Student survey reveals preference for final exams before break

When the Palo Alto Unified School District (PAUSD) Board of Education passed a new calendar on May 10, 2011 that placed finals prior to winter break, the question that arose was whether or not the decision would pay off.

The board passed the proposed calendar, which took effect this school year and will be in place for at least the 2013-2014 school year as well, after heated debates with a 3-2 vote.

PAUSD Superintendent Kevin Skelly first proposed the idea of a revised calendar in Sept. 2010, with the hope that it would alleviate student stress. Halfway through its first year of being implemented, the effects of the new calendar can already be seen.

“I love the new calendar,” Henry M. Gunn High School junior David Patou said. “It sucked that we had a shorter summer but it’s worth it in the long run. Winter break would’ve been hell without the calendar change.”

An online survey of 100 Paly students conducted by The Campanile found that 80 percent of students would rather keep the new calendar system in place than revert back to the previous schedule.

English teacher Kirk Hinton also supports the new calendar. As a high school student, he took finals after winter break as a freshman and sophomore and before break as a junior and senior. He found the latter testing schedule much more beneficial, adding, “It’s well worth having finals before break.”

However, the new schedule also brought new challenges. In the same survey, 44 percent of students found that pre-finals review days last year were more helpful than this year’s review days and 29 percent believed that review days were never helpful.

AP U.S. History teacher Jack Bungarden, who was one of the teachers to speak out against the proposed calendar at School Board meetings, believes that the district has “taken what is stressful and moved things around.”

Bungarden added that the notion of Dead Week, or the week when teachers are supposed to not introduce new material so students can begin studying, has failed. In his mind, there are still issues regarding having to do homework over break that is due the first week back.

In addition, Bungarden was surprised that the transition between the two school calendars was more controversial than the transition when Paly implemented a new block bell schedule in fall 2011.

The general consensus among students, however, is that the trade-off for having finals before break but not having as helpful review days, was worth it.

“Although there was definitely less review time in class, which was difficult and frustrating. It was really nice to not have finals hanging over my head during break,” sophomore Chloe Fishman said.

Another issue that has arose as a result of the new calendar is that it has increased student anxiety about first semester grades over the break. Many students nervously wait for their final grades to be posted online, but to no avail. Instead of waiting a weekend or maybe a week like they did during previous years, students now must wait for two weeks or more to find out their performance on finals.

Principal Phil Winston acknowledged that changing the calendar was a “calculated risk,” but believes that it will take time for the school and the district to fix the problems that have arisen as a result of the calendar transition.

“The first time through any change is hard,” Winston said. “And we’ll have to do it a couple of times to get a better understanding and we’ll have to make some adjustments. For example, I sent an email to staff that said ‘You do not have to do grades over break, don’t feel obligated to do them.’”

Hinton, however, finds no merit in the argument that the calendar has spurred grade anxiety over vacation.

“Honestly I don’t know why there’s so much anxiety around [grades],” Hinton said. “Because after the semester’s over, there’s nothing you can do as a student to change what your grade is. So your grade has already been determined, it just hasn’t been recorded yet.”

In our survey, 61 percent of students felt stressed about the result of their final grade during winter break, but 81 percent still believed that this year’s break was easier to enjoy than that of last year.

A concern entering the first year of the new calendar system was how it would affect seniors, specifically those applying Early Action (EA) or Early Decision (ED). Most of those who applied early to their college of choice received admission decisions either the week before or the week of finals.

“I don’t imagine that [the new calendar] helped [seniors who applied early],” Bungarden said. “But I’m not sold on the idea that it necessarily hurt. I’m guessing that if you applied EA or ED somewhere and you got in, you feel really energized and happy.”

Hinton echoed Bungarden’s view, saying that the impact of admission decisions should be a non-issue.

“I understand seniors feeling a kind of time crunch with college apps,” Hinton said. “However I think that can really be alleviated by managing your time well earlier in the semester and not slacking off.”

Of the 33 seniors that partook in the Campanile’s survey, 69 percent of those that applied regular decision believe that the former schedule would not have helped them any more than the new schedule did.

Another important issue that has arisen from the calendar debate is the board’s motive for implementing a new calendar.

A presentation given at the Nov. 9, 2010 school board meeting compared PAUSD’s calendar to those of nearby districts. A chart showed five nearby school districts have pre-break finals and during the 2010-2011 school year, PAUSD was the only district on the chart with an equal number of school days per semester (90) and post-break finals.

“It seems a lot of policy gets waged in this district based on anecdotes, which seems to be boiled down to ‘Other districts have done it. They haven’t gone back. It must be okay,’” Bungarden said.

At the April 24, 2012 School Board meeting, nearly a year after the ratification of the new calendar schedule, Dr. Michael Milliken, PAUSD’s Director of Secondary Education, laid out plans for calendar transition for the coming fall.

He noted that “39 of 46 Santa Clara County public high schools have semester breaks similar to PAUSD’s new calendar.”

Milliken said at the time that teachers were confident that they could adjust the workload and curriculum to match the uneven semester schedule.

During the months leading up to the May 2011 vote, parents, students and teachers alike spoke out for and against the new calendar. At the May 10, 2011 meeting, over 40 parents and students spoke out against the proposed calendar that included an earlier start date of school and pre-break finals. Only a handful demonstrated support for the calendar.

Over six months later at a November 2011 board meeting, over 20 parents asked the board to freeze the plan of implementing the new calendar for the 2012-2013 and 2013-2014 school years.

They cited student stress and a lack of student support as reasons to stop the change.

However, a 2010 survey of 200 PAUSD high school students showed that 83 percent were in favor of adopting the pre-break finals schedule. Parents at the meeting went as far as citing hotter classrooms earlier in August as a threat to students’ well-beings. The role that parents played in the calendar-changing process is still talked about, but Winston maintains that “[Student] input was considered, for sure.”

Fishman believes that the district and school board, “[need] to incorporate more students’ ideas and opinions into their decisions.”

Junior Jessica Feinberg agreed with Fishman’s stance.

“I think the parents had a bit too much say,” Feinberg said. “The people that the calendar specifically affects are the students and the teachers, and their voices should have been prioritized. The administration at most school systems wouldn’t even consider what the parents said.”

Feinberg is one of 20 students, parents and teachers that were appointed to a PAUSD calendar committee in fall 2012 to evaluate the effects of the new schedule. According to Palo Alto Online, the committee will offer its suggestions to a separate committee of employee union representatives and district administrators, who will then draft a final recommendation for the school board as to whether or not change the calendar after the 2013-2014 school year.

“The role of the committee is to review previous calendar-related surveys, draft a new survey or multiple surveys if necessary, analyze the results of those surveys and draft a few calendar options that incorporate the findings of the surveys to give to the Board,” Feinberg said. “We are not in any way deciding the fate of the calendar.”

Milliken also stated in April 2012 that the district will evaluate the new calendar’s effects through student surveys and ongoing communication with students and staff.

While the immediate reaction from students appears to be that the new calendar has achieved everything that the School Board intended it to—less stress and a more relaxed winter break—only time will tell if the new schedule will win the hearts of the parents that opposed its implementation.

Aptly put by the presentation at the November 2010 School Board meeting: “No school calendar will meet all interests—however, the instruction of students needs to be at the forefront.”

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