Non-academic zero period classes offered among the Palo Alto Unified School District (PAUSD) high schools will cease to be available beginning the 2015-16 school year. Released on April 10 in a letter from PAUSD superintendent Dr. Max McGee, this change comes in conjunction with the district’s attempts to reduce student stress and with upcoming changes to Henry M. Gunn High School’s bell schedule, but has faced major resistance from Gunn students.
While the decision to only offer Physical Education (P.E.) and non-graded courses as zero period classes affects both high schools, Palo Alto High School currently only offers P.E. during zero period and so will not as substantially feel the effects of the change. Gunn, on the other hand, currently offers 10 academic courses during zero period, including Advanced Placement courses and high-level math classes. Nearly 15 percent of Gunn’s student body is enrolled in these classes, as many Gunn students opt into zero period as a scheduling tool to have free periods later in the day.
The issue surrounding zero period courses was first presented during the March 10 school board meeting, proposed by school board member Ken Dauber. Dauber suggested ending zero period completely, arguing that the period’s earlier start time — 7:10 a.m. at Gunn and 7:20 a.m. at Paly — was a contributor to student sleep deprivation, a condition associated with depression and increased suicide risk in adolescents.
With this concern, the board members and Palo Alto community quickly took interest in the discussion. Local news source, Palo Alto Weekly, even released an editorial March 13 urging the district in favor of Dauber’s proposal. Furthermore, on March 18, a letter from 35 local and regional health professionals addressed to the school board and McGee urged the district to consider later start times.
Relative to other current scheduling discussions, the decision came quickly and without extensive deliberation. Ultimately, the district decided on a compromise to only eliminate academic classes, but retain the period for P.E. and non-graded classes.
“While I hate to disappoint students that want zero period and more student choice, the decision was an important compromise and it needed to be made rather than allow the question to fester,” McGee said.
Many Gunn students are upset not only with the decision but also with the process in which it was determined. The outrage has inspired the Tumblr social media campaign “My Voice Matters” (gunnvoicesmatter.tumblr.com), which focuses on the larger issue of student voice. Without input from students, many feel their voices are undervalued and diminished by what adults in the community feel is “best” for them.
“The whole decision to remove Gunn’s zero period was based on inaccurate evidence since the administration used generalized scientific data to make their verdict without actually observing or interviewing students from zero period itself,” Gunn senior Schuyler Sun said. “The fact that an overwhelming amount of Gunn students do not tie zero period to their lack of sleep shows that there was significant data that was not taken into account during the decision to revoke zero periods.”
Although it doesn’t plan to change the decision, the district has opened the conversation to students. Recently, school officials hosted a brown bag lunch discussion April 15 at Gunn. Students passionate about the issue came and discussed with McGee and Gunn principal Dr. Denise Herrmann their opinions regarding the changes to zero period scheduling.
“More than anything else, kids want to be heard,” Gunn sophomore Chloe Sorensen said. “Staff want to be heard. Staff and students are the two largest stakeholder groups in the district, and yet their voices are not being heard. Zero period is only one piece of the puzzle. There is a larger issue at hand — when will our voices matter?”