Amid fierce community conversation about the role that academic stress plays in the lives of Palo Alto high school students, Superintendent Max McGee is requiring all teachers to follow the district's homework policy, and Palo Alto and Gunn high schools are launching several parallel efforts in the hope of reducing the burden.
Both Paly and Gunn are implementing homework-free February breaks, and McGee encouraged teachers this week to not give any tests or have any major assignments due on Tuesday, Feb. 17, the day high school students return from that five-day weekend.
Teachers at both high schools have also committed to increased flexibility when it comes to rescheduling or retaking tests, offering extensions and completing late work without penalties. They're also looking at reducing homework load and the long-term goal of collaborating to avoid giving tests on the same day.
Gunn is working on extending hours at its test center this semester so that students can make up tests before and after school, rather than the current options of doing so during lunch or a prep period, Principal Denise Herrmann said Thursday. She said she has also offered to bring in substitute teachers before and after school to help oversee or proctor make-up tests.
When Gunn students register for classes later this month, they will fill out a time-management grid with counselors to map out their schedules of courses (and corresponding work loads), extracurricular activities and sleep. Both students and parents will be required to sign the grid. Students who choose multiple Advanced Placement (AP) and/or honors classes will have to meet, along with their parents, or talk on the phone with school staff about the schedule, Herrmann said. Doing so aligns with a proposal from McGee to identify a more "refined approval process" for such course loads, she added.
Many students and parents have suggested in recent weeks that Gunn should adopt a block schedule, under which classes meet less frequently but for longer periods of time. The block schedule would also allow weekly chunks of time for students to have free tutorial periods and for teachers to collaborate.
Paly switched to a block schedule several years ago, and the administration has claimed it's improved student mental health, eased homework loads and boosted teacher collaboration.
Herrmann said that Gunn will be re-convening this spring an "alternate schedule committee" that met for several months last year but then was derailed by leadership changes at the school. The committee will do research, site visits and select a schedule by December, with the new schedule expected to go into effect in the fall of 2016. However, a growing number of students, parents and faculty are asking the administration to accelerate that timeline so a new schedule could be implemented for the new school year this August.
Herrmann acknowledged the desire to get a new schedule in place soon, but said, "I want it to be done well, not just done quickly."
Herrmann oversaw a schedule change at her former high school in Wisconsin, which switched from an eight-period day (including lunch) to a hybrid block schedule in which students attend three classes on one day and four on another, with each period lasting 95 minutes. One day a week, students and teachers are provided 95 minutes for tutorial, collaboration, enrichment or intervention. Driving forces behind the switch were very similar to those in Palo Alto, Herrmann said: efforts to increase students' access to their teachers and close the school's achievement gap, combat student stress, provide teachers more time to work together to align their curriculum and reduce transitions between classes.
"After the first semester, we did a satisfaction survey and it was in the 90th percentile for students, staff and parents," she said. "They continue to say, 'We will never go back to that frantic-paced schedule.'"
Herrmann and Paly Principal Kim Diorio described possible changes for their schools in letters sent to their respective student bodies this week (read Paly's here and Gunn's here) this week to students, including: discussing and developing a plan for a few homework-free nights for the next school year; creating a calendar or system to assure that students do not have multiple tests or projects on the same days and asking teachers to review their current practices on grading, test retakes and make-up work to "assure they are consistent with evidence-based practices." Diorio's letter also invites Paly students to provide further feedback through an online Google survey.
In their letters, Diorio and Herrmann reinforced an idea voiced by many students at an emotional school board meeting last week, following a Gunn senior's suicide the weekend before: Academic stress is a problem, but not the problem.
However, both wrote, there are many people at Paly and Gunn "who believe we have the power to take small steps to reduce academic stress and create opportunities for our students" to take time to decompress from school.
Regulating homework has risen to the top of the district's priorities, with McGee requiring all district faculty and staff this week to take immediate steps to review and follow the district's homework policy. The policy, adopted in 2012, mandates limits on homework amounts 10 minutes per grade per night, with the exception of AP and honors classes in high school but has reportedly been implemented unevenly. In a memo, McGee has asked all principals to work with their staffs to develop a plan to ensure the policy is implemented.
Though the strong direction regarding homework comes in the wake of two Gunn students' suicides since November, McGee emphasized in his memo that the deaths were not related to homework loads.
"While some in the community are quick to blame academic stress as a causal factor, it has not been a contributing factor to recent deaths," McGee wrote. "Moreover, students who spoke at our last board meeting and to me in classes, formal meetings, and informal encounters have pointed out that stress and depression are not the same.
"That said, as educators we need to help our students manage stress and strive to align students' workloads with established district policies and administrative regulations; assure consistency in curriculum, instruction, and assessment practices; and identify ways to improve our already considerable amount of social-emotional wellness and mental health supports," McGee's memo stated.
He noted that for high schoolers, seven to 10 hours of homework per week (Monday through Friday) is reasonable, but "based on my experience working with talented and accelerated high school students for several years, it is my opinion (and many of theirs) that generally 15 hours for a seven day week (Monday through Sunday) is a maximum reasonable load for top students."
In addition to the quantity of homework, the timing of assignments and tests can also be a problem for students. One administrative regulation linked to the homework policy states, "Teachers should make efforts to coordinate with one another to establish deadlines, due dates for projects/assignments, and tests in an effort to minimize student over-extension."
In his conversations with students and parents, McGee said, having multiple assignments or tests on the same days is one of the "biggest stressors" for students. He recognized that some schools try to use master calendars and others designate specific days for specific subjects (for example, mathematics tests and projects are always due on Mondays) but said that making the time for departments to communicate and coordinate on scheduling is "a significant challenge."
"This problem may be the most difficult to solve, but I am confident we can do it," he wrote.
McGee highlighted another administrative regulation directed at teachers, noting it is one of several that are "required, and not just encouraged": "Monitor homework time requirements and feasibility of assignments using student assignments, student feedback, and parent feedback."
Teachers at both Paly and Gunn have begun asking students to log the amount of time assignments take to complete, many simply by adding a line on physical assignment sheets to write it down. Herrmann has also asked Gunn faculty to input the amount of time they expect assignments to take on Schoology, the district's online management system. McGee also noted in his memo that teachers are required to post assignments somewhere -- whether it's on Schoology or a teacher's website -- so students can access their work from home or elsewhere.
"While this note likely feels 'top down,' the policy and regulation were developed through an inclusive process, and as adopted Board Policy, compliance is expected and required," McGee wrote.
In McGee's "Max Mail" newsletter this week, he wrote that now, more than ever, change will necessitate a more comprehensive, district-wide effort.
"Too often we act as a collection of separate communities, but now it is time to come together as a collective community to address the mental health needs of our young people," he wrote. "In other words, whether we are parents, coaches, educators, employers, siblings, or friends, we each have an important role in supporting and strengthening the mental health of our young people. This is not a school problem; it is a community problem; so let's work together."
The school district is also partnering with the City of Palo Alto and youth mental-health coalition Project Safety Net to host a community event, "Let's Talk: A Community Conversation about Healthy Kids and Healthy Schools," on Wednesday, Feb. 25, at 7 p.m. at the Cubberley Community Center Theater, 4000 Middlefield Road, T2, Palo Alto.