Following mixed and passionate testimony about academic calendars, the Palo Alto Board of Education Tuesday night unanimously approved a 2011-12 district-wide calendar similar to that of the current school year.
However, a majority of board members appeared poised to make a substantial shift the following year -- ending the first semester before the 2012 winter break -– provided they receive assurances from teachers that program quality would not suffer by having a shorter first semester and a longer second semester.
"This is a split issue in this community," board member Barb Mitchell said.
"This is the third calendar cycle we're completing where we've had the concept to have a pilot to complete first semester before winter break. In the past, we've also arrived at calendar fatigue and then we've punted.
"I do want to stick with it this time."
The board will consider the 2012-13 and 2013-14 calendars in February, after teachers have been consulted on the question of uneven semester lengths. An abbreviated first semester would be necessary in order to complete the semester before winter break while keeping the school start date no earlier than the third week of August.
In addition to polling teachers, Assistant Superintendent Scott Bowers said he will survey parents, students and staff on the calendar issue before bringing the issue back to the board in February.
Board members said they've been inundated with "hundreds and hundreds of e-mails on this issue."
Advocates of pre-break finals, including Palo Alto Medical Foundation representative Becky Beacom, said the calendar change has for years been a top priority for groups trying to ease student stress.
"Measures like finals before winter break have been shown to provide swift and powerful relief to student stress," she said.
Nearly all nearby high schools, including Los Altos, Mountain View, Menlo Atherton, Woodside, St. Francis, Castilleja and Menlo, have switched to pre-break finals.
But opponents of the change said adding finals to already crammed December schedules could drive students to the breaking point.
"I already see (my daughter) jumping and screaming and yelling, and if she had to take finals right now her stress levels would just elevate," the mother of a Palo Alto High School senior said.
Board member Camille Townsend argued that pre-break finals may actually increase, not reduce, student stress.
Board President Melissa Baten Caswell said if the board decides to proceed with pre-break finals, special measures should be taken to accommodate performing arts students with intense pre-holiday schedules as well as seniors in the midst of college applications.
"We're never going to know if (pre-break finals) works without trying it, but I want to go into it with our eyes open," Caswell said.