Changes for Gunn High School's bell schedule seem likely in the next school year, but it was made clear at a block-schedule panel event Monday evening that the process to decide these changes will take time, and the success of any new schedule will rely upon strong teacher buy-in and preparation.
Organized by the Gunn Parent Teacher Student Association (PTSA), Monday's panel featured six administrators, two teachers and one student from Bay Area high schools, including from Palo Alto High, who spoke to the pros and cons of switching to some form of a block schedule.
A group of Gunn staff, parents and students, dubbed the alternative bell schedule committee, was reconvened this spring after much community concern about student stress and the frantic pace of Gunn's schedule, under which students have six or seven classes every day of the week, with each meeting for just under an hour. The committee is expected to present a recommendation on potential bell-schedule changes to the school board this May.
All of the examples of block schedules offered Monday night by Paly, Piedmont, Woodside Priory and Monta Vista high schools include longer class periods (typically 90 to 95 minutes) that meet less frequently, longer built-in blocks of time for students to seek help from teachers or work on school work independently (what Gunn and Paly refer to as tutorial and have once a week) and more regular professional development time for teachers (typically in the mornings, which means a late start and more sleep that day of the week for students).
They reported positive outcomes like decreased student stress, calmer school environments, better connection between teachers and students, the ability to do more project-based learning, blended learning and other classroom innovations, and more consistency and creativity across courses when teachers have more time to meet and collaborate.
All of the schools' processes to put these changes in place took between one and two years, they said.
Gunn Principal Denise Herrmann, who oversaw a change in schedule at the Wisconsin high school she led before arriving at Gunn in August, said the absolute earliest that Gunn could implement a new schedule would be January 2016.
Herrmann spoke about her experience switching to a four-day block rotation, which means that two days out of the week, students had four 90- to 95-minute classes, broken up by lunch. Every other day would begin with a 45-minute block for either teacher professional development (meaning students arrived for class at 9:40 a.m.) or student support (this was changed after two years of 95-minute periods every fourth day, which students said wasn't enough). The school also built in 10-minute passing periods to give students a "mental break" between classes.
"When we did a midpoint survey before winter break of the first year, 100 percent of teachers said they would not go back," Herrmann said. "They all felt like first-year teachers; they admitted it was very, very hard, but based on what they were seeing in their own practice, having (professional learning) time and the work they were seeing from the students, they felt really good about going there."
Paly Assistant Principal Kathy Lawrence, a former teacher, stressed the importance of giving teachers the time to fully prepare and adjust their instruction. Paly switched to a modified block schedule in 2010, with all seven periods of classes on Mondays (meeting for 50 minutes), three 90- to 95-minute classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays (plus 65 minutes of tutorial for students) and four 90- to 95-minute classes on Wednesdays and Fridays.
"You cannot just squish two class periods together in a 90-minute block and expect to have good teaching," Lawrence said. "You just have to think about that time in a different way. I think it's important to have that time to reflect on your practice, to have some professional learning done to implement the block schedule."
Andrew Sturgill, a social studies teacher at Monta Vista, gave an example of his block-period lesson plan for the next day: 15 to 20 minutes dedicated to talking about the context of a film the class would later watch, 15 to 20 minutes to talk about what to look for in terms of analyzing the film (at which point the class would be over if it wasn't a block period) and then 60 minutes to watch the film, stopping from time to time to engage students and ask questions.
Paly sophomore Jordan Schilling said he and other students appreciated having more time in longer block periods to absorb the material, to complete homework and to connect with their teachers.
"I'm a very strong believer in the block schedule," Schilling said. "It really makes school much more enjoyable."
Matt Lai, dean of students at Woodside Priory, a small private high school in Portola Valley, said some students did complain in the first year after switching to a block schedule that some classes felt less engaging, efficient and effective.
"You can't lecture straight for an hour and a half where you might be able to for 45 (minutes)," Lai said.
He said Woodside Priory got pushback, in particular, from foreign language and mathematics teachers, but professional development was critical in helping all teachers with the transition.
"The block schedule is not inherent stress reduction unless it's done well," he later said in response to an audience question about how short of a timeline is practical when changing schedules.
The audience member expressed a feeling surely felt strongly throughout the Palo Alto community: "two years or even one year seems like a long time for our students to wait who have endured a lot stress and loss this year."
During a discussion about the two high schools at Tuesday night's school board meeting, member Ken Dauber urged Herrmann to consider the role that early start times play in student health, even floating a proposal that the board develop a policy that prohibits academic classes during zero period, before the regular school day starts.
Herrmann said that Gunn currently offers physical education and 10 academic classes, including advanced English, AB calculus, chemistry, blended AP economics and broadcast news, during zero period, which starts at 7:20 a.m.
Just under 300 students (15 percent of the student population) have chosen to take these classes at an earlier hour, many to accommodate athletics, other after-school activities or a desire to fit an extra class into their schedules, Herrmann said. All classes except broadcast, which produces an early-morning school news report, are offered in multiple sections throughout the day, according to Herrmann.
Paly only offers PE during zero period, which starts at 7:10 a.m. Most of the 102 students who currently take PE at that hour are athletes who often have to leave school early for games, said Principal Kim Diorio.
Dauber asked Diorio why Paly doesn't offer academic classes during zero period, and she responded: "Philosophically, because of the research on sleep."
Dauber cited this research -- in particular, research that has shown a link between sleep deprivation and teen mental health. A study referenced in a recent American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) report found that getting less than eight hours of sleep per night "seems to be associated with an almost threefold increased risk of suicide attempts after controlling for a number of confounding variables."
Dauber also cited a recent policy statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics recommending that middle and high school students start school no earlier than 8:30 a.m.
In 2011, Gunn shifted its regular-schedule start time from 7:55 to 8:25 a.m. Paly moved from a 7:50 a.m. start to 8:15 a.m. the year before.
The AAP statement, which calls later school start times "an important public health measure," cites a National Sleep Foundation poll that found 59 percent of sixth- through eighth-graders and 87 percent of high school students in the U.S. were getting less than the recommended 8 1/2 to 9 1/2 hours of sleep on school nights.
Dauber described zero-period academic offerings as a "pretty compelling, to my mind, health issue involving several hundred students at Gunn.
"This is, I think, an opportunity for us to do something that has some impact and that's pretty consistent with not only academic and medical statements but also what we have ourselves been saying as a district," he said.
Though Dauber suggested that the board bring back as an action item at its next meeting a ban on academic classes during zero period, the board later decided to place zero periods as an information item on the April 21 meeting agenda.