A large group of impassioned Gunn High School students turned out to Tuesday's board meeting to deliver a fierce condemnation of the superintendent's recent decision to ban academic classes during zero period and demand an equal seat at their school's decision-making table.
One after another, almost 20 students interspersed with several Gunn teachers stepped to the podium to address the very school leaders they said they feel disenfranchised by.
Some students currently enrolled in zero period explained how the optional early morning class has helped to reduce their stress by giving them more flexibility in their schedules and increased the amount of sleep they get. Several other students presented results from surveys they've conducted over the last few weeks that indicate strong student support for keeping zero period.
Students and teachers demanded that the decision be reversed, which Superintendent Max McGee later said he will not do. But all students expressed a deep concern, regardless of the zero-period question, that their voices have not been genuinely heard on issues that directly affect their lives.
"It is not just the act of talking to us and hearing us, it is the act of actually taking into consideration what we have said," student Michelle Zhang told the board and McGee.
Junior Ben Lee echoed Zhang's sentiments.
"Zero period is not the true issue at stake today. It is student choice. It is student voice. It is the role of the student body in determining their own education," he said.
Sitting at the dais next to McGee, Gunn's student board representative Rose Weinmann said students were disappointed and dismayed that they were not given the opportunity to fully discuss zero period at a board meeting, as had been promised.
Zero period had been placed on the April 21 agenda after board member Ken Dauber raised the issue more than a month ago, but after McGee issued his decision over spring break, it was removed. McGee told the Weekly in an interview last week that it was not "up for debate or discussion" and he expected there to be time and space to discuss related issues when a Gunn committee comes to the board with recommendations for a new bell schedule in May.
Weinmann and other students said that this is having the adverse effect that the decision was supposed to.
"Although well-intentioned, this is a bit of misguided paternalism that has led to a decision being made that limits students' options," Weinmann said. "Limiting our options does not solve the stress problem. It only adds to our stress."
The decision to eliminate academic classes during zero period was based on recommendations from numerous health professionals that the school day start no earlier than 8:30 a.m. About 300 students currently enrolled in zero period, which is optional, are in both academic classes and physical education that start at 7:20 a.m.
Many students offered alternatives that they see as more effective ways to reduce academic stress at Gunn, including working to prevent test and project stacking, which consistently turn up in student surveys as a top stressor, and was even one of the board's annual high-level focused goals several years ago.
A Gunn junior said Tuesday that he had six tests on the day before spring break began while another recounted the stress she feels when she has to prioritize which subjects to study for because she has too many tests on one day.
Zhang asked for more education on stress management, noting that "it is more important to focus on how to manage stress because it can't be eliminated as a whole."
One parent also urged the board to better enforce the districtwide homework policy, which mandates the amount of homework students at each grade are supposed to have each night, though it doesn't apply to Advanced Placement (AP) and honors classes.
Students implored the board and the superintendent to do better by them in the future, particularly in the current process of developing a new bell schedule for the school. The Creative Scheduling Committee, on which several students are serving, is in the midst of coming up with a set of recommendations that ultimately must come to the board for a final stamp of approval.
McGee, who repeatedly apologized to the students Tuesday, stressed that a new block schedule will solve many of the problems that students feel zero period currently fixes, such as allowing student-athletes to have a prep period at the end of the day so they miss less class if they have to leave early and allowing for more flexible schedules in general.
"We can do better. We will do better," McGee said. "Let's figure out how to work together to get a better schedule for next year that gives students meaningful choice, that includes students in the decision-making, that opens up a lot more possibilities than we currently have even without zero period as an academic choice in the schedule."
Though the board could not respond to the students, who spoke during open forum, board member Camille Townsend said she was concerned about the lack of a transparent, open board discussion on zero period. The board discussed the issue at the end of Tuesday night during board operations, with Townsend requesting that zero period come back to the board agenda as a stand-alone informational item.
"It's time to come back and make good on our promise that we're going to have a conversation about this," Townsend said.
The board and McGee ultimately decided that an informational report on zero period will be folded into the meeting at which Gunn's Creative Scheduling Committee makes its recommendations, which is slated to be May 12.
Many students pointed to a recent report from a Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC) visiting committee, which identified both areas of strength and weakness at Gunn after a multi-day visit that included meetings with students, faculty and staff and observation of classes. The committee's No. 2 area for improvement reads: "Ensure inclusion of a strong student voice on schoolwide decisions, including such items as zero period, AP course offerings, block scheduling and other initiatives."
"This isn't doomsday," one student said. "This isn't the end of an active discussion, but you need to include us in it and you need to listen."