The August summer break for Palo Alto schoolchildren and their families is on the chopping block, and little will be gained from the sacrifice. Whether it will live or die will be determined by a vote at the school board meeting on Tuesday, May 10.
The board will consider a proposal to change the school calendar to start in the second week of August and end the last week of May, a shift unprecedented in our community that takes away two weeks of summer break in August and replaces them with presummer weeks in May and June. If approved, it will disrupt family time, cause childcare scrambles, reduce enrichment opportunities, squeeze high school athletes, stress seniors, and put our children in unairconditioned classrooms in the dog days of August.
Proponents say that the disruption would be worth it for all 12,000 district students because, by moving first semester exams into December, it will give 2,800 high school freshmen, sophomores, and juniors a "work-free break."
But, when surveyed, high school students cite overall heavy homework load as the biggest stress, not work over break; indeed, most of the students surveyed are opposed to pre-break finals if they require moving the start of school to early August.
The Board of Education already recognizes that the change is of no benefit to high school seniors. It will make their lives more stressful by putting finals into the same time window most use for completing the many college essays and applications due in late December and early January.
And even the stated goal is elusive. There is no guarantee that winter break will be assignment-free even if the calendar is changed, for most high school classes span the entire year.
Time with family and involvement in activities outside of school are all ways families keep children emotionally healthy and insulate them against the negative effects of stress. The proposed calendar change threatens this valuable time. It would strain family traditions in the summer and in between Thanksgiving and Christmas, when high schoolers will be focused on finals and won't be able to take the time to join in traditional winter celebrations. It would cause problems for student athletes by overlapping the championships that culminate their winter and spring seasons with finals. And it would be rough on performing arts students, causing conflicts between finals and holiday season performances and spring recitals. Sports, performing arts, other extracurricular passions, and time with family are a source of joy and accomplishment and shouldn't be simply discounted.
Many jobs place constraints on when parents can take vacation. For many working parents, August is the time they can get away. Many in this community use August to connect with extended families outside of California, people whose schedules can't change. Summer camps, scouting trips, internships are all enrichment options that exist in August, not in June.
The host of other problems that would be created includes the lack of affordable childcare in June; while programs sponsored by Palo Alto or based at Palo Alto schools may shift, they can't fill the demand. May is an issue — already one of the busiest months of the year with AP testing, end of season sports competitions, and end of year performances/recitals/celebrations, May has no room to add finals into that mix.
In spite of these concerns, according to district surveys, a majority of survey respondents are willing to let the district try out pre-break finals as long — and this message is clear — the traditional August start date does not change.
Last November, our community vigorously objected to a calendar with an early August start date. In response, the board asked the district to explore ways to implement pre-break finals within our traditional calendar, suggesting that uneven semesters for high school students could be one way to accomplish this.
We do not believe the district pursued this option seriously. Instead of trying to find a way to test pre-break finals for high school students without disrupting the lives of all 12,000 K-12 students, it instead came back to the board with an almost identical calendar to the one rejected in November.
And there are other options. Some schools have abolished mid-year finals entirely. Other districts keep a late August start and have pre-break finals inside a shorter first semester. Others have gone to trimesters; or to two even semesters with a January interim session. Others start school after Labor Day and have semester break in February.
These are all ways to take August's summer break days off the chopping block, and still give the high schools an opportunity to experiment with pre-break finals if that is what they want to do. Yes, this would require thinking out of the box. It would require looking not just at what our neighboring schools are doing, but finding best practices from comparable communities around the country.
Fortunately, we have a group of teachers willing to work with the district to figure out a way to test pre-break finals within our traditional start and end dates.
However, they can't do this if the calendar change goes through. Calendar change, unlike pre-break finals within the existing calendar, will not be a test. It is too disruptive to bounce calendars back and forth. These two weeks of August will be lost to summer for many, many years to come.
We urge the school board to vote down the proposed calendar change. Approve the traditional calendar that has also been submitted, with a late August start date and second week of June dismissal date. Work with teachers to pursue innovative alternatives to the placement of finals within that calendar. And honor the traditions and activities than nurture our children.
Between them, Sally Kadifa and Tekla Nee have eight children, including two recent Paly grads, three current Paly students, one Jordan student and two students at Walter Hays.