Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - April 12, 2013

Hopeful first reactions on new school calendar

After all the hoopla, Palo Alto parents, teachers and high school students say they think it's working so far

While half-way into the first year of a new school calendar is too soon to make any definitive conclusions, a just-completed survey shows strong support across all groups for moving the mid-year semester break from January to December.

The survey, with responses from more than 5,000 parents, teachers and high school students, was designed to get early feedback on how well these groups thought the first semester worked out this year.

The school district implemented a two-year trial calendar beginning with this school year that shifts the start of school a week earlier into mid-August, creates the semester break when school gets out for the December holidays, and has school letting out at the end of May.

The changes were recommended in 2011 by Superintendent Kevin Skelly and adopted on a 3-2 vote by the school board (Tom, Mitchell and Klausner voting "yes" and Townsend and Baten Caswell voting "no") after a long and emotional community debate.

The idea of moving the end of the first semester to coincide with the December holiday break has been vigorously discussed in Palo Alto for years while many other school districts quietly made the change without controversy, divisiveness or horrible consequences.

The theory is that middle and high school students and their families are better served by having a winter break with no school obligations, projects or finals hanging over them during vacation and return to start a new semester more motivated when they don't face final exams in mid-January with no break afterwards.

Opponents to this idea didn't like shifting the school year earlier and compressing the first semester, and believe the old calendar allowed winter break to be a "catch-up" period for students needing it. Much of the debate has centered around whether families can shift their traditional August vacations forward, as has occurred long ago in most school districts.

Unfortunately, the school board's first opportunity this week to discuss community reactions to the calendar changes showed signs of trustees retreating to their earlier views rather than focusing on the data and what it means, or merely reserving judgment.

Administrators had intended to merely summarize the survey results for the board and send them on to its calendar advisory committee for review and analysis, but trustees Heidi Emberling and Camille Townsend, both of whom opposed the calendar changes, wanted to be directive to the committee.

They argued the board needed to determine its "values" around the calendar so the advisory committee could properly formulate its recommendations regarding future calendar changes with the board's direction in mind.

Without citing any specific survey results, Townsend told her colleagues "there are issues here" and that "there are a lot of concerns with the new calendar."

The competing "values" surrounding the calendar have been exhaustively identified and debated over the last two years, and we see no benefits to the board creating another process that will only rehash them and rekindle the emotions of prior debates.

At a time when this board has many other policy and administrative challenges, it doesn't need to go looking for another.

While it is important to defer judgment on the effectiveness of the new calendar until another survey is done after the school year concludes, the most overwhelming finding of the survey just completed is that a large majority of parents, teachers and high school students liked having finals before the holidays and found that it did not have major impacts on extracurricular activities, family time and, for seniors, the college-application process.

Predictably, respondents were more divided over the start and ending times of the school year, with 55 percent of parents wanting school to start later in August and end in early June, but a majority of high school teachers wanting the opposite.

As we editorialized in May 2011, the problem with this debate from the beginning is that it set up a false trade-off: In order to move semester break to December the start of school must move to mid-August.

A number of creative ideas were offered by parents, including having different-length semesters, that would enable school to start in late August and have the semester break in December.

And given the otherwise positive reviews regarding the move of semester break, that should be the simple direction given to the calendar advisory committee: Develop alternatives for achieving a calendar in which school commences in late August yet ends first semester in December.

The district is to be commended for the transparency offered by the immediate and full posting of the calendar survey results, allowing anyone interested to study the survey results and the more than 1,000 comments made, mostly very thoughtful and constructive. This should set a new standard for such data-sharing in the future.

(Survey results can be found at pausd.org//community/Committees/Calendar/)

Perfection in a school calendar is an impossible goal, but ensuring that all stakeholders have a voice in the process is not.

This well-designed survey does that, and combined with a second survey at the end of the school year, should provide a helpful, and hopefully clear, path forward.

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