Editorial: Hopeful first reactions on new school calendar


While half-way into the first year of a new school calendar is too soon to make any definitive conclusions, a just-completed survey shows strong support across all groups for moving the mid-year semester break from January to December.

The survey, with responses from more than 5,000 parents, teachers and high school students, was designed to get early feedback on how well these groups thought the first semester worked out this year.

The school district implemented a two-year trial calendar beginning with this school year that shifts the start of school a week earlier into mid-August, creates the semester break when school gets out for the December holidays, and has school letting out at the end of May.

The changes were recommended in 2011 by Superintendent Kevin Skelly and adopted on a 3-2 vote by the school board (Tom, Mitchell and Klausner voting "yes" and Townsend and Baten Caswell voting "no") after a long and emotional community debate.

The idea of moving the end of the first semester to coincide with the December holiday break has been vigorously discussed in Palo Alto for years while many other school districts quietly made the change without controversy, divisiveness or horrible consequences.

The theory is that middle and high school students and their families are better served by having a winter break with no school obligations, projects or finals hanging over them during vacation and return to start a new semester more motivated when they don't face final exams in mid-January with no break afterwards.

Opponents to this idea didn't like shifting the school year earlier and compressing the first semester, and believe the old calendar allowed winter break to be a "catch-up" period for students needing it. Much of the debate has centered around whether families can shift their traditional August vacations forward, as has occurred long ago in most school districts.

Unfortunately, the school board's first opportunity this week to discuss community reactions to the calendar changes showed signs of trustees retreating to their earlier views rather than focusing on the data and what it means, or merely reserving judgment.

Administrators had intended to merely summarize the survey results for the board and send them on to its calendar advisory committee for review and analysis, but trustees Heidi Emberling and Camille Townsend, both of whom opposed the calendar changes, wanted to be directive to the committee.

They argued the board needed to determine its "values" around the calendar so the advisory committee could properly formulate its recommendations regarding future calendar changes with the board's direction in mind.

Without citing any specific survey results, Townsend told her colleagues "there are issues here" and that "there are a lot of concerns with the new calendar."

The competing "values" surrounding the calendar have been exhaustively identified and debated over the last two years, and we see no benefits to the board creating another process that will only rehash them and rekindle the emotions of prior debates.

At a time when this board has many other policy and administrative challenges, it doesn't need to go looking for another.

While it is important to defer judgment on the effectiveness of the new calendar until another survey is done after the school year concludes, the most overwhelming finding of the survey just completed is that a large majority of parents, teachers and high school students liked having finals before the holidays and found that it did not have major impacts on extracurricular activities, family time and, for seniors, the college-application process.

Predictably, respondents were more divided over the start and ending times of the school year, with 55 percent of parents wanting school to start later in August and end in early June, but a majority of high school teachers wanting the opposite.

As we editorialized in May 2011, the problem with this debate from the beginning is that it set up a false trade-off: In order to move semester break to December the start of school must move to mid-August.

A number of creative ideas were offered by parents, including having different-length semesters, that would enable school to start in late August and have the semester break in December.

And given the otherwise positive reviews regarding the move of semester break, that should be the simple direction given to the calendar advisory committee: Develop alternatives for achieving a calendar in which school commences in late August yet ends first semester in December.

The district is to be commended for the transparency offered by the immediate and full posting of the calendar survey results, allowing anyone interested to study the survey results and the more than 1,000 comments made, mostly very thoughtful and constructive. This should set a new standard for such data-sharing in the future.

(Survey results can be found at

Perfection in a school calendar is an impossible goal, but ensuring that all stakeholders have a voice in the process is not.

This well-designed survey does that, and combined with a second survey at the end of the school year, should provide a helpful, and hopefully clear, path forward.

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Posted by agree!
a resident of Crescent Park
on Apr 12, 2013 at 10:41 am

I agree with this editorial. The calendar change is great for student stress and that was the "value" that the board voted 3-2 to prioritize, and no wonder since we were in the middle of a suicide epidemic and reducing student stress was the most important value, and rightly so! Heidi Emberling is very disappointing. During the school board campaign she came out against the calendar and of course everyone knows she knows NOTHING about high school. Her oldest is in 6th grade. By the time she has any idea what she is talking about it will be too late. Now the board is 3-2 against the finals before break and she shows no sign of being persuaded by the data. Dana Tom looked just incredulous at her comments and Camille's comments on the data at the board meeting.

Bottom line: Heidi Emberling has no idea what high school in Palo Alto is like and she is the third vote against finals before break. It's just very sad that Klausner got run off the board by Skelly.

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Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 12, 2013 at 11:08 am

This two year trial has not yet had a complete school year, so really all that should be discussed so far is the change of the timing of finals.

We still have not had the spring finals/sports/graduation experience and although there are camps being advertised, we don't know if they have managed to get fully staffed for the first weeks. I know of at least one church vbs program which has actually changed its dates from early June to later because they found it easier to get staffing. This church program had many non church families taking part as it is cheaper than many of the camps available.

We still need to look beyond the finals debate when it comes to the calendar.

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Posted by too soon
a resident of Midtown
on Apr 12, 2013 at 11:14 am

It is great that the calendar change survey is already mostly positive. The short summer is a one year event, and this year's summer just starts earlier and ends earlier (while last summer began late with the old calendar and started early with the new). Some PA who also live with the Stanford calendar will never be happy as Stanford stops in the spring much later, but does not restart til late September. I am sad that instead of listening to the new data, new board members would approach the issue with their minds made up.
This is especially too bad, since more important issues seem to face the board in the total lack of school leadership response to bully behavior.

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Posted by Really?
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Apr 12, 2013 at 1:24 pm

@Resident-- What does vacation bible school have to do with a stress-free winter break for stressed out high school students? Absolutely nothing, which shows that opponents to the new calendar are more concerned with their own inconveniences than with reducing student stress.

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Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 12, 2013 at 1:39 pm


My point is that there are other things to talk about in connection with the calendar other than prebreak finals. We can talk about student stress and have done, no problem. But, we can also talk about other aspects of the calendar. This survey was about winter break. No problem. Just pointing out that we can't judge the calendar as a whole until we have experienced a full year.

This is not a done deal and things like VBS are childcare options for elementary age students. The calendar may reduce stress at one stage of the year for one group of students, but it will increase stress for other groups at other times. For parents unable to find childcare, for camps or other childcare options who are unable to staff until Stanford people or other students are available, we are possibly just moving the stress around.Let's wait and see what happens. It may be that there will be no problems, but as yet we can't tell.

What I am saying is that we cannot possibly look on whether this calendar works until we have experience a full year. We are not there yet.

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Posted by Eeyore
a resident of Community Center
on Apr 12, 2013 at 2:03 pm

I'm worried that my bulbs will come up too early this year. Is that related to the calendar? I'm also worried that when I go to the grocery story on August 20 there will be no one to bag my groceries, because the grocery bagger boy will be back in school already. Is someone here going to help me bag my groceries? Also I'm worried that there will be some kind of medical emergency because of the calendar change, because of the bloody hands thing I heard mentioned. Also I think we need to wait at least a few years to find out if other bad things happen, because I've noticed that the same date falls on different weekdays every year, although I don't know why that is. And I'm also worried that it will be too hot in the classrooms and the window will be stuck, and someone will have to break the glass (is that what the bloody hands is about?)

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Posted by need that
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Apr 12, 2013 at 2:09 pm

Eyeore, I laughed out loud. I needed that today, thanks!

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Posted by Data please?
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Apr 12, 2013 at 9:26 pm

@ editor: re the survey being a "model". PAUSD has taken many great surveys and has a lot of data. It has no shortcomings in the data collection department. Where it falls short is in the "reading," "caring about" and "using the data to make policies that respond the empirical reality. I am sure that no new ground will be blazed in these departments by PAUSD with this survey. The board a d staff already were talking crazy about it, saying that "anyone can see anything" in data or that "2 people can look at the same data and see totally different things." What was this a class on post-modernism? A nihilist lecture on the dangers of positivism? No it was Camille being intellectually dishonest, Scott Bowers saying whatever he had to to get to the end of the meeting, and just the fundamental fuzzyheadedness and murky thinking that characterizes this board's way of doing business. Dana Tom is not a stupid guy but he's so passive and useless that he might as well be. It is not true that every piece of data is open to diametrically opposed equally good interpretations. That is false. It is possible to know things. Otherwise the entire enterprise of knowledge production and learning grinds to a halt. The idea that our SCHOOLS are run by people who say and think such imbecilic things as "anyone can come to any conclusion all just as valid" is terrifying. That's who is responsible for teaching your kids math, science, social science, and stats.

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Posted by right direction
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 13, 2013 at 8:03 am

Clearly the calendar is a big issue for our community, whether you measure by the number who spoke at board meetings or by the number of Town Square comments. So this is not an example of the board "looking" around for another "policy and administrative challenge."

Having listened in on Tuesday's board meeting, I am perplexed by the take away hailing Dana Tom and blaming the other board members for "retreating to their earlier views rather than focusing on the data and what it means, or merely reserving judgment."

Four board members exhibited the most responsible form of governance calling for:

- the calendar advisory committee's analysis of the survey data,

- a board-established framework upon which to view seemingly conflicting unspecified survey responses (presumably "I like the calendar" vs. a winter break where 40% still had homework and 40% still were stressed vs. a calendar that made 40% of seniors choose between good grades and college applications vs. pleasing parents or pleasing teachers), and then

- sending it back to the committee to determine which calendar will best match our community's values.

Dana Tom's call, twice, to set these community values in closed session - read precluding the public from hearing what individual board members have to say - was quite puzzling.

Also, if I were a committee member, I would not be happy with Mr. Tom taking over my job - calling out specific survey results and announcing which calendar he supports - BEFORE the committee he convened had given any input. The district restrained from stepping on the committee's toes as did the other 4 board members. Why couldn't Mr. Tom?

I applaud Heidi Emberling, Melissa Caswell, Camille Townsend and Barb Mitchell for showing restraint by respecting the committee's work and process, renewing a call for values, and inviting the public to that conversation.

Posters who oppose this public exercise (and Dana Tom) must fear that the community's values will not coincide with their own.

(My take away fwiw re Heidi Emberling is that she is all in for relieving student stress, cares deeply about children of all ages, and favors piloting this new calendar.)

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Posted by Observer
a resident of South of Midtown
on Apr 13, 2013 at 10:55 am

I also watched the board meeting on TV (well, I admit to skipping the whole elementary school marathon). I agree with "right direction" that any discussion about the calendar should happen in public. Dana Tom seemed confused because of the negotiation part of this. But what is really going on here is that Townsend, Emberling and Caswell are trying to save their position opposing the calendar change in the face of overwhelming support from the public. All of the talk about "values" at the meeting was silly. As Tom said (in a rare burst of candor, actually) the board disagreed about the value of stress reduction vs. start times, they voted, and Townsend and Caswell lost. That's why the board votes.
As to Emberling and Townsend's supposed refraining from talking about the survey results at the meeting: they didn't. "right direction" is rewriting history. Ken Dauber spoke, pointing out the large margin of support for the calendar change and thanking Tom and Mitchell for their support. Emberling and Townsend responded by saying that the survey actually showed a lot of problems, and Emberling talked about "moving stress around". At that point, Tom responded by agreeing with Dauber, pointing to the support across parents, teachers and students.
As to the committee, they are mostly calendar opposers and Time to Thrivers, probably busy trying to figure out how to spin these results. I wouldn't elevate them over the many many parents, teachers and students who took time to respond to the survey. (Incidentally, the survey itself was clearly designed to produce a result contrary to the new calendar and the fact that it failed is indicative of its success).
fwiw, my observation of Emberling is that she's completely out of her depth, and I don't know how you can glean much more than that, but that is a conversation for another day).

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Posted by thoughts
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 14, 2013 at 7:49 am

[Post removed due to same poster using multiple names]

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Posted by agree!
a resident of Crescent Park
on Apr 14, 2013 at 8:12 am

thoughts -- you make some good points, but as with a lot of calendar opponents, you take an odd turn. You are right that parents should not allow kids to procrastinate on college apps, should complain about homework being assigned over break, and that kids are stressed by finals no matter when they occur. But when you talk about stress being "moved around" or being "in the stratosphere" you reveal your biases. PAUSD high school is too stressful. Period. We need to address many things about that, including test and project scheduling, homework, and other issues. The calendar is helping. Over 80% of students said that they prefer it in spite of the tradeoffs. That's the deal closer. Parents, students, and staff prefer it. Seniors report stress levels no higher than other students. Everyone likes this better. The end.

Calendar opponents have now been revealed as the very small, vocal, politically connected minority that they are. The difference between Time to Thrive and We Can Do Better is that the former is comprised of highly connected PTA types from north Palo Alto who are entitled and used to getting their way and want their damn cake and want it right now. We Can Do Better members while lacking the political connections and the right address have been proved right over and over in terms of what parents want -- homework limits, finals before break, and counseling reform at Gunn. So they actually do speak for the majority.

You are also right about the fact that Ken Dauber was the only candidate who championed the new calendar and he lost. But he lost very narrowly and it wasn't because of the calendar. It was because no one could tell what Heidi Emberling was for because she is hopelessly unclear, doesn't answer questions, mostly has no idea what she is saying but is adorable, and the Weekly purposely obscured her opposition to the calendar believing that she could be brought around on the issue. That was a terrible mistake, arrogant. The voters deserved to know and they didn't know.

Now unless Melissa decides not to vote against something that is popular with more than 80% of the electorate, high schoolers will lose a key aspect of stress relief that took years to obtain and which is working well. I think Melissa will probably switch her vote and talk about now there's mitigation (whatever that means -- no one knows) and now this is a better process this time. Melissa wants to run for City Council and probably doesn't want to vote against the vast majority of people who like the new calendar. That's a pretty slender reed for parents and students to rely on though.

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Posted by Parent
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Apr 14, 2013 at 8:53 am


You make some good points, but you also seem to have some insider knowledge.

I have no idea about Melissa's next move, but you suggest something that shows you may know or are guessing. Not reliable for the rest of us.

You also talk about stress reductions around 1st semester finals. True, there will be stress for finals at any time. But the calendar is more than the timing of finals. There could be more talk about the calendar's early start and finish, apart from the finals issue. For example, the idea of uneven semesters and also trimesters have never been fully discussed.

The one thing that bothers me most about your post is the suggestion that WCDB is Gunn parents and TTT is Paly parents.

I have no idea if that is the case, but reading your post you appear to think this is.

I do not want this to turn into a Gunn v Paly discussion. I think we all want to do better and we all want our students to thrive. I think we should look at the fact that both groups are looking for the welfare of all students as their first goal rather than two opposing teams. They may have some different ideas but the main goal for both is all Palo Alto students regardless where they live or which school they are attending (and I don't just mean high schools).

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Posted by agree!
a resident of Crescent Park
on Apr 14, 2013 at 9:16 am

I didn't mean to imply that about the Gunn/Paly breakdown but it is interesting that you point that out. WCDB is probably evenly mixed between both high schools, but with the exception of Lauren Janoff most of the calendar opponents are Paly and she lives in north PA. While it would be nice if we all had the same goals -- and many do -- you can't sugar coat the fact that there is a certain center of gravity around some neighborhoods and PTAs. Wealth and status unfortunately equal access and power. In Palo Alto like everywhere else. Why doesn't PTAC reflect the racial and ethic breakdown of the district (that is, why aren't there more Asian parents on PTAC or working in the district)? [Portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff.] Why did the Hayes PTA fight the formation of PiE like mother bears fighting to protect their cubs? Why does the Hayes PTA still have 5 times what the Barron Park PTA has as an unaccountable slush fund for the principal despite the fact that Skelly promised to "fix" that 2 years ago? Why did the Paly PTA see fit to tell the Gunn parents who wanted TA that they should sit down and shut up and just accept whatever staff felt it wanted to give them (or that Paly should get more money too!)? Why are 4 out of the 5 board members from north palo alto and why has it always been that way? It is naive in the extreme to think that the kinds of disparities of wealth, power, and access that are evident in Palo Alto just have no bearing on school politics.

[Portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

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Posted by missed the mark
a resident of Gunn High School
on Apr 15, 2013 at 7:32 am

[Post removed due to same poster using multiple names]

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Posted by Crescent Park Dad
a resident of Crescent Park
on Apr 15, 2013 at 10:19 am

Our kids have graduated - so no dog in this fight. Though in the past I suggested an alternate calendar that kept a later start (after Labor Day) and moved finals to February. I know the AP factor runs against it, but it was an alternative to the either-or, take it or leave it proposals that were on the table.

That being said - accusations about class and social-status (without verifiable proof) and it's supposed influence on decision makers, does nothing to promote a healthy (and fact-based) discussion over the merits of the current calendar format. If anything, it becomes a distraction and takes away from the most important discussion - what is best for the students.

Move on please.

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