Palo Alto families with twins face commencement conundrum

District offers to tweak Paly, Gunn grad ceremonies so parents can attend both

When one of Ann Crichton's twin daughters transferred from Palo Alto High School to Gunn High School, with the other one still attending Paly, the family cut in half their Viking green Paly T-shirts and Titan red Gunn T-shirts and sewed them back together so the half-red, half-green shirts read "Guly" and "Pann."

So began their years as a two-high-school family. With both twins playing softball, the only time the whole family could watch games together was when the girls played each other or during the summer. Ann and husband Alex used to attend games separately, using FaceTime on their iPhones or recording games so the other one wouldn't miss a moment.

Until recently, they were planning on doing the same thing at their daughters' graduation ceremonies this June.

Both commencements will take place on Wednesday, June 1. Paly's starts at 5:30 p.m. and Gunn's a half hour later. Ann said she realized the predicament the family would be in on that milestone day as soon as daughter Catherine transferred to Gunn.

Hoping that somehow, some way, the family could actually be unified and present at both of the girls' graduation ceremonies, Ann contacted the activities directors at both schools, school board members and people in the school office to see what could be done. Her plea, she said, "fell on deaf ears," with staff telling her either to contact someone else or that there was nothing to be done, since so few people would be in the same situation.

Eventually she gave up: "You gotta pick your battles," she told the Weekly.

She and Alex decided they would both attend the girls' baccalaureates and then split up the graduation ceremonies.

"It just never caught on to the right person, the right place to help solve it," Ann said. "There are bigger fish (for staff) to fry than just a one-day event."

But then another family got involved. Last May, Dena Dersh, whose twin son and daughter are graduating this year from Gunn and Paly, respectively, emailed both high school principals asking them to schedule the two ceremonies for different days or to at least stagger them by two hours so that the family could watch both children graduate, rather than make an "unnecessary, unfair decision," she wrote in an email.

She said she was told that although the district calendar was made years in advance, Superintendent Max McGee had been informed about the family's dilemma. She hoped for a response or some action but, like Ann, did not get either.

Associate Superintendent for Human Resources Scott Bowers, who has worked in the district for more than 20 years, told the Weekly that as long as he can remember, the high schools' graduations have been scheduled on the same day -- the Wednesday after finals week -- and at around the same time.

Bowers speculated that Paly's and Gunn's ceremonies have been kept proximate to cut down on potential pranking of one school on another.

Communications Coordinator Jorge Quintana said in an email to the Weekly that the ceremonies' date and time are set to "accommodate the many end of year activities, the end of year responsibilities of teachers and administrators, and the other ceremonies and celebrations throughout the school district."

He added that it is rare that twin siblings attend two different schools.

The Crichtons and the Dershes, with no solution in sight, more or less resigned themselves to the fact that they would not be able to see both of their children graduate.

Then last month, McGee offered a solution: On June 1, the district will provide both families with transportation from Paly's ceremony to Gunn's, plus a reserved parking spot at Gunn. The twins graduating from Paly will have their names read first so their parents can make it to Gunn in time, where the other siblings will have their names read last.

Ann and Dena said they're happy with this solution and will take advantage of it. But Dena said both parents were disappointed by the lack of response or "non-answers" they got from the district over the last several years.

The Dershes, for their part, said dealing with the graduation issue was emblematic of their experience as parents of a student with special needs who went through the district from kindergarten through 12th grade. Father David Dersh described the district as "inflexible."

"The answer is always 'no,'" he said. "You have to fight to push them to give a little bit. That's always going to be their position. It's just the way things are.

"We're very happy with the quality of the education and instruction and all of that," David added, "but I think at the district level, it's just an impenetrable bureaucracy."

McGee told the Weekly that the long-range district calendar will be up for consideration next year and that he'd like to see consideration of scheduling the high schools graduations on consecutive days. Though he has never worked in a school district with two high schools, he worked in one where two middle schools held their graduations on separate days. It was nice for not only parents and relatives but also teachers, administrators and school board members who wanted to attend both, he said.

Last year, McGee said, he wanted to attend both Paly's and Gunn's ceremonies. He asked if there were a way to do that and learned that not only was the calendar already set in stone, things like arranging for the graduation speakers, printing out invitations and the like are "done so far in advance that it was really impossible to change," he said.

For their part, the Dershes and Crichtons are still excited about this milestone in their children's lives. Both sets of children have college plans. Yet come this fall, the Crichtons will face yet another difficult decision: Who will move which daughter into her new school when one will likely be on the East Coast and the other in California?

Editor's note: This story inaccurately stated the date of this year's high school graduation ceremonies. It will take place at both Palo Alto and Gunn high schools on Wednesday, June 1, not June 3.

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18 people like this
Posted by BP
a resident of Barron Park
on Mar 20, 2016 at 1:00 am

why is this a story worth mentioning?

3 people like this
Posted by Worth mentioning
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 21, 2016 at 5:29 pm

Looks like they brought Glenn McGee and PAUSD to its knees fairly easily. McGee is looking more and more like Kevin Skelly with each passing issue. I foresee a total of seven years of being stuck with him because the board is too gutless to lead. Heidi Emberling, this is your chance to lead. Do something, anything.

Like this comment
Posted by Kaui DeMarzo
a resident of Stanford
on Mar 23, 2016 at 12:52 pm

I am a mother of special needs twins in middle school. both the special needs and twins aspects provide unique operational challenges. I think the parents in the article were understandably frustrated, but all administrations have to balance many needs, and it seems that the district balanced this (very small, individual) need quite graciously. I also agree, though, with the first comment about this article.

1 person likes this
Posted by Thankful
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 23, 2016 at 11:53 pm

For those who have not been involved with the two high school graduations there are many aspects that are not being covered by this article. Planning for graduation begins during the students Junior year. Reservations have to be made for the Grad Night party typically more than a year in advance. Students are bussed right from graduation to the all night event. Busses for the events are booked a year in advance. It would be impossible to stagger the graduation without impacting the planned events. Graduation speakers are also reserved in advance.

It seems a bit unfair to blame the school for not responding to the needs of these families, Even they admitted that they knew the consequences of sending their children to the two high schools. It seems to me that they were fortunate to have choices for the four years that their students were able to attend different schools.

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