Palo Alto Weekly

News - October 25, 2013

School calendar consensus emerges

Board of Education favors pre-break finals going forward, without rancor of 2011

by Chris Kenrick

A consensus emerged on the touchy issue of the Palo Alto school calendar Tuesday as Board of Education members indicated they'd stick with a key reform enacted last year — placing first-semester finals before the December holidays.

By year's end, the board must determine district-wide calendars for 2014-15 and a year or two beyond. Superintendent Kevin Skelly will return to the board Nov. 5 with a specific proposal, with a possible final vote Nov. 19.

The question of when to place first-semester finals — which provoked tears and door-slamming at rancorous, late-night board meetings little more than two years ago — prompted none of that this time around.

Even the most skeptical board members appeared to be swayed by poll numbers indicating more than 85 percent of high school students, when asked where they'd place first-semester finals if they controlled the school calendar, said "before winter break." Until the calendar change was enacted a year ago, Palo Alto students took first-semester finals in the third week of January.

"We've (polled) our students in 2011, 2012 and 2013 and they want finals before winter break," said parent Susan Usman, a member of Project Safety Net, which is working to give youth a greater voice in the community.

"I don't understand why we would ignore 88 percent of our students."

More than 50 percent of high school students polled said the greatest benefit of December finals is that "students get a 'real' work-free break" over the holidays with no January finals looming.

Nonetheless, board members said they want to ease the calendar's effects on families and particularly on seniors, many of whom are applying to colleges or getting not-always-positive news from their early-decision applications just as they're taking finals in December.

Forty-five percent of seniors polled said college-application deadlines posed the biggest challenge with the December finals schedule.

"I just hate that we crunch December," said member Camille Townsend, who two years ago voted against moving finals from January to December. "It's a great time of year, and we just put finals on top of it.

"That being said, let's do finals before break but make sure those kids are out for the last two weeks of December when it's important they be with their families."

Board member Melissa Baten Caswell, who also opposed moving finals to December in the 2011 vote, said: "I still kind of prefer the old, old calendar, but I've moved on."

Caswell appeared interested in an unusual calendar proposal that places finals in December but does not actually end first semester until Jan. 22, with a "stand-alone unit" occupying the first weeks of January. That option would accommodate the later August start date preferred by parents while preserving the preference expressed by teachers for two semesters that are even in length. It was not clear she could get two additional board votes for that route.

Caswell also asked district staff members to explore the possibility of making finals optional for seniors in good academic standing.

Board member Heidi Emberling said she preferred pre-break finals, and Board President Dana Tom and Vice President Barb Mitchell have advocated pre-break finals for years.

All members asked Skelly to find an August start date that's as late as teachers — who prefer two semesters that are even in length — find acceptable.

Before returning to the board with recommendations next month, Skelly must get agreement on calendar proposals from the district's teacher's union, Palo Alto Educators Association, and staff union, California School Employees Association.

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