A solid majority of parents, teachers and high school students favor switching the Palo Alto school district's academic calendar to end the fall semester before the December holidays, according to a school district poll.
Sixty-five percent of more than 3,600 parents, students and school staff responding to a survey opted for first-semester finals before the break.
The contentious calendar issue returns to the Palo Alto Board of Education Tuesday (April 26), when board members will discuss a staff recommendation to switch the calendar, beginning in the 2012-13 school year. The proposal is for the fall semester 2012 to start on Aug. 16 and end Dec. 21.
A final vote is expected May 10.
Palo Alto's two high schools are among the few in the area still holding first-semester finals in January.
Most other high schools –- including Menlo-Atherton, Los Altos, Mountain View, Woodside, Castilleja, Menlo and St. Francis –- have moved to pre-break finals in efforts to ease academic stress by offering a clean break over the holidays.
Earlier recommendations to switch Palo Alto's calendar have failed.
Most recently, the school board appeared poised last November to back Superintendent Kevin Skelly's proposal for pre-break finals beginning this fall but opted instead for a "rollover" post-break-finals calendar for 2011-12 when several dozen opponents appeared at a Nov. 9 board meeting.
The opponents -- mostly parents and a few students -- argued that pre-break finals would intensify, not reduce, student stress in the busy pre-holiday performance season, which, for seniors, also coincides with college application deadlines.
In the poll conducted by the school district since then, support for pre-break finals was strongest among high-school staff (74.4 percent) and students (70 percent), followed by parents (66 percent) and elementary and middle-school staff (48.2). Though less than 50 percent of elementary and middle school staff backed December finals, only 22.4 percent backed post-break finals and 29.4 percent had no opinion.
Teacher response rates were 85 percent at Gunn, 75 percent at Paly, and more than 50 percent among middle and elementary school teachers, the school district said.
Approximately 2,700 parents, 430 high-school students, 165 high-school staff members and 310 middle- and elementary-school staff members voted in the poll.
Though consensus seemed decisive on pre-break finals, the tolerance among poll responders for uneven semesters –- which would be necessary to achieve pre-break finals while keeping the late-August school start date –- was less clear.
Teachers in particular indicated they were unwilling to accept more than eight days' difference in semester lengths, saying any greater difference could seriously compromise curriculum in the few courses that are only one semester in length.
Because of faculty concerns, the school district's calendar committee recommended making the 2012 school start date slightly earlier than in the recent past –- Thursday, Aug. 16 rather than Tuesday, Aug. 21.
That start date would yield an 86-day first semester and a 94-day second semester, ending on May 30, 2013.
While recommending pre-break finals, the calendar committee also will present a status quo "rollover" calendar to the board Tuesday as a back-up proposal.
In past meetings, all but one of the five board members -- Vice-Chair Camille Townsend -- has indicated a willingness to support a pre-break-finals calendar if it can be done in a way to meet teachers' concerns about uneven semesters. Members also said they would like to see accommodations for students who have heavy pre-holiday performance schedules.
Tuesday's board meeting begins at 6:30 p.m. in the board room of school district headquarters, 25 Churchill Ave. The calendar item will not come up until 8 p.m. at the earliest, school officials said.