Editorial: Responding to student stress | September 23, 2011 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - September 23, 2011

Editorial: Responding to student stress

Annual school district goals respond to parent concerns over emotional health, student stress and school culture

Parents worried about the health of Palo Alto teens as they navigate through the stressful middle and high school years have been sounding alarm bells in every forum they can over the last couple of years.

Some have advocated creating better support systems to identify and help teens suffering from or at risk of depression.

Others have emphasized the need to examine school practices, such as homework policies, schedules, coordination of tests and counseling systems.

And still others point to the need to engage and educate parents on their role in helping to tone down the intense competitive atmosphere that has engulfed high school life.

School board members and Superintendent Kevin Skelly have at times reacted defensively and bureaucratically to this input for much of the last year, but last week these issues were front and center in new annual goals recommended by Skelly and adopted unanimously by the board.

The goals for the coming year put the district on a firm course toward tackling ways of reducing "unnecessary" stress on students and creating a "more supportive school culture."

School principals and others will begin to "examine the purpose and volume" of homework at all class levels and create a new district policy on homework. The scheduling of tests and school projects will be studied and recommendations developed to address avoidable "perfect-storms" when students are assigned tests or projects by multiple teachers all at the same time.

The board also placed a priority on implementing the youth-wellness framework called Developmental Assets, a system for assessing and responding to more vulnerable kids and involving parents and other community members in supporting them. (See guest opinion on the facing page and the insert in today's paper for more information on this program.)

Finally, the goals include a study of the very different high school counseling programs currently operating at Paly and Gunn and elsewhere, determining best practices and making appropriate changes.

The adoption of the goals brought guarded praise and optimism from parents who have been pushing the board on the issue of student stress. Ken Dauber, who with his wife Michele just seven months ago had called for new leadership in the district and formed a group called "We Can Do Better," said "The content of these goals is quite remarkable and I appreciate the progress."

The goals also drew a promise of support from Matthew McDermott, rector of St. Mark's Episcopal Church and a JLS parent, who said he will involve his congregation in the "slow and challenging work" of helping to implement the stress-reduction goal. After the cluster of Palo Alto student suicides that began in 2009, the St. Mark's volunteers and those from other churches lobbied for nearly two years for the board to adopt programs that would promote "student connectedness."

Superintendent Kevin Skelly, who acknowledged that he hopes "members of the community see their handprint on the work we have for this year," said it will take time to implement the goals. On the homework policy, he said research could be completed this academic year and its impact on "teachers, course outlines and expectations" could be seen next fall, or possibly by the spring of 2012.

Tension is likely to persist over the district's "site-based decision-making" philosophy, which leaves many policy and programmatic decisions in the hands of principals and their teachers and site councils.

The approach often results in different programs being developed at different schools to address the exact same need or goal, rather than the development of a "best practices" approach implemented consistently across all 17 school sites.

Skelly, reflecting the views of his principals, is a big proponent of site-based decision-making, but some school board and members of the public are questioning whether the concept is inefficient, or worse, unfair.

Skelly and the school board deserve praise and support for adopting these goals for the upcoming school year. It is evidence that they are listening and responding to the community and are prepared to make changes.

As a past critic of the district's lack of urgency and attention to the issues of student stress and emotional health, we are encouraged that meaningful and measurable progress will be made this year, including better outreach and communication with parents.

After all, ultimately it is the parents of the community that must decide what kind of environment they wish for their kids enrolled in Palo Alto schools.


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Posted by Marielena
a resident of Midtown
on Oct 14, 2011 at 8:08 pm

Thanks to all community members for joining forces to protect our students by spending a lot of time to make Palo Alto Schools a better place for our students. This news come three days before the second anniversary of one of the children we lost. We might never have way to prove it, we are probably going to prevent more loses by adopting these goals. It took two long years and a lot of work,but finally things will be better for students in Palo Alto. In the name of those students who might be suffering in silence from school stress, or emotional issues, I thank you Board members, school officials, and principals for adopting the goal and put it to work.

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Posted by Paly Parent
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Oct 17, 2011 at 10:46 am

"The goals for the coming year put the district on a firm course toward tackling ways of reducing "unnecessary" stress on students and creating a "more supportive school culture.""

It's too bad we didn't have these goals last year, when the calendar change was being debated, because the change we have will clearly (and the board admitted this) increase "unnecessary" stress on students in a variety of ways. Yet the board is ignoring this problem. It's great that they're looking at making things better, yet all these changes now being discussed aren't going to have any significant effect until after the 2012-2013 calendar makes it all worse. It's time to freeze calendar change and look at real ways to reduce, not increase, unnecessary stress.

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Posted by Gunn Parent
a resident of Barron Park
on Oct 17, 2011 at 11:07 am

I agree with Paly Parent. I am pleased that the Board seems to be taking some actions to improve the day to day lives but I am completely baffled by the fact that they have implemented the new calendar before addressing the issues that actually will make our kids MORE stressed out! The new calendar puts finals before Christmas which sounds interesting. When you look more closely however, the first semester will now just be squeezed into less weeks and the finals will be happening during holiday parties, recitals, and college application crunch time. My child will not be able to enjoy that week leading up to Christmas and will probably not be able to attend our family's annual tradition of attending a concert because it will probably be the night before a final. This saddens me. It is robbing him of family time. When did the PAUSD consider this type of adverse affect in redesigning the calendar? Did the Board take into account the results of THEIR POLE that showed the average high school student did only 4 hours of studying over holiday break? The students ARE NOT ASKING FOR THIS! Also, having our summer vacation start at Memorial Day weekend is SO different than the rest of the world! And, Palo Alto's hottest time of year around here is August and September!!! I feel sorry for the K-8 families who have to live by this new calendar even without a student in 9-12. This calendar is supposedly for the 9-12 students but I can tell you, THE STUDENTS AND PARENTS ARE NOT PLEASED.

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Posted by too easy
a resident of Crescent Park
on Oct 17, 2011 at 12:04 pm

The calendar change was made because the board wanted to look like it was doing *something*.
Since it was introduced, nothing has been done to mitigate the effect of this change on the most vulnerable students.

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Posted by Diana Darcy
a resident of Community Center
on Oct 17, 2011 at 12:17 pm

I can't think of a worse way to "reduce unnecessary stress" than to jam an entire semester of work into the early-August through mid-December timeframe. Four straight months with finals at the end, with no break to study prior to the finals. This is more like a horse race, not an effective learning schedule. Just go, don't look back, and hope you don't stumble before the finish. Never mind the learning, just get it done and over with, fast.

I just graduated from Stanford medical school with an MS last year, so I have a recent perspective on what it takes to foster effective learning. Time to process the new information is key. For those who actually want to learn and retain the information, some time is required. This new PAUSD schedule is not set up to allow for any processing time; in fact just getting a bad cold could completely derail a student for the entire semester. It seem to me that this schedule was proposed by those who value just getting it all over with, rather than those who actually value learning. I'm very surprised that in Palo Alto this approach would be promoted. I would be very hesitant to recommend a student to Stanford who took that kind of approach to learning.

Other options have been proposed to help reduce stress while also keeping a schedule which is more conducive to learning. The quarter system is one such approach, and is used very effectively at Stanford. This system allows students a break between quarters, each of which are of course much shorter than the current semesters. This also allows for finals before break, with study time beforehand as well, and time off prior to the winter holidays too.

Even if the current semester system were maintained, there are options which have been proposed for a schedule which promotes real learning and less stress. Many students, parents and teachers are in favor of a later start in late August or after early Sept, with finals later in January. This allows that needed processing time to insure retention of material, but does not require students to spend all of their winter holidays studying.

Others have proposed making large final exams less important, with other measures along the way to help monitor progress, foster learning, and judge performance. This really should be happening anyway.

If we go forward with this trial of a calendar which is currently on the table, there are still many areas to be addressed, as asked by the school board. These should have been mandatory to resolve prior to calendar adoption, as they are critical. What support will be available to students who do stumble and get that ugly cold or flu? What support will be give to those who must do college apps during finals? What about performances, etc. during finals -- how will conflicts be resolved? How will the schools deal with the heat in the classrooms during August? What support will working parents get for younger students who are out of school in early January and again in late May? What support will students get in May when they have to take AP exams along with finals? It's imperative that the board demand good answers and solid plans before allowing this calendar to go forward.

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Posted by Sally Kadifa
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Oct 17, 2011 at 3:37 pm

I am also very concerned by how compressed the fall semester will be with the calendar change. My high school sophomore really needed this three day weekend to catch up on sleep and homework. I dread the thought of next fall, his junior year, with no days off between Labor day and Thanksgiving. Fall athletes will be very pressed for time, and that includes a number of large teams like cross country, football, water polo and girls' tennis. May will be even more chaotic than usual with APs, end of season sports competitions (leagues and CCS), and finals all overlapping within a 3 week period.

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Posted by needgo
a resident of Southgate
on Oct 17, 2011 at 3:41 pm

If they can not handle the academics like everyone else then take on less outside activities.

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Posted by Me Too
a resident of Midtown
on Oct 17, 2011 at 4:21 pm

When I talk to my kids (2 at Gunn) about the calendar issue, the reaction is an overwhelming "don't care." It seems like the parents get whipped into a frenzy - the students just move ahead. I am happy to relax, hopefully encourage my kids to relax, and see how everything goes.

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Posted by Jordan Parent
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Oct 18, 2011 at 7:28 am

I agree with Paly parent and others above. Squeezing an entire semester in before the holidays is just going to add to the stress of all of our students' lives - something none of us needs!

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Posted by Perspective
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Oct 18, 2011 at 8:18 am

I disagree with the bandwagon of comments here that "squeezing" the semester into before Winter Break finals is too stressful.

Giving the kids a REAL break, a full-stop..no finals or projects hanging over their heads,..over winter break is the only way to assure that our high-achieving kids get the mental rest they need to do the SECOND half of the school year. Assuring that grades are posted online by all teachers at least once per week would also be great as parents who suspect a decline in their kids' mental health could check on assignments/grades to see the decline long before quarter or semester grades come out.

I also believe that for our low-achievers we need to fully consider the option of having more vocational education, and have it count toward a high school degree. Why do we have, for example, 4 years of history as a requirement, when even the UC system doesn't require that much? Why do we believe that forcing all kids into one mold is good for them?

For low-achievers, they MUST have an option other than "college" or "no college".. too many kids drop out of high school because there is no relevancy to their lives that they can see. A 3rd choice of "high school with useful skills", a return to the common sense notion that not all kids are made for college and need a useful skill at 18 to go to work, would be a nice stress reliever for our low achievers, hooking them into our society through schooling in a way that isn't now available.

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Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 18, 2011 at 8:37 am

Somewhere along the way, we must teach students (our kids) to deal with stress rather reducing stress. Stress happens in life and giving them the idea that stress can be done away with altogether is a false lesson.

Expecting that winter break is going to be stress free is not on. There will be stresses and they have to realise that. When finals are before winter break, they will still know that they have many classes continuing, not new classes. The kids will still know what is coming up in the next semester and will still be able to read ahead or work on an upcoming project. There will still be the stress of finding out grades from the finals because you can bet your bottom dollar that the teachers are not going to work over their break to get the grades out.

Even outside school they will have stresses.

The stress that will take place in December will be enormous. For all of us, regardless of how we celebrate the holidays as a family, there are a lot of outside activities in December. Expecting our teens to cocoon themselves at home with their books, laptops, studies and college apps while the world is having fun is not a good way for them to live their youth. They should be able to join what to most of us is the funest time of the year, not hide away and wait for two dull weeks of doing nothing to pretend that they are taking a complete break when all the parties and fun are over is a sham.

Teaching teens to decide what activities to attend, what can be put off until January, how to be responsible partiers, are all lifelong lessons we can teach at present. But teaching them that they can't attend fun activities because they must stay at home and study for finals is just going to make them antagonistic.

There is no balance in this idea. For those who have to go through it for the first time in their senior year, one of mine included, they are going to have a very hard time.

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Posted by Parent
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Oct 18, 2011 at 8:53 am

I think a little grade inflation would be fine. While there are many wonderful teachers here, the level of difficulty is higher than other public schools.

To reduce stress, teachers could have final exams count for less percentage of the total grade, while still making them comprehensive for college preparation. Some teachers already do this.

If any department needs rehauling, it's history. My kids have had some history teachers who are not too academically rigorous but they have learned from them instead of being stressed and cramming pages of facts into their heads for exams, thus not really learning the material. Not every child is AP History aptitude.

Poster above, Sally, has not viewed the 2012-2013 calendar: Web Link

- There is an additional day off (total 2 days) in September
- But no day off in October
- January, there is one less Local Holiday
- February, one less day off so there are only 4 days off (ski week)
- March, there is an additional day off (which we do not have now)
- May, there is a three-day weekend before final exams, which is new

The last day of school in 2013 is 5/30. If they could extend a few days into June, it would allow for a few more days off during the year, but then people would complain summer is too short. I would rather have the extra days off during the year. My child is looking forward to a stress-free Winter Break and returning to new material.

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Posted by Resident
a resident of Crescent Park
on Oct 18, 2011 at 9:11 am

While I am pleased that the administration is working on ways to reduce stress for our children, I also believe that the change in the calendar was not well thought out. The survey results showed that the majority of this community was against the calendar change, so concern over the new schedule creating more stress should be no surprise. We, as a community, should focus our efforts on Developmental Assets. The Developmental Assets survey showed that we need to listen more to our children. It was the children as well as the parents who were opposed to the calendar change - their voices were not heard. The elementary children and teachers will also pay a price for this change. With increased enrollment we are building two story classrooms without air conditioning. It can already be very hot at the beginning of the year and this will exacerbate the problem. When it is hot it makes it difficult for young kids to focus and difficult for the teachers to create a productive learning environment.

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Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 18, 2011 at 12:44 pm

Just pointing out, that next year Thanksgiving is as early as it gets at November 22. What happens when Thanksgiving gets later in the month at November 28? Christmas Day will not change but the time between Thanksgiving and Christmas will be much closer to cram everything in.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.