School board to vote on calendar tonight

Despite pockets of opposition, superintendent says students want it

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.

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Posted by parent of sophomore
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Nov 8, 2010 at 4:49 pm

183 friends of someone conducting a Facebook poll voted yes on finals before Christmas and that is evidence that high schoolers want this change? Come on...My high school student absolutely does not want it, cramming finals into December will cause more stress in her life, and that of many students she knows. The problems with the new calendar are many--and go far beyond the August start date issue. How about taking a serious, scientific look at our students and our families and doing more than a Facebook poll to find out how they'll be affected, rather than making significant changes now and studying them after the fact for possible "adjustments".

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Posted by Paly Senior
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Nov 8, 2010 at 7:02 pm

Here are a few issues that I have with the schedule. I am not saying that the new calendar is worse/better than the previous one, but would simply like to comment on some of the problems that I believe the new schedule might cause.

1) According to the new calendar, finals testing for the second semester is on the last day of the academic year. Under the proposed schedule, there is no minimum day on the 1st of June. This is highly problematic for it raises the following questions: How are students supposed to receive their final examinations back? When will they receive their grades? If they are expected to simply wait for their semester grades to be mailed home, wouldn't that induce more stresss? Similarly, the first semester also ends on a testing day. This means that students will spend all of Winter Break worrying about what grades they might or might not have received on their finals. As a student, I can attest that for me and many of my friends, the most stressful aspect of finals is often the period of time following finals when you know that your grade in the class has been decided, but you do not know what it is.

2) Finals should not be crammed in December
Although the Board packet states with following....
"In discussions with teachers, finals are generally between ten and twenty percent of a student’s final grade. [..] Given the relatively low percentage of a student’s grade that is determined by the final, few student grades are influenced by a student’s performance on the final. Since finals are a summation of student work, they are closely correlated with a students’ previous performance in the class"
... the reality is that finals are a significant portion of one's grade (one to two letter grades) and that most students do not study (intensively) until the week or two prior to finals (and no, just because most students study in the weeks right before finals, does not mean that they are lazy or that they are procrastinators; most of the students I know are already extremely busy even when they are not studying for finals). Finals may be cumulative, but they necessitate a substantial degree of last minute (or I should say week) review as many more detailed concepts/formulas that students need to know for final examinations tend to muddle after weeks of disuse.

3) Cramming in finals right up to the 22nd of December would be a tremendous burden for seniors who are applying to college. According to the district:
"The Common Application, used by the almost all private college and universities, contains a basic essay and then additional short essays or questions are asked of applicants by specific schools. [...] The upside for seniors is they will have time from the end of finals until January 1 to work on applications, if they haven’t completed them, without thinking about schoolwork. Since the school portion of the application must be completed by mid-November, students will have done much of the work, and teachers will have received the names of students for whom they have to electronically submit recommendations well before the January 1 deadline."
There is much flawed reasoning in this response. Many schools do not use the Common App (e.g. USC, MIT, UCs...). Secondly, schools often require the completion of supplements and supplementary essays. Most students I know are applying to 6-15 schools, most of which have supplements. This means that in addition to the one common app essay, students must also complete ~10 supplementary essays (Stanford alone requires 3 short essays and many short answers in addition to the common app essay). Writing college essays is not something that can be done in the two weeks following finals. Students take time carefully revising them over the entire month of December. The fact of the matter is that students applying to college do NOT spend their winter break studying for finals (even with the current schedule). College is what they are most preoccupied by. As any sane being would, most spend all of December working on applications, and then study for finals in the the first three weeks of January. Lastly, the argument that students will have done much of the work after sending in the school portion of the application is completely fallacious. That is the easiest and most administrative part of the entire process. The essays are what take by far the most time.

4) Even if finals are moved to before the break, the workload over winterbreak would not decrease significantly. Most students I know with rigorous course loads (I don't like to throw out numbers, but let's say... 3-5 AP classes) did not spend their winter breaks last year studying for finals, but studying for SATs, external math/science contests, and working on school projects (eg. the infamous physics project). Regardless of the finals being after or prior to the break, these scholastic demands would and will exist anyways over the break.

5) I have heard many variations of the following statement thrown around these past weeks: "Listen to the students. They seem to be in favor of a pre-break final". I do not understand why people seem to believe that students are in favor of pre-break finals. Although polls have been conducted by many Paly publications regarding the matter, they are extremely biased. In fact, a poll on the school newspaper's front page(!) stated the following "78% of Paly students prefer finals before winter break" and right next to that it said "If finals were to occur before break, school would also get out on May 31" but nowhere did it mention that school would start on August 16!!!
Also, many of the "other polls" were conducted on Facebook and did not mention any of the negative repercussions of the new schedule.

This being said...
Most of my friends, who keep up to date with district matters, read the Palo Alto Online and Paly Voice carefully, and understand the ramifications of the shift to pre-break schedules are not in favor of the change. Most of the other people I know either do not care greatly about the change or simply favor the pre-break aspect without considering all the other changes associated to the new schedule.

6) December is an extremely busy month for those involved in the arts at Paly. Every year, some of Paly's most memorable theatrical and choir performances are held in the last week prior to break. Moving finals to this last week of December would pose unimaginable stress to our student performers and could even lead to the cancellation of such programs (which cannot be moved to second semester as they are thematically related to the holidays).

On a similar note, December is also a busy month for winter athletes, as many sports are wrapping up. With our current schedule, finals are held in January, right around when the new sport season is about to start. This is better as coaches understand that students are taking finals and will often take into account the students scholastic needs while planning practices on the week of finals. With December finals, this will not be the case as there are many important high-stakes tournaments/competitions go on as the season comes to a cloes.

7) The new proposed schedule has very few non-student days. Additionally, there are few benefits of getting out of school in May as opposed to the first or second week of June. If the school district truly wanted to decrease student stress it should consider ending school on the 7th of June and add two days off at the end of April for students to study for AP tests, one day off in March (as the month currently has 0! non-students days), and two Fridays off on days preceding the SATs (so that students could rest/study and not take the test while exhausted from a week of school).

8) I do not believe that any argument such as ""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." (as presented in the article) should influence the district's decision to pursue the new schedule. PAUSD is a very unique district and by far one of the best in the country. I was therefore pleased when the district decided to list the start dates and final months for many of similarly high performing districts throughout the country.(Web Link)
Here are a few of them:
Fremont Union 8/23 | Dec
Los Gatos Saratoga 8/23 | Dec
Pacific Collegiate HS 8/23 | Dec
New Trier Township (IL) 8/25 | Jan
Highland Park 8/23 | Dec
Scarsdale Union (NY) 9/7 | Jan
San Marino 8/24 | Dec
Piedmont 9/1 | Jan
Whitney (CA) 9/9 | Jan
La Canada (CA) 8/31 | Jan
As one can quickly see, most of these districts start either in November or on the 23-24 of August. If these districts are very similar to PAUSD, the district should reach out to these schools and not simply those in the immediate vicinity for input and remarks on the calendar.

9) It's hot in August. Enough said.

10) Winter break starts on the 23rd of December, one week later than it historically has. This would add stress to families as they cream to organize holiday festivities and would conflict with many other school districts' winter break start dates, rendering travelling to relatives whose kids attend other districts more difficult. Along with the suggestions I proposed in 7), the district should also consider making winter break 3 weeks long and ending school on the 7th of June. This would give students a "real winter break" and allow families with ancestors in Asia and other places with generally uncomfortably warm and humid summers (or any families looking for a real retreat), the possibility to visit relatives (or go sightseeing) over winter break.

I want to wrap up by saying that I do applaud the district for attempting something different this time. However, I believe that before any actions are taking, a detailed investigation/analysis of the current schedule needs to be conducted. One can't simply select a new schedule because he/she thinks that students might enjoy it more. Instead, we need to carefully ask ourselves what was wrong/what needs to be improved with the old/current one before pursuing the new one. The district keeps saying that the proposed scheduled isn't perfect but that it is a step in the right direction, but what is this right direction? If by that they mean stress free, we must be climbing a pretty tall ladder.

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Posted by Nadav G
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Nov 8, 2010 at 10:33 pm

To "parent of sophomore"

Although I get the point you are trying to make... i'd just like to clear up one point.

It was 420 Palo Alto High School Students that were surveyed, not 183. The survey was put out via Paly Voice, facebook posts, and facebook messages to all classes from their class officers. Yes, we should have had a more accurate sample. But the fact that 78% of these students said they want them before break still says something. We have revised our survey procedures for future surveys to also give out in-class paper surveys to different classes so that we can also reach the students who are not on facebook.

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Posted by jt
a resident of Crescent Park
on Nov 9, 2010 at 4:39 am

I'm with the school board and Skelly on this one. I favor changing the schedule every year so that it is impossible to predict when finals are going to take place, or when a family should go on vacation. Let's keep it real and unpredictable.

Kids need to understand that in the real world, they can never know when their "final exams" are going to take place. So I salute the school board for changing things every year to keep it unpredictable. (I know the censors will cut this, but look at the Daily Post's stories on this!!)

Look, this district loves to follow the latest educational fads ... i mean trends ... i mean best practices ... oh, whatever ... we let kids answer math questions with essays ... need i say more! Everyday Math means no more memorization and teachers can go home at 2:30 p.m. -- who cares if Paly and Gunn graduates can't make change when they land jobs at McDonald's?

Glad the Weekly favors no stress and no homework. One day Palo Alto kids will staff the call centers of Indian corporations.

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Posted by Measure outcome?
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Nov 9, 2010 at 5:49 am

We have had so many threads on this, for so many years, I am grateful to the Board members who look like they are going to have the courage to do what is right for the kids, and get them a REAL BREAK over winter...time to recharge their batteries with nothing hanging over their heads.

What a valuable lesson to teach our kids in high school. Work hard, finish, then REST. Much better than the workaholic lesson we have been teaching for so many years. ( work hard, work some more, work until you drop for a 3 day weekend..then get up and start again)

I wish there were a way to measure mental health THIS year in February of the high schoolers, then mental health the same time next year of the high schoolers, to measure the difference in depression/anxiety ... I would bet a month's salary that the difference is measurable in the upper 30% academic performers of the schools.

Any ideas?

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Posted by Measure outcome?
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Nov 9, 2010 at 5:58 am

Another good thing about semester ending BEFORE winter break is that it gives parents the second quarter grades/semester grades by the start of the next semester, and the chance to help sinking kids ( depression, anxiety, collapse of any sort) who were good at hiding their sinking, but the grades revealed there is a problem.

The old way, it was possible for kids to start sinking in November, but for parents to not know how deep was a problem until February, after it had come to a head for at least 2 months prior. But, the problem was masked by a lack of teacher communication in December ( everyone is so busy), "winter break" with no commmunication, and then no report cards until the end of January, then no "3 week reporst" of failing students until another 3 weeks after that.

By then, a kid who had sunk back in November could be so far deeply gone, that it is almost impossible to pull him back from the brink, and certainly too late to salvage the second semester for his college apps ( which contributes yet more to the malaise/depression of some students.

This will help parents with stoic kids get the information they need to help kids who show they need help only through their grades.

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Posted by Tonight
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Nov 9, 2010 at 6:06 am

How does this make sense?

- Can't be anti-stress because the calendar doesn't remove it, it just moves it and adds more elsewhere.

- Best for learning? No, as the article mentions it flies in the face of solid education research, that all good teachers know, which shows a break followed by review is optimal for retaining what you learn.

- People screaming for it? No again, as the best they can show is very small uninformed samplings (teachers and parents omitted entirely).

- Will it make for a "real" break? The districts own survey says "no."

Listen to the school board tonight and see if any one of them who votes for the proposed calendar points to even 1 piece of research or 1 piece of solid hard data.

They will say we should do it because Johnny down the street does, even though unlike PAUSD 90% of Johnny’s school applies only to UC/CSUs (per the PAUSD materials this week) so their college aps are over in November, little to no essays required. (Johnny’s school calls November a “tough” month because of it – just think of what adjective they’d use for December if their students applied to private college instead. And even with pre-break finals, Johnny’s school assigns AP homework over break and the week earlier start date in August, hailed by PAUSD as great for kids in AP classes, “hasn’t really changed scores on AP tests” in Johnny's school afterall).

Or they may say if the private schools can do it so can we; but $40,000 a year tuition buys a lot free public education does not, including 40:1 college counseling and essay help (1 hour one-on-one once a week) v. our 333:1 at one of the private schools two board members have/had their child enrolled at so should know. Even with such exceptional services, those private school students have two more weeks off in the Fall for camps/family time/college aps - one in August with a later start (8/26 or later) and the other in December with an earlier release (12/17) - that our kids don't get for their camps/family/college aps under this calendar.

Or they may say that all top colleges but Princeton does it, so what’s the beef? They won’t tell you which ones are on the quarter system (applies to oranges), that only 20% of Harvard classes offer winter finals, that those colleges give kids 1-2 full weeks off to study for exams (dead weeks) weeks our kids still must go to school, and college students spend ½ the hours in class our students do when school is in session. College calendars give students tons of time, the PAUSD proposed calendar does not.

Listen and you'll hear the board members voting yes say "don't worry" it is just a pilot so if it doesn't work out all 10,000 PAUSD families will only have to suffer through it for 2 years. Of course the current sophomores and juniors, who will be most stressed by this calendar, won't get those years back. Those board members won’t care that Palo Alto families don't take too kindly to being “pilot” subjects without their permission.

For some unfathomable reason they will say the cost is worth it because they know in their heart that it'll work out (just like they've said every calendar cycle for the last decade when they vote in yet another calendar hailing it as the newest, latest, greatest and last change our community will have to endure.)

The problem with going with your heart is that emotions often deceive you - hence why we look at research and do well-designed surveys so we can get an objective handle on what the outcome will be BEFORE we commit to it.

The board has time to do this right. We'll see if they do, tonight.

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Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 9, 2010 at 7:30 am

I suspect that if we have the end of semester before winter break, we will not have final grades until after school starts in January. With finals scheduled on the last day of school before break, do we honestly see teachers working in their break - particularly those with families excited for Christmas, getting all those exams graded and data entered during break.

Sounds unlikely to me. Those teachers want a break too and don't want to spend Christmas holidays grading.

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Posted by Reports and Surveys
a resident of Gunn High School
on Nov 9, 2010 at 7:58 am

Measure Outcome,

You must not be a high school parent yet. All parents get mid-semester progress reports mailed home so there are no surprises. And, if that isn’t enough, concerned parents can log in to InClass and Infinite Campus to get day-to-day updates. Almost all teachers – at least in my experience – post all your child’s scores on all quizzes, homework, class participation etc. there. It’s a wonderful service for parents with “low communication” kids who are struggling but too proud to admit it and so good of PAUSD to provide this to all of us (students included).

The timing of the progress report is perfect. It comes out just before the deadline to drop a class if it turns out the student is in over his/her head.


I believe the 183 relates to the Gunn survey. My child goes to Gunn and seems to be on Facebook all the time but didn't have a clue about the survey so that sampling, though well-intended, was likely neither random nor wide.

I remember from a prior thread you said the Paly survey did not inform students what the trade offs would be with pre-break finals (same probably true of Gunn’s). Those tradeoffs are not obvious unless you've been through it (i.e. now are or have been a senior) and it is those tradeoffs that have people concerned.

What the proposal sets in motion can tip a "like" vote to "dislike" pretty fast: stresses it places on seniors applying to college in December, the mis-match of parents' work vacation time to school vacation time, the conflict with August camps/internships that end later than PAUSD starts, the list goes on and on.

I imagine had the few Gunn and Paly high school students who took the survey known the full context they would have voted differently, especially if the district had shared with them before their vote the results of its January survey that showed 59% of Paly and Gunn students had homework over break separate from finals studying anyway, so there is no "real" break to be had either way.

BTW - Important to this discussion but not mentioned in the article is that only 20% of students said the current post-break finals calendar “did not work out very well” while a whopping super majority (64%) said it was “okay” to “great.” Hardly shows high school kids screaming out for this change, don't you think?
Page 15 - Web Link

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Posted by paly parent
a resident of University South
on Nov 9, 2010 at 8:06 am

@measure outcome? --actually, the plan under the proposed calendar is that the teachers wouldn't have to grade finals over the break, so the semester grades wouldn't be due until Jan 15, about a week after the start of the new term. That's a long time to wait for a worried student. Under the old calendar the wait is over one weekend.

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Posted by Mary
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Nov 9, 2010 at 8:53 am

How come other districts have chosen to move finals before break and are happy with it? They don't want to admit failure?

These are not good reasons for opposing the move to pre-break finals:

Theatre students: Not everyone participates

AP students: They have to work over break anyway - that's their decision to take the class.

Religious activities: Not everyone is religious

Employer vacations: Doesn't affect everyone

Break doesn't correlate with others: There is some overlapping.

"Students don't study during break anyway": Confirm this? They may not be studying, but they have the stress of knowing that they should be studying. Some can store it in their minds and not be worried, but others cannot. Others are pushed by their parents to study.

And the request for 3 weeks off to visit relatives in Asia? Another minority request. Absurd!

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Posted by Frank
a resident of Ventura
on Nov 9, 2010 at 11:36 am

It seems like a good idea to me.

-We can look online and get their grades instantly (I have 2 children in School now) all teachers don't post results instantly but most do.

-There are other venues for education besides traditional call room learning; some students do better in these other environments - having some time in January will allow kids to take camps, classes, workshops that will undoubtedly be offered. (I hope some by the PAUSD too)

-August is hot but most of our high schools' buildings are air conditioned and more are being each year.

-Essentially all Colleges and Universities have Finals before Christmas.

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Posted by don't do it!
a resident of Crescent Park
on Nov 9, 2010 at 1:48 pm

Let's take a look at similar schools in rank and when they start: Web Link

Mission San Jose: September 1st
Saratoga High: August 30
Oxford Academy: August 31
Troy High School: August 28th
Pacific Collegiate School: August 23rd
Monta Vista High: August 23rd

The dates are off slightly due to start dates from calendars for different years and I couldn't quickly find the date for Gretchen Whitney but the bottom line is that *none* of these schools are starting mid-August.

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Posted by Paly Parent
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Nov 9, 2010 at 4:15 pm

--You can't see the grades for finals instantly if they aren't graded until Mid-January
--camps, classes, workshops suddenly being offered in that first week of Jan? Highly unlikely, beyond straight babysitting. Do you know how hard it is to find quality offerings for older kids in the summer locally?
--most school buildings are air conditioned? Uh, no, they aren't. They have rounded up some fans in some cases.
--college and university experiences don't have a lot to do with high school here, others have explained why. let's stick to apples to apples, folks

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Posted by parent
a resident of Addison School
on Nov 9, 2010 at 4:44 pm

Pockets of opposition? The early start date has been widely opposed. It would be more accurate to say that there are pockets of support for early finals in spite of widespread opposition to broad changes made in this calendar.

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Posted by Parent
a resident of Midtown
on Nov 9, 2010 at 9:50 pm

Go see Race to Nowhere.

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Posted by Looking
a resident of another community
on Nov 10, 2010 at 5:58 am

Does anyone know what happened? I can't find anything yet about how the vote turned out.

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

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