Principals: School stress-busting initiatives work

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.

Because of construction on campus, Gunn increased its passing period between classes from five minutes to nine minutes. The change has been so well received that it might stick, even after construction is completed, he said.

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.

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Like this comment
Posted by Parent
a resident of Palo Verde
on Oct 22, 2010 at 10:02 am

Getting them to school is part of the stress, traffic and particularly today being the first wet day makes the morning commute really difficult. Getting almost 2000 students plus staff to relatively small campuses with impacted routes and very little public transportation (or school buses) makes this difficult. As the schools grow bigger, this problem will only get worse.

Like this comment
Posted by Parent
a resident of Palo Alto Hills
on Oct 22, 2010 at 10:17 am

I'm a huge advocate of a later start time at Gunn High School. My son wakes up at 6:45 AM to get to Gunn High School by 7:45 AM in order to be in class on time by 7:55 AM. He's exhausted many days of the week because he's only sleeping seven and a half hours a night (if he's lucky) due to a large homework load. Research shows that teenagers need 9.25 hours of sleep a night. I know that starting school fifteen minutes later doesn't allow him to catch up on his sleep as much as needed, but it would boost the overall sleep he gets per week. Please move the time that school starts at Gunn High School to at least 8:15 AM.

Like this comment
Posted by paly parent
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Oct 22, 2010 at 10:22 am

Mr. Winston has been an integral part of the stress reduction, the atmosphere at Paly is much more positive and welcoming.

The block schedule is great (although some of the classes can get a bit long and boring) but is seems like most of the teachers realize the kids need a break part way through the class to move around, go to the restroom, etc. It has made the homework load much more predictable.

The consistent start is terrific, being consistent is even more important than being later for my kids.

Regarding the survey the kids took, my son had a bunch of friends over the next day and they commented that the survey was so long that they got bored and randomly answered the last part of the questions.

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Posted by great
a resident of Professorville
on Oct 22, 2010 at 10:27 am

This is such good news. Thank you for listening.

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Posted by another paly parent
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Oct 22, 2010 at 11:26 am

We LOVE the new start time. Twenty five minutes makes an enormous difference!

Like this comment
Posted by Paly alumni
a resident of Midtown
on Oct 22, 2010 at 11:30 am

As an alumni, I just need to say... IT'S ABOUT TIME.

I like the way Principal McEvoy has gone about trying to lower stress, but in some ways I think the issue has been tackled from an awkward approach.

Sure, sleep does a lot of good for students - amen to the push for a later start in the morning. HOWEVER, from my personal experience, I need to point out the fact that a little more sleep can only do so much. Paly and Gunn are naturally very competitive schools, and it often drives our students to go above and beyond what they thought they could do. But there are causes of stress that are unnecessary, and those may lie in the teaching methods of some of the teachers. It may sound ridiculous, but perhaps what needs to be done is a reassessment of teaching abilities and instructional quality. There is too much busy work in some classes, while in other classes, the teacher "does not teach" effectively, leaving the students bewildered as to how to study for exams. Those were two clear and simple causes for a lot of my own stress and my peers' stress when I was student (if it helps to know, I very recently graduated from Paly).

It obviously is a much more difficult problem to try and solve when it's a matter of teaching ability, but I truly do believe that's a good chunk of the heart of the problem.

That said, I (pessimistically) don't foresee that huge changes will be made in this area, but I do hope that school administrators will take this into consideration at least. In the meantime, I look forward to what administrators can come up next with going about the stress problem.

Like this comment
Posted by interesting
a resident of Professorville
on Oct 22, 2010 at 11:45 am

interesting that Gunn already has had these initiatives going for years, some for decades, and that Gunn is the model for Paly

Like this comment
Posted by dontunderstand
a resident of Gunn High School
on Oct 22, 2010 at 1:35 pm

If Gunn really wants to help students' emotional health, then why did they let Mr. Lira resign?

Like this comment
Posted by What exactly is PC?
a resident of Gunn High School
on Oct 22, 2010 at 1:54 pm

It makes a nice soundbite that Gunn has embraced Project Cornerstone's Developmental Assets but what does that really mean? Besides administering a survey results of which will not arrive until Feb/March and sending folks to do more talking at Stanford, what changes have actually been made? I realize Ms. Villalobos is new but it is misleading to say changes have reduced stress when there has been no real changes. And what evidence is there that the students are feeling less stressed? Tell us when there are actual changes made...

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Posted by Former Gunn Parent
a resident of Midtown
on Oct 22, 2010 at 2:24 pm

My child now attends Foothill college. He starts school at 10:00am is done at 3:00 What a difference. No more stress, and time to talk to friends and play music. We feel sorry for Gunn Students.

Like this comment
Posted by Curious
a resident of another community
on Oct 23, 2010 at 8:17 am

Former Gunn Parent, did your child leave Gunn for Foothill before graduating, and if so, in what year? Will he get a high school diploma and then move on to a 4-year college?

I too am wondering about what real effect the Developmental Assets program will have. A later start time and block scheduling are two real changes that seem to have had a positive impact. It would be nice to see both Gunn and Paly on block schedules and starting even later--how about 9, like the research suggests?

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Posted by Paly Parent
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Oct 23, 2010 at 3:25 pm

My son loves the block schedule and later start.

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Posted by Mom
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Oct 23, 2010 at 7:00 pm

@Parent: Doubt any top PAUSD high school student gets 9.25 hours of sleep on weekdays. He is fortunate to get 7.5 hours!

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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