarty said teachers are "willing to pilot this before-the-break finals idea."
However, teachers "are a diverse group with lots of diverse interests in the calendar." Some have expressed concerns about problems with uncomfortably hot classrooms if the school start date is moved to the third week in August rather than the fourth week, as it is now, Gogarty said.
Tekla Nee, mother of three students in the district, told school board members the calendar change "will require my family to make huge sacrifices with little benefit.
"This may be an experiment to you, but these are my daughter's only junior and senior year of high school. It's not an experiment to her; it's her life. Don't do this to her," Nee said.
The district's growing number of south Asian families would welcome a calendar change that included a three-week, not two-week, winter break, said Walter Hays and Jordan parent Ashima Agarwal.
"Talking with friends from the Indian and Asian communities, we often discuss how we can't go back to our countries to visit our parents in the summer because it's scorching hot," Agarwal said.
"The heat this week is nothing compared to the heat in India and other Asian countries in the summer, so we end up not going home once our kids are gong to school.
"Two weeks of winter break is not enough time to go back to India – you can't just go there for 10 days. Our concern is just adding another week to winter vacation so we also get to see our families," she said.
"We'd like a week less of summer and a week more of winter break."
Among school board members, Camille Townsend appeared to be the most openly skeptical toward the proposed calendar change. Board member Dana Tom has indicated he leans in favor of pre-break finals.
Other board members expressed confidence in the process the district has established to gather comment before a decision is made.
Community members are encouraged to e-mail their comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Bowers will track and summarize the comments at the Oct. 26 board meeting.
"Tonight is just the beginning of a series of a minimum of three meetings on this issue," board President Barbara Klausner said Tuesday night.
"We want people to know how it's going to work, and we will not have substantive discussions until Oct. 26."