Despite mostly broad support expressed at Tuesday's school board meeting for the structure of a new bell schedule for Gunn High School, an expedited timeline for implementation is raising concern among some students and staff.
Gunn's Creative Schedule Committee, made up of more than 20 students, parents, faculty and administrators, is recommending that the board approve a 75-minute rotating block schedule with fewer classes meeting for longer periods each day to start this August. Gunn currently operates on a modified block schedule, with five or six classes meeting in 58-minute periods each day, which is often described as a hectic daily pace accompanied by a "relentless flow of overnight and weekend homework assignments," the committee's recommendation reads.
Gunn math teacher Diane Gleason urged the board to accept the proposed bell schedule but noted that for her, "the implementation in August is disappointing. It's a little bit rushed."
Gunn sophomore Chloe Sorensen said the top concern she's heard from staff and students about the new schedule is the "significant lack of staff development" time.
The committee has laid out a schedule for professional development for teachers, starting with a day dedicated to planning instruction for a new block schedule on June 1, during finals week. Teachers would also be given up to 32 hours of paid curriculum-writing time over the summer and could expect to see more workshops and professional development days throughout the first and second semesters of the 2015-16 school year.
"To me and many others, this signifies that the administration and the board value the demands of the community and the rush to change our schedule more than the needs of the students and staff," Sorensen told the board Tuesday. "Making drastic changes that affect 2,000 people during times of trauma and grief usually isn't the best idea. It's even worse when you rush them."
At a town hall meeting hosted by the schedule committee last month, Denise Pope -- co-founder of education and youth well-being research group Challenge Success and a lecturer at the Stanford School of Education -- said new bell schedules have typically taken a year or two to implement at schools with which her organization has worked.
And though at a bell-schedule panel in March Gunn Principal Denise Herrmann said she was "leery" of an August roll-out, favoring instead for a January 2016 implementation, Herrmann expressed confidence in the committee's recommendations Tuesday night. The recommendation will return for a school board vote on May 26.
Herrmann said the most important step moving forward will be providing ongoing, flexible support for teachers both in time dedicated to professional learning on block schedules and a new 50-minute period teachers will have every Monday afternoon for collaboration. She offered some wisdom from other teachers who have gone through a schedule change: to not write an entire year's worth of curriculum but to start with the first few units and be ready to tweak if necessary.
At the March bell schedule panel, Palo Alto High School Assistant Principal Kathy Lawrence said the most divisiveness during her school's shift to a block schedule in 2010 was, too, over the condensed implementation timeline.
"I was kind of in the camp of, 'Wait, this is an awesome idea, but I need some time to really think about my curriculum and how I want to do this in a better way,'" Lawrence said in March. "We all survived, though, and right now I don't think there would be anybody who would go back to the modified block schedule that we had."
"Some schools change their schedules every year," board President Melissa Baten Caswell said. "The kids just adapt and the teachers adapt. I'm not saying we should do that, but I think that our fear of change may be getting in the way of making some changes that really will help a lot of people."
Hayley Krolik, a Gunn junior and member of the Creative Schedule Committee, said the committee's recommendation was based on trade-offs. Though each class would meet only three times a week in 70- to 80-minute periods, the pace would be more relaxed, she said.
And making tutorial -- an optional period that's currently at the end of Tuesdays for students to do things like seek extra support for teachers or complete makeup work -- a mandatory mid-morning Friday class does mean a longer Friday. (Students will have four classes Monday through Thursday and five on Friday; currently students with full schedules have six classes three days a week and five on two shorter days.)
However, it provides guaranteed time every week for students to access teachers outside of regular class time. Tutorial will also be used as dedicated time for social-emotional curriculum, freshman orientation (Titan 101) and grade-level counselor meetings. Herrmann said the school is in the process of hiring a part-time social-emotional teacher on special assignment (TOSA) who will design the curriculum.
One Gunn junior and one school board member, Terry Godfrey, urged Herrmann to make sure there is extra counseling staff available in the first week or two of the school year to support students and teachers in the transition to a new bell schedule. Both also suggested there be plenty of support for students who already planned their schedules for the next year and might want to opt to do independent study or to take more blended or hybrid classes, particularly in light of the superintendent's recent decision to ban academic classes during zero period.
That now-contentious decision, strongly opposed by the Gunn student body, was again debated Tuesday night. Students again spoke out against the way the decision was made (without real input from the students themselves, they said), in contrast with several local health professionals -- including Rafael Pelayo, a psychiatry and behavioral science professor at the Stanford Center for Sleep Sciences and Medicine, and Meg Durbin, Palo Alto Medical Foundation pediatrician and HEARD Alliance co-founder -- who expressed support for not having the school day start before 8:30 a.m., in accordance with a recent American Academy of Pediatricians policy statement on later school start times.
School board member Camille Townsend said she was "troubled" by the process by which the decision on zero period was made. Over spring break, the day after Superintendent Max McGee sent a memo to the five school board members suggesting he propose a ban on academic classes during the early morning period, he sent a message to students, staff and parents letting them know that such a ban would be in place for the start of the next school year.
The zero-period issue had been simmering throughout the community for a month since school board member Ken Dauber raised it at the March 10 board meeting, asking that the board consider it and take action on it. Townsend balked, saying that such a discussion would be premature. But Vice President Heidi Emberling and Godfrey suggested scheduling zero period as an informational item on the board's April 21 meeting agenda, which the rest of the board agreed to do. Following McGee's April 10 message to the community, however, zero period did not appear on that agenda.
"I can assure you this, that in my 12-some years on the school board, there has never been a decision made like this with so little information that the board has been able to discuss," Townsend said Tuesday night.
"Why is there secrecy behind this?" she asked. "Why was it that during break, I received a directive from the superintendent? That is not how we do business here in Palo Alto."
While Godfrey and Emberling described the discussion around zero period as "truncated," "short-circuited" and even the lacking consideration of student voice "disturbing," Dauber defended McGee's authority to make such decisions.
"This is a matter of management discretion," Dauber said. "It was, like many, many topics and decisions within our school district, left to the superintendent and his staff to administer within the parameters set by board policy.
"If we decide as a board that we don't agree with a decision that Dr. McGee has made and we want to set policy around that, just like I didn't agree with a decision that the Gunn principal made three years ago on zero period, then we're perfectly entitled as a board to set policy on that," he added. "What we should not do is criticize or castigate the superintendent for making the decision in the first place. Dr. McGee had the full authority, the full right to do that. He was under no obligation to engage the board in some sort of process around his management decisions."
Most board members agreed that student voice must be better taken into account in future decisions and supported Gunn school board representative Rose Weinmann's proposal that the district form a "student voice committee" to look at how to create channels district-wide for students to be heard.
"My biggest disappointment is that the conversations we are having with our students face-to-face are when there's a problem and not regularly," Baten Caswell said. "There needs to be a way to have dialogues back and forth."