Though Palo Alto teachers are explicitly asked not to give homework over winter break, 59 percent of students polled at Gunn and Palo Alto high schools said they had worked over the December 2009 break on assignments that were due the week after vacation.
Results of that student survey, taken in January, are among Superintendent Kevin Skelly's reasons for recommending that next year's first-semester finals be shifted to December, giving students an assignment-free break.
The controversial calendar proposal, setting academic schedules for 2011-2012 and 2012-2013, is slated for a school board vote tonight (Nov. 9).
Some parents have vociferously opposed the change, saying the mid-August school start date necessitated by the shift disrupts precious family vacations, and that pre-holiday finals would exacerbate -- not reduce -- student stress. One parent cited research on the so-called "spacing effect" or "distributed learning," which holds that students better recall information when it is studied over a longer, rather than shorter, period of time.
But in a staff report prepared for Tuesday's meeting, Skelly refuted various objections to the calendar shift and concluded with information gleaned from polling other districts that have changed their calendars.
"There is no empirical research that investigated the relationship between stress and pre-break finals," the report said.
"Staff could only gain an understanding anecdotally, by looking at the responses of schools and students where pre-break finals have been adopted.
"What is clear is that school districts adopting pre-break finals are pleased with the results. Staff was unable to find a school district that adopted a pre-break finals calendar and then reverted back to post-break final exams."
Nearly all high schools in the immediate area -- including Menlo-Atherton, Los Altos, Mountain View, Woodside, St. Francis, Castilleja and Menlo -- have moved to pre-break finals, and that calendar is strongly endorsed by Stanford University Senior Lecturer Denise Clark Pope whose organization, Challenge Success, seeks to reduce student stress.
A September 2010 Facebook poll, asking Gunn students whether first semester finals should held before winter break even if it means starting school a week earlier, found 183 in favor of, and 37 against, the change.
Skelly said his staff was able to find only one university -- Princeton -- that continues to schedule finals after the winter recess.
The calendar adopted Tuesday will affect the next two school years. Based on results from that period, adjustments can be made in the future, he noted.
"The structure of the proposed calendars ... gives both students and teachers valuable down time," the staff report said.
"They provide students with a real break from schoolwork -- which has been a recurring request of high school students over the past several years."
Because calendar decisions have elicited controversy in the past, district officials allotted extra time for public comment during this cycle. Following Skelly's formal calendar recommendation Sept. 24, the board discussed the issue Sept. 28, created a special e-mail address to receive public comment, and discussed the issue again Oct. 26.
Tuesday night's school board meeting convenes at 7 p.m. in the board room of school district headquarters, 25 Churchill Ave.
It follows a public reception by State Sen. Joe Simitian to honor Palo Alto teachers Diana Argenti and Natalie Bivas, who circulated a petition resulting in passage of a new state law requiring that children be 5 years old by Sept. 1 of the year they begin kindergarten.
The new law will affect up to 120,000 California children each year beginning in 2012.
Also on Tuesday night's board agenda is a discussion of the district's three-year-old pilot Mandarin Immersion Program.