Palo Alto Superintendent Max McGee has decided that the district's two high schools should not offer academic classes during early morning zero period starting in the next school year, according to a message McGee sent Friday to students, staff and parents.
Zero period, which begins at 7:10 a.m. at Palo Alto High and 7:20 a.m. at Gunn High, has come under fire in recent weeks as the link between sleep and teen mental health has risen to the top of community concerns, with scores of medical professionals and one board member in particular urging Gunn and Paly to start school no earlier than 8:30 a.m., in alignment with a recent American Academy of Pediatrics policy recommendation on school start times.
Gunn's regular school day begins at 8:25 a.m. and Paly's at 8:15 a.m. Both schools shifted to these later start times several years ago. Zero period is optional.
Numerous students and parents have defended zero period, however, for the freedom it allows students to adjust their schedules to accommodate after-school activities as well as the motivation it provides students to get to sleep earlier. Other community members have suggested that it is misguided to focus on an optional earlier class that a subset of students opt into instead of the question of a mandatory start time for an entire school.
One student, Gunn sophomore class president Chloe Sorensen, conducted an online survey on zero period and 370 students responded. Of the responding students who have been enrolled in zero period (196 students), 90 percent do not want the early morning option to be removed. The same percentage of all survey respondents agreed. In numerous pages of comments, many students wrote enthusiastically in support of zero period and said they appreciate it for the time it allows them in the afternoon to do homework or miss less classtime if they are athletes.
School board member Ken Dauber, however, told the Weekly "reducing homework loads and ... implementing a system of hand-scheduling athlete schedules, as they do at Paly," should be used to achieve those aims instead of retaining zero period. He also pointed out that 45 of the responding students who have previously taken a zero period class answered the question, "If you are enrolled in a zero period class, how has it affected your life?" with descriptions of some negative sleep impacts.
McGee wrote in a memo to the school board Thursday that he wants to "underscore that this decision represents a compromise that is best for the most students most of the time according to scientific research. I want to assure them that we have listened to them and heard them, but we believe as I sincerely do that there are ways to reduce stress through creative scheduling and even the use of blended classes. While I am not one for restricting student choice, especially when several students have told us that taking zero-period classes reduces their stress, the science behind the decision is solid."
McGee has communicated his decision to Paly and Gunn's principals and intends to host "brown bag" lunches with students and staff for further discussion.
About 300 Gunn students are currently enrolled in zero period classes, which include both physical education and academic courses like advanced English, AB calculus, chemistry, blended AP economics and broadcast news.
Paly only offers PE during zero period, with 102 students currently enrolled. When asked by Dauber at the March 10 board meeting why her school only offers physical education during zero period, Paly Principal Kim Diorio said, "Philosophically, because of the research on sleep."
At that same meeting, Dauber suggested that the board create an official policy that prohibits academic classes during zero period. McGee wrote in his memo that if the board is interested in doing that, it should direct its policy review committee to draft one for discussion at a future board meeting.
On March 19, a group of local and regional health professionals, many of them with children in the district, wrote to the school board and McGee to endorse the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommendation. The letter began with 35 signatures and grew to 93 over the next few weeks.
Calling it a "necessary public health measure," these pediatricians, psychiatrists, therapists and professors from private practices, the Stanford School of Medicine, Lucile Packard Children's Hospital Stanford, University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) and elsewhere called on the board to implement later start times, which are described by the AAP as "an effective countermeasure to chronic sleep loss" that "has a wide range of potential benefits to students with regard to physical and mental health, safety, and academic achievement."
"The Academy notes in an accompanying technical report a nearly threefold increase in the risk of suicide attempts among adolescents who sleep less than 8 hours per night, even when controlling for confounding factors," the letter reads. "The policy statement concludes that 'both the urgency and the magnitude of the problem of sleep loss in adolescents and the availability of an intervention that has the potential to have broad and immediate effects are highly compelling.'"
The Palo Alto Medical Foundation (PAMF) pediatrics department also took an unprecedented public step into the community debate on teen well-being with a March 20 guest opinion piece that suggests several factors that should be addressed to improve students' mental health, the first one being sleep. PAMF Pediatrician Amy Heneghan, also a founding member of mental health professional coalition the HEARD Alliance, told the Weekly that Palo Alto was ahead of a national shift toward later school-start times when both schools moved their days to start at these times Paly in 2010 and Gunn the following year and should continue to uphold the American Academy of Pediatrics' policy.
Gunn is also in the midst of developing a new bell schedule, with a committee set to present recommendations to the board in May. McGee wrote that the committee is eyeing four models that, while not yet finalized, will not include a zero period for any academic class, if zero period exists at all.
"The Committee still has a lot of work to do on the models and feedback to gather, but I think we can all be assured that start times will be consistent with and take into account adolescents' sleep needs and patterns," McGee wrote.
Gunn's bell schedule committee is hosting a town hall on April 20, 7-9 p.m. Zero period will also be on the board's agenda on April 21.