In an emotional split vote, the Palo Alto Board of Education decided early Wednesday (May 11) to change the district-wide academic calendar, moving to a school-year start date earlier in August and an end to the first semester before the December holidays.
The change will take effect in August 2012 and also apply to the academic year 2013-14.
The 3-2 vote came past midnight, following a five-hour discussion in which dozens of parents argued that the new calendar would disrupt August family traditions and add stress to an already busy pre-holiday and college application season.
But board member Barbara Klausner, who cast the tie-breaking vote for the change, said she was persuaded by a Gunn High School poll taken last week in which 74 percent of students preferred an "early start (to the school year) with exams before winter break" and 78 percent saw "less stress with exams before winter break."
"I know that starting school earlier in August will impose burdens on families in our district," Klausner said. "I happen to be in one of those families, so I know what it feels like.
"But overall I do find it compelling that, if we can create a two-week, relatively carefree (winter break) for our students, that's a benefit that's worthwhile."
Also supporting the calendar change, primarily citing the need to give high school students a stress-relieving, clean break over the holidays, were board members Barb Mitchell and Dana Tom.
Opposing it were Board President Melissa Baten Caswell and Vice President Camille Townsend.
"I don't think I can vote for a calendar that creates problems for so many people," Caswell said, acknowledging the room full of parents saying they dread having to cancel August traditions with extended families spread around the world, and sending children into hot classrooms in August.
Under the new calendar, the academic year 2012-13 will run from Aug. 16 to May 30, with first-semester finals ending Dec. 21, with a similar structure the following year.
The current academic year, by contrast, began Aug. 24 and runs to June 9, with the first semester ending in late January.
Beyond disliking the earlier start date, parents opposing the calendar change argued that it fails to address what they said are more fundamental, stress-causing problems in the school district, including excessive homework loads and uncoordinated testing schedules.
"As a nurse, I see firsthand the chronic effects of stress on the health of our students," said Kelly Reilly, the mother of a third-grader at Walter Hays School and a seventh-grader at Jordan Middle School.
"I'm just beside myself with concern about homework overload, day-to-day stress and the hours of lost sleep by our high school students."
Reilly said she did not believe the new calendar would help but rather would exacerbate stress by creating "overload" from Thanksgiving through December and "mayhem in May," when second-semester finals occur alongside SAT tests, AP tests and athletic playoffs.
"I want an alternate plan that does not start school at the peak of summer," Reilly said.
"I'm from the Midwest -- a little bit old-fashioned -- and school started after Labor Day."
Several board members said they were intrigued by a compromise idea offered by Paly economics teacher Debbie Whitson, which would maintain the traditional calendar but have all classes give finals before winter break, with a two-and-a-half-week, "stand-alone" unit in January.
They also expressed interest in further research of a trimester plan similar to that of Stanford University. Such a calendar is rare among high schools, but not unheard of, and Superintendent Kevin Skelly said he would research it.
Skelly also pledged to return to the board in November with a report on specific planning for the new calendar that will take effect in fall semester 2012.
In particular the report should address how teachers will deal with adjusting student workloads for the compressed fall semester, support seniors going through the college application process and deal with problems of overheated classrooms in August, board members said.
The district also plans to convene a "calendar advisory committee" composed of staff, students and parents to gather stakeholder views and to advise district staff on issues regarding the calendar. The calendar is the subject of negotiations with the district's two bargaining units, representing teachers and non-teaching staff.