Palo Alto Weekly

News - April 27, 2012

School board: College essay-writing help needed

Calendar change illuminates need for systematic help and feedback for seniors applicants

by Chris Kenrick

Palo Alto students' need for help with college essay-writing emerged as a theme Tuesday night, April 24, in a Board of Education discussion of the school district's transition to a new, early-start academic calendar.

As school officials described their efforts to make the calendar transition a smooth one, board members said those efforts should include more explicit help and essay-writing feedback for seniors applying to college.

The calendar change, which takes effect next academic year, means school will begin earlier in August — this year, Aug. 16 — and the first semester will end before winter break in December.

The new calendar means high school students will have first-semester finals before the December holidays rather than in late January, leading to worries the new schedule will hurt seniors contending with college applications at the same time.

"I believe my daughter, a rising senior, is the victim of a perfect storm," parent Cheryl Foung told the board. "They're guinea pigs on a completely untested calendar."

The college process has become increasingly pressured and competitive due to growing numbers of international applicants, she said.

"Kids are applying to more and more schools. If a student is applying to 10 schools, the average number of essays they'll be doing is 50, because in spite of the Common Application, each school will have four or five independent essays," Foung said.

School officials noted that 39 of the 46 public high schools in Santa Clara County already have made a similar calendar shift and generally are happy with it.

Nonetheless, they said the calendar debate had illuminated the related but separate issue of college essay-writing help, which in the past has taken place in English classes at the discretion of the teacher.

School officials said English teachers this fall will offer at least one session of essay-writing help. In addition, a summer essay-writing course and fall campus workshops will be offered, they said.

Board member Barb Mitchell said the district should consider offering a University of California-approved essay-writing class, in which students could work on polishing their college essays.

Superintendent Kevin Skelly said the district may already offer such a class and that he would look into it. He also warned that many students would be likely to select Advanced Placement English over such a class.

Board members said they were generally happy with the calendar transition plan but want the situation to be closely monitored.

"My biggest question is, 'How are we going to make sure, the first year we do this, that (students) don't get hurt by the changes we're making?'" member Melissa Baten Caswell said.

Despite the popularity of the new calendar in nearby public and private schools, board President Camille Townsend remained skeptical.

"We need to be driven by the realities of our district, which in some ways are very unique here," Townsend said.

In other business Tuesday, school officials said they will prepare a $10,000-a-month, two-year lease for recently acquired district property at 525 San Antonio Road, formerly the site of the Peninsula Day Care Center.

The school district spent $8.5 million last December to acquire the 2.6-acre site with the idea of eventually building school facilities there.

In the meantime Carla Rayacich, founder of the startup Athena Academy "for children gifted with dyslexia," is seeking to rent the property.

The plan is for joint use of the property with Jane Yang, who currently operates the Champion after-school Chinese program on the Garland campus, Facilities and Bond Program Manager Bob Golton told the board.

"They intend to bring portables onto the site and start Athena with 18 students and grow by 18 students a year," Golton said.

"Champion (the Chinese program) will have approximately 60 students."

Golton said he would continue negotiations with the prospective tenants and return to the board with a proposed lease.

Staff Writer Chris Kenrick can be emailed at ckenrick@paweekly.com.

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