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Palo Alto schools debate new calendar

By Christina Farr | 7 Oct 2010

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The calendar change will impact high school students the most, moving final exams up before winter break.

The Palo Alto school district’s proposed new academic calendar, designed to alleviate stress among high school students, has met varying levels of support and resistance from the community.

Superintendent Kevin Skelley would like to see Palo Alto students at all grade levels start classes a week earlier, on Aug. 16. First-semester finals would be shifted to December to prevent high school students from spending their winter break studying for exams.

At the core of the debate is whether seniors can cope with the academic stress of exams in a packed first semester while also juggling college applications and extracurricular activities.

Britt Marie Jenn, a 2010 graduate of Henry M. Gunn High School, worries that future generations of seniors would be overwhelmed if the school board approves Skelley’s proposal. Had she been expected to study for finals in the “hardest” first semester,  Jenn said, she would have felt pushed “over the top.”

Some students and parents worry the proposed calendar could add to high school students' stress.

“Maybe I would have spent the same amount of time on my college applications,” she reasoned, “but I would have been getting a lot less sleep, which would have taken a toll on my grades.”

Susan Shultz, guidance counselor at Palo Alto High School, said she believes that the proposed calendar is “best for kids” in the long-term. “Students are going to have a true (winter) break — that is, two weeks off with no school work. It’s a win-win situation unless I’m missing something.”

Assistant Superintendent Scott Bowers has used Facebook to survey students. At Gunn high school, about 12 percent of the student body answered the survey and 83 percent indicated support for the proposed calendar.

The Palo Alto school board is expected to vote on the proposal Nov. 9. Many teachers and parents attended the board meeting last week to discuss how students at the district’s two prestigious high schools, Palo Alto and Gunn, would be affected by the proposal.

A representative of the union representing Palo Alto teachers, Trina Gogarty, said that teachers are “willing to pilot this before-the-break finals idea.”

However, Tekla Nee, a mother of three children in district schools, urged the board to drop the proposal, terming it an “experiment,” that would require “my family to make huge sacrifices with little benefit.”

Shauna Rockson, a sixth-grade teacher who has worked in the district for 17 years, said in an interview that the shorter summer would restrict time she could spend with her  family. “I don’t want to truncate the summertime … but that’s as a mother,” she said.

Ashima Agarwal, whose children attend Walter Hays Elementary School and Jordan Middle School, fears that parents have not fully grasped the complexities of the calendar change. “Some parents don’t have enough information and are taking it casually,” she said. “For others, it was surprise and shock.”

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