Palo Alto schools will "see the benefit" if they change their academic calendar to end the first semester before the December break, a Stanford University researcher on student stress told an audience at Gunn High School Wednesday night.
The Palo Alto Board of Education is scheduled to vote Tuesday (May 10) on the contentious issue, which would switch the district-wide calendar beginning in academic year 2012-13. The proposal would move the school start date that year from Aug. 28 to Aug. 16, and the end of first semester from Jan. 24 to Dec. 21. The school year would end May 30.
"If you put finals before break -- trust me -- if you let it happen, you will see the benefit," said Denise Clark Pope, a Stanford senior lecturer and co-founder of the anti-stress group Challenge Success.
Pope joined Gunn Principal Katya Villalobos, three students and Menlo Park psychologist Lea Goldstein in a discussion attended by more than 100 Gunn parents in Spangenberg Theater. The topic of the PTSA-sponsored panel was "successfully navigating and surviving the high expectations of the Gunn community."
Pope's organization has worked with more than 100 high-achieving high schools across the country, including Gunn, on policies to reduce stress while fostering academic, social and emotional success.
Different fixes work for different schools, but schedule has a "huge" impact on stress levels, she said, referring to "how you spend your time on a daily basis, how long you're in class, how many breaks you have."
Other measures that have worked elsewhere are coordination among teachers about when to give tests so they don't all fall on the same day, and discussions on how to make homework more meaningful for students, she added.
The closest thing to a "magic bullet" against unhealthy stress levels is a caring school climate, Pope said.
In a survey, 70 percent of Gunn students said there's at least one adult on campus they felt comfortable going to with a problem.
"That number should be higher," she said. "There shouldn't be a kid on this campus who doesn't feel cared for."
The survey also suggested a significant cheating problem, with 30 percent saying they had obtained answers in advance of a test.
"The cheating does happen here. It's happens in all our schools," Pope said.
The emphasis on grades over learning has led to "much higher rates of depression and anxiety" and other mental health problems than before, she said.
Villalobos said Gunn is working out traffic logistics to move the school to a later morning start time, possibly beginning next year, in an effort to address student sleep issues.
"It's looking good for even possibly implementing it in August," she said.
Gunn also may adopt certain aspects of Palo Alto High School's advisory system, said Villalobos, a former assistant principal and teacher at Paly who is familiar with the system.
"We are investigating that possibility here," she said.
"It's not what we'd call a full advisory program, but it's starting something with our freshmen."
The Gunn version would focus on ninth graders, the principal said, based on research indicating that the eighth-to-ninth-grade transition is critical, not just academically but socially.
The strength of Paly's advisory system is in the student-adult relationships it fosters, said Villalobos, allowing students to seek adult guidance on problems as diverse as, "'How do I buy a dance ticket? I had a bad day, I'm going to flunk, I don't want to tell my mom.'"
Recalling her own teenage passion for history nurtured at the family dinner table, Villalobos said she chose a career in education because she loves helping students identify their passions and supporting their choices.
Pope noted that many high school students "still have no clue" as to their passions, to which Villalobos responded with quotes from Emily Dickinson and Martin Luther King.
"Dickinson has this great line, 'I dwell in possibility,' and at Gunn there's so much possibility," Villalobos said.
"And King said there is dignity in risk -- raising your hand to provoke and challenge yourself, even if you might not have the right answer. I have the privilege of visiting a lot of classrooms, and here there's a culture of challenging, but it's OK if you don't have the right answer."
Adolescent psychologist Goldstein noted that getting an education is only one of three key developmental tasks of the teen years, the other two being "separating from caregivers" and "forming a positive identity."
"The more we can have a balanced picture of the whole entire human being, not just the student in them, the more we'll be able to address who they really are," she said.
Student panelists, identified only by their first names, said it's nearly impossible for many students to resist comparing themselves -- and their grades -- to other students, especially when others seem to perform better.
Many students are adept at hiding their stress levels -- and their lack of sleep -- because they don't want to worry their parents, they said.
"It's the parents' responsibility to let their children know that they are accepted for who they are," said Maddie, a junior at Gunn.
"It's really important to express it, because you might feel it but they might not know."
Pope and Goldstein urged parents to listen to their kids, and to resist the "fear and groupthink" prevalent in the college preparation and application environment.
"The idea that if you don't take honors math as a sophomore, or AP classes, or 'fill in the blank,' you won't get into XYZ college and you'll be flipping burgers at McDonald's is a myth," Pope said.
"I don't know how many times I can say it. I don't know how many times Stanford admissions can say it."
Goldstein cited a survey of 150 CEOs that found two-thirds had attended public universities or community colleges.
Parents need to help their kids choose suitable high school workloads that reflect their interests and abilities, Pope said.
"You have to love the child who is before you, and not who you want that child to be.
"Over and over again, at Gunn and elsewhere, we hear, 'It's not about the learning, it's about the grades.' We need to reverse that culture," she said.