Gunn High School moves closer to new bell schedule

Town hall meeting Monday night focuses on research, gathering input

What could Gunn High School's bell schedule look like in the next year or two?

A group of students, parents, teachers and administrators gathered in Gunn's Titan Gym Monday night to discuss potential answers to this question, supplemented by research that supports shifting to a new block schedule.

Gunn's Creative Scheduling Committee, made up of seven students, five parents and 11 staff members, is in the midst of an accelerated timeline that could bring a new schedule to the school by January 2016, Principal Denise Herrmann has said.

Gunn currently operates on a modified block schedule, with five or six classes meeting in 58-minute periods each day, broken up by a 12-minute brunch and 39-minute lunch. Tutorial, an optional open period during which, ideally, students will seek extra help from teachers, is offered once a week during the last period of the day on Tuesday afternoons.

Denise Pope, co-founder of education and youth well-being research group Challenge Success and a lecturer at the Stanford School of Education, explained the benefits behind moving to a more relaxed, flexible block schedule under which classes meet less frequently but for longer periods of time and other things like tutorial, social emotional learning and teacher collaboration. Challenge Success has helped more than 20 high schools switch to new bell schedules, she said.

Pope said the research around a later school start time is "almost incontrovertible." About 80 percent of teenagers don't get the eight to 10 hours of sleep they need each night, she said.

"A lot of that has to do with their schedules (and) a lot with factors beyond the school's control, but there is something the schools can control and that is the start time," she added.

Though the regular school day at Gunn begins at 8:25 a.m., about 300 students are currently enrolled in zero-period classes, both academic and physical education, that meet at 7:20 a.m.

After about a month of community conversation about the detrimental impact that starting school earlier than is recommended can have on teen sleep and mental health (and on the flip side, the stress-reducing effects claimed by students for having more choice to shape their schedules), Superintendent Max McGee said last week that there will no longer be academic classes offered during this early morning period. Physical education and Gunn's broadcast news class will still be offered.

Herrmann stressed Monday night that the scheduling committee was not involved in making this decision, but its recommendations will be aligned with McGee's charge.

Bell schedule committee members said Monday night that Gunn's start time will likely stay the same, around 8:30 a.m., but there could be one or two days a week where the day starts even later. Other Bay Area schools have late start times in place (anywhere from 8:45 to 9:10 a.m.) once or several times a week to allow for teacher collaboration time and extra time to sleep for the students. Gunn currently has no built-in time for teachers to work with each other outside of weekly staff and/or department meetings. (Teachers do have prep periods, but they could be at a different time from other teachers in their department.)

"Making these kind of shifts can fundamentally change a really good school to an even better school," Pope said.

Pope cited numerous studies that have shown the benefits of a block or modified block schedule, including increased standardized test scores, improved mental health, better attendance, less cheating, increase in motivation and engagement, closer student-teacher connection and lighter homework loads (since classes meet less frequently, and longer periods can sometimes allow for students to start homework in class).

One study that looked at a group of high school students before and after their school moved to a later start time found that the students got an average of 45 minutes more of sleep, were significantly less depressed and irritated and more motivated to engage in after-school activities and socialize outside of school, Pope said.

The bell schedule committee is also looking at whether or not to keep Gunn's fixed "G" prep period at the end of the day, which many student-athletes enroll in so as to not miss class when they have to leave early for games. Pope said it's best to have a rotating schedule, so students who have to leave early aren't always missing the same class.

Pope said the research is mixed about the appropriate length for the longer block periods, but 70 to 90 minutes is considered optimal. Gunn math teacher Chris Redfield, who's serving on the bell schedule committee, said the group has narrowed it down to looking at 75- to 90-minute block periods, which allows for more varied instruction, project-based learning and time for students to delve deeper into subjects. Longer periods also mean less hurried transition between classes.

In response to an audience question about how longer periods affect students with learning disabilities like attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), Pope said more time means teachers are able to differentiate and spend more time with students who need extra support.

Tutorial will likely be embedded in the middle of the day more than once a week to allow students more time throughout the week to work with teachers or other students outside of class. Moving it to the middle of the day will hopefully cut down on the number of students who currently opt not to go since as the last period of the day, not attending means ending the school day an hour earlier.

Redfield said it could be a mandatory period but the content would be flexible, including programs like freshman orientation, Titan 101 or social-emotional learning.

Despite myriad proven benefits for both students and teachers, many Gunn teachers are anxious that they'll be asked to make the extensive shifts necessary in their lesson plans and curriculum in a shorter time frame than is ideal. This anxiety is coming up against a sense of urgency in the community to find concrete ways to decrease student stress as soon as possible.

"I really, really, really want to put it out there for everybody to really hear and get that if we are told to start this in August there is going to be, I believe, a semi-disaster," one teacher said Monday.

Pope said that most schools her organization has worked with took a year or two to fully implement their new schedules. Without thoughtful implementation and fully prepared teachers, any new schedule, regardless of how its structured, will not provide the benefits she described Monday night, Pope said.

"I think we need that year," the teacher said.

Redfield, however, said he's come around to thinking that if the committee comes to a consensus on a well-thought out schedule that will benefit students, it should be implemented "as soon as practical."

Herrmann said the district has committed to providing increased professional development for Gunn teachers in advance of a schedule shift at the end of this school year, over the summer and continuing into the 2015-16 school year.

The scheduling committee is on a tight timeline, with an end goal of presenting recommendations to the school board on May 12. The group posted four potential models it's looking at on its website this week: 75-minute rotating periods with afternoon collaboration and meeting time; 75-minute rotating periods with morning collaboration and meeting time; and two different 90-minute period models.

The committee is also seeking further feedback from the community, which can be provided via a Google form posted on a "contact us" tab. Members said Monday that they are particularly eager to hear where the community lands on the number of classes per day and length of periods; frequency of and access to tutorial; if social-emotional learning should be embedded into the schedule and how frequently; and on start and end times.

Related content:

Palo Alto superintendent: No academic classes during zero period

Gunn High School explores scheduling possibilities

Health professionals urge board to consider later school start times

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25 people like this
Posted by Gunn oarent
a resident of Gunn High School
on Apr 21, 2015 at 9:55 am

A huge thank you to the Gunn Creative Schedle Committee for their hard work. We need this change ASAP. It will make a tremendous difference for everyone, teachers and students, at Gunn. The Board is committed to providing the teachers with what they need to in order to make this change. I am hopeful that the teachers will rally and make this substantive change this year for our kids. It is all about what is best for our students, and that's the bottom line. A schedule change, supported by professional development for our teachers this summer and implemented this coming year, is clearly what is best for Gunn students. Go Principal Herrmann!

20 people like this
Posted by gunn father
a resident of Gunn High School
on Apr 21, 2015 at 10:13 am

A good move in the right direction, especially coupled with NO zero period ... change starting to happen. Now let's get the Teachers ( who still want to stay ) on board with the 2010 Homework plan --- it is 5 yrs later, about time to fully implement it dont you think? Also in having the Teachers be more flexible when it comes to extra credit and allowing kids trying to rise from a D to a C or C to a B , be allowed to try to get there...this is not over achievers trying to get to a A+ from an A ... Keep trying ... lives are at stake.

7 people like this
Posted by skeptic
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 21, 2015 at 11:12 am

Pope and her group never take LD or ADHD kids into account. They are the last people on their list when considering recommendations. Organization and repetition are important for world language and math learning. This move will emphasize non-STEM subjects.

13 people like this
Posted by Gunn community member
a resident of Los Altos Hills
on Apr 21, 2015 at 11:39 am

Really, skeptic? Are the sciences, which benefit greatly from longer periods to accommodate labs, not part of stem? In addition, you obviously didn't attend the mtg as Pope explained that kids with different learning needs stand to benefit from the variety of teaching methods that a longer period encourages, as opposed to the standard lecture approach.

7 people like this
Posted by lesliefunk
a resident of another community
on Apr 21, 2015 at 11:47 am

lesliefunk is a registered user.

I am very happy to see that Denise Pope and Challenge Success are part of the plan, as they do an excellent job of listening to students. Regarding homework in classes; start with the goal. If the goal of homework is to achieve mastery of a skill, concept or theory in math and science and to develop a deeper understanding in history and literature, measure it! Formative and summative assessments are used in every classroom. If the majority of the class does well on a formative assessment after a single lesson or multiple lesson plan the teacher knows the students have learned the corresponding content. If a student struggles on the same formative assessment, or cannot earn a score that indicates they ready to move forward in the course material the teacher intervenes. Interventions such as this are done in "tutorial sessions" build into the schedule, as well as other ways to build additional practice in the classroom that are determined by the teacher. Homework represents a way to practice and study more for students who need it or want it to improve their score on the formative assessment. This is the learning phase for the majority of students. If a student is able to master the content in class and demonstrates it on the formative assessment, they should not be forced to do homework that covers the same material. If a student doesn’t do well on the formative assessment, he/she knows that additional practice and study of the material is needed and should do homework or go to tutorial to get help from their teacher. Formative assessment, done frequently, builds student confidence and this improves test scores on the summative assessment given at the end of a unit of study. Formative assessment allows teachers to adjust and improve their teaching and for students to pin point the areas they need to study and practice to enhance their learning. If the teachers are not doing this now, they can start. All credentialed teachers have been trained extensively in assessment and understand this model.

39 people like this
Posted by parent
a resident of Gunn High School
on Apr 21, 2015 at 11:50 am

Success (or failure) of this change *significantly* depends on how it is adapted, as Denise Pope highlighted.

Ample time should be given to teachers to make the move effective. Whether it is for training, or whether it is for re-aligning the lesson plans, or for collaboration, teachers need time. I can not see that happening in less than a full school year.

I am saying this as a parent, who believes that a change is only a good change if it is done thoughtfully, not in a haphazard way just to show "we are doing something".

Please do not rush this. Please give a full year to teachers. I am really concerned that a quick change will cause more distress in the whole school community, including parent, teachers, but most importantly students.

19 people like this
Posted by Paly Mom
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Apr 21, 2015 at 1:07 pm

Wow, looks like the schedule might end up better than Paly's if they start later and Tutorial is in the middle of the day, more than once per week. 8:30 to 9:10 start times would be nice for Paly kids too. Our start time is 8:15.

One negative about the 90-minute block periods is that teachers don't give any breaks, which is difficult for students. Doesn't attention wane at 45 minutes?

2 people like this
Posted by skeptic
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 21, 2015 at 2:25 pm

Challenge Success only ever pays lip service to LD and ADHD. No real interest or experience at all. She has refused to speak with parents who sought conversation as well.
Math is the basis for the STEM and the metric by which placement in Science and Engineering classes is guided.
CS would have all skill building removed from curriculum and switch to all projects. Only good for the supplemented student (tiger cub).

19 people like this
Posted by Convert
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Apr 21, 2015 at 3:58 pm

My son who has learning disabilities and ADHD was a sophomore when Paly adopted block scheduling. I had concerns similar to yours. Teachers went through professional development including sensitivity to creating breaks and moving away from lecturing in favor of other teaching methods that are beneficial to LD students. The block schedule allows time in class for students to practice new concepts such as math with the advantage of the teacher's oversight. ANother advantage of block scheduling particularly for a focus challenged student is they have less transitions in the day which can be taxing and are not required to focus on every subject every day. This had a HUGE bonus when it came to homework. Instead of homework every day for every class my student only had to focus at most on homework for either three or four classes for the following day. This saved a huge amount of time that had previously been spent transitioning from one assignment to the next as well as the feeling of overload that kids with focus deficits often experience. Many of my friends reported their kids were having less homework assigned by virtue of attending class one less day per week.

I remember that the first year the first week of each semester had the traditional bell schedule of 7 periods every day. I think that was eliminated after the first year because teachers and students could not bare even a week of the old schedule.

I remember a lot of trepidation among teachers and parents before the implementation but do not recall any complaints after it was implemented.

The investment in block scheduling will reap benefits for years to come.

3 people like this
Posted by DrainSwampJordan
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Apr 21, 2015 at 6:34 pm

Now they should look at the bell schedules for Middle School. Jordan schedule is a mess and makes life difficult for kids with ADHD.

Block schedule at Paly was a huge relief to our son who has ADHD; especially after crawling out of swamp Jordan.

Also, in middle school many kids with LD or ADHD are undiagnosed, so a block schedule would help those who are unaware why they cannot get organized.

Anything they can do to help ADHD kids will help all kids in terms or better organization in school.

(Jordano Delenda Est)

27 people like this
Posted by Student
a resident of Gunn High School
on Apr 21, 2015 at 7:07 pm

"Please do not rush this. Please give a full year to teachers. I am really concerned that a quick change will cause more distress in the whole school community, including parent, teachers, but most importantly students."

As a student, I could not agree more. Rushing this to implement a block schedule as soon as possible could possibly add even more stress if teaching quality declines due to inadequate time to adjust to the new schedule. Just my two cents.

9 people like this
Posted by Strange
a resident of University South
on Apr 21, 2015 at 7:34 pm

Why aren't both high schools in the same school district on the same schedule? Are they different entities?

3 people like this
Posted by Support Block Schedule
a resident of Midtown
on Apr 21, 2015 at 8:18 pm

I support the changes and work done by the Creative Scheduling Committee and Dr. Herrmann.

The plan and suggestions sound exciting and will help balance out the homework load. I have often observed that my children's homework could be assigned and due all in one lump. The Block Schedule will help even that out and provide an opportunity for more in depth learning in the classroom (vs. all-talk, one-way teaching/lecture).

Looking forward to adopting better practices.

4 people like this
Posted by Paly Mom
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Apr 21, 2015 at 9:31 pm

@Strange: Gunn and Paly have many differences since the School Board believes in site-based management.

Why not throw a SAT/ACT prep class into the schedules? There are many English teachers who do not assign vocabulary lists/quizzes so students have to study on their own. Seems to me, it should be mandatory for English teachers to teach vocabulary. Higher scores on those tests would make PAUSD look even better. Do the private schools offer test prep for their students?

6 people like this
Posted by lesliefunk
a resident of another community
on Apr 21, 2015 at 10:35 pm

lesliefunk is a registered user.

"Teach" vocabulary? It is high school! Students read the literature, taking the time to look up words they don't know the meaning of and learning how to use those new vocabulary words in class during discussions. By high school students should be making their own vocabulary list from the assigned readings, not the teacher.

6 people like this
Posted by Paly Alum
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 21, 2015 at 11:41 pm

Paly Alum is a registered user.

lesliefunk, your thinking is very old school because you have no idea how busy PAUSD students are since you live in a different school district. When I attended Paly back in the 80s, the teachers gave us a list of words to memorize each week and there would be a quiz at the end of the week so it forced us to learn the words. How much time does it take for a teacher to hand out a list, then use a Scantron to correct the quiz, for the good of the students? Ten minutes? Students making their own vocabulary lists and looking up the words? Not in this day and age! You must have no idea how competitive college admissions are - our students have no time to relax.

4 people like this
Posted by OPar
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Apr 21, 2015 at 11:54 pm

Vocabulary lists do not belong in any kind of advanced or honors English class. You want your kid to have a large vocabulary? Make sure they have time to read and that their English classes emphasize reading and essay writing. The humanities get short enough shrift as it is around here.

Like this comment
Posted by skeptic
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 22, 2015 at 9:03 am

Convert, thanks for the good word.

2 people like this
Posted by outsider
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Apr 22, 2015 at 9:35 am


Teachers attention and energy also fade after 45 minutes. Vidoes, books on tapes and long class work times may replace actual instruction. This has been our experience. There often has been a 45 min. lesson and then kids work on their own and the teacher is on their computer.. Somehow giving a longer time has resulted into half as much teaching. If there are 5 60 minute classes, you may have all direct instruction and engaged teachers and students. It you have 2 -2.5 hours set aside, you will only possibly get 1.5 hours of instruction. The kids are used to this culture and think it is normal for a teacher to be on their computers while they do whatever. Is books on tape while you are on Facebook engaged teaching? Should homework be corrected during instructional time?

ath and languages should meet every day and then sci, art, english and music have longer blocks. Get a tutor for math and language because daily instruction is necessary for retention and fluency in math. Younger kids can not absorb 2 hours of direct instruction and expect to apply information at a higher level of thinking.

A horrible rut many kids can get into is only looking at the class they have the next day and not attending to the daily work. This can back them up and also weakens their skill set and slows them down in years to come. the grass is not greener and this is not a solution that will help. I wish the admin. would act professionally and look at actual data and science before just caving into to popular demands. The only really good thing about a block schedule is that if you have a 4th period prep, you have a 3 hour block to do as you please for 3 hours in the middle of the day. Ok.... well umm sending a kid to HS and then seeing that they have 3 hours to do as they chose is not my idea of a great educational decision. -unless you hire a tutor to meet your kid on campus to teach them.

At the turn of the century, when kids lived out in the boondocks, they would come into the schoolhouse, get all their instruction and then return the following week. The kids would work through exercises on the things taught all week on their own. Older kids would help younger ones. I guess we are back to that model.

Like this comment
Posted by Marc Vincenti
a resident of Gunn High School
on Apr 22, 2015 at 1:02 pm

For further proposals to soften the experience of high school for our kids, please visit the website for "Save the 2,008" and consider adding your name to the 266 signatures already on our "Open Letter to the School Board."

Our proposals would free students from overcrowded classes, sleep-deprivation, academic fraud, cellphone disruption, continual grade-reporting, and overwork.

We're at:

6 people like this
Posted by Gunn Alum
a resident of Barron Park
on Apr 22, 2015 at 1:50 pm

WOW! Who's the genius that came up with the "zero period?" 8am is too early for class. 7:20am is masochistic.

If you ask me, the key to saving these kids is changing the culture, not the time schedule. Gunn instills a C+ = F mentality. I remember people cutting themselves when they got B's. Changing the school to make it "easier" for students to succeed is just going to make them feel worse when they don't get an A.

Let's also not forget that Gunn's attendance policy is such that people who have been late x number of times have to cut class if they are running late because they will be dropped from the course if they show up.

Like this comment
Posted by lesliefunk
a resident of another community
on Apr 22, 2015 at 2:22 pm

lesliefunk is a registered user.

To: Paly Alum
"Not in this day and age" doesn't apply when you can click on the word when reading books online or stored on your tablet or other device, and the definition comes up. Or type the word into Google to find the definition and more. Since virtually every student has a smart phone, this is far from time consuming, and actually a great use of their pocket or backpack technology. Most of the classics that are read in high school are available for free from Amazon Kindle.

Like this comment
Posted by Phew
a resident of another community
on Apr 22, 2015 at 4:04 pm

I'm so ASTOUNDINGLY happy that we chose a neighboring town over PA to raise our kids. Among other things, we had concerns about the school system, these exact concerns. I'm sad for those stuck there, but I'm glad we made the right choice.

Like this comment
Posted by Paly Parent
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Apr 22, 2015 at 4:40 pm

I have had kids at Paly before/during/after the change to block periods and the switch has been wonderful for the students. Occasionally I did hear a complaint about the length of class, but overall they kids really felt the block periods were better. Many of the teachers do change gear during the class and quite often spend the last 15 minutes of class on letting the kids start the homework.

The homework situation is much better and you can't have more than 3 or 4 tests/quizzes/projects due. It means that they can work which day is going to have a heavier homework load than others and plan accordingly. It also means that they can work around their extra curricula activities better knowing which days homework is lighter.

The backpacks and stuff to take to school every day is lighter too.

As for vocabulary and grammar, I agree it is taught poorly. As for blaming it on poor teaching, I would rather blame it on poor literature choices. I have seen so many poor literature choices with limited vocabulary and questionable grammar that it is no wonder the students can't write better. In my day I had "banned" words, no contractions allowed, and a rule of not being able to use the same adjective or adverb more than once (or twice in some circumstances) in an essay. Now it seems quite acceptable to use words such as "good", "like", "bunch" throughout their writing and quite often in completely misappropriate uses. When I attempt to edit my kids' work, they call me petty for my protestations. Do teachers really let them get away with this?

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