In the face of a community-wide discussion over how to respond to a suicide contagion that has now taken four teenagers since October, there is one factor on which all experts agree: Sleep and student wellness are inextricably connected.
For this reason, later high school start times have become the norm throughout the country and were implemented at Paly in 2010 and at Gunn the following year, in partial response to the earlier 2009-10 suicide cluster during which five teens died.
Realizing its importance, Gunn administrators have recently made educating students and parents about the importance of sleep a priority and brought in renowned Stanford sleep experts for a school assembly in January.
It was therefore more than distressing to learn this week that for the last three years, and apparently without the knowledge of the school board, Gunn has been offering high-level math classes to students in a special "zero" period before the start of the regular school day at 8:25 a.m..
The so-called zero period, which begins at 7:20 a.m., was introduced after Gunn's starting time was pushed back in 2011. This year about 300 Gunn students, or 15 percent of the student body, are enrolled in 10 different zero-period academic classes, which include some of the school's most demanding courses: AB Calculus, AP Stats, Algebra 2/Trig, Intro to Analysis Calculus and AP Economics. PE classes are also offered.
And while Gunn's website states students may not use zero period to enroll in an extra eighth class, at Tuesday night's school board meeting Principal Denise Herrmann acknowledged that non-freshmen are allowed to take eight classes, a practice that was in place when she arrived at the beginning of this school year.
Palo Alto High School also has an early zero period, but it is only for PE and is a way for freshman and sophomore athletes to be registered for PE during their sports season and then, under school rules and the state Education Code, skip the class. Principal Kim Diorio told the school board that Paly doesn't offer academic classes in the zero period because she philosophically opposes it due to the research on the importance of sleep.
While the existence of the academic zero period classes at Gunn clearly caught the school board by surprise, more surprising was the board's lack of conviction or urgency to take any action about it.
Trustee Ken Dauber, who drew out the details of the zero-period practice through questions to Herrmann, proposed that the board at its next meeting consider adopting a policy on zero periods, which Herrmann said she would welcome. Citing a recent report of the American Academy of Pediatrics that said the risk of suicide significantly increased among teens who get less than eight hours sleep a night, he argued that the board should not leave it up to the school sites to decide their own policies.
And while board members Terry Godfrey and Heidi Emberling voiced support for addressing the issue, they both retreated in the face of objections by trustee Camille Townsend, who said she wanted families to have choices, and board President Melissa Baten Caswell, who deferred to Superintendent Max McGee's desire to delay further discussion because "there's a lot of work to do to develop pros and cons" on zero-period academic classes.
In the face of the greatest youth crisis this community has ever faced this is not the leadership we need. If there are challenges to doing away with zero-period classes, such as push-back from teachers who prefer starting work early and getting home early, then let's get those issues on the table and deal with them openly and honestly.
But to suggest this is a complicated issue needing extensive data collection and analysis is merely a tactic to delay and appease some unidentified stakeholders who are apparently wielding influence behind the scenes.
The work ahead of us to formulate actions to address youth well-being in our community is enormous and urgent. If we can't even move quickly to fix a practice that all experts agree is harmful, then those standing in the way are part of the problem.
An organization that believes it can't move forward without "buy-in" and agreement from everyone is one destined for failure. Most Silicon Valley companies wouldn't exist today if that was the model for decision-making. Strong leaders listen to input and then make decisions; they realize that achieving consensus is an impossibility.
McGee has commendably chosen to tackle other issues knowing there will be push-back from some segment of stakeholders, and he needs to muster the same resolve with zero period.