I told my daughter a story the other day, and it began like this: “Once upon a time, school started after Labor Day.”
“Let me guess,” she interrupted me, as 15-year-olds are want to do. “This is the same story that includes myths like phone booths and little kids who don’t have to sit in car seats and those floppy disk thingys, right?”
“Ha, ha,” I said and then comforted myself by remembering she doesn’t know what she doesn’t know. She doesn’t miss that last-night-of-summer feeling, the one that tells us August is long gone, and we are already a week into September, which means Christmas is right around the corner. For her, school has always started in August. And these days, school starts well after her club soccer and varsity volleyball practices have begun. August is simply not for vacation anymore.
But I remember when my daughter and her brothers were in elementary school at . The Palo Alto School Board decided to change the school start date from the last week of August to the third week. I was up in arms. How dare they steal those last precious days of beach trips and popsicles and lemonade stands! My children weren’t ready, and neither was I.
Today, the board might as well start school in July for all of the vacation my kids are getting between their summer internships, enrichment classes and sports commitments. Really, who needs vacation, anyway?
Then, as now, the difficulty of managing a unified school district are the competing demands of its constituencies. The desires of elementary-school parents often don’t coincide with the challenges facing parents trying to support overextended teens.
It is the very craziness of our children’s lives that has led our school board to consider altering the current calendar. With much attention given to the stress our students are feeling, advocates have argued that placing final exams before winter break would allow children a much-needed breather over the holiday. In order to do so, however, the district calendar committee recommends pulling the school start date even earlier into August—a compromise no one is happy with, even the board.
“The ‘have your cake and eat it too’ solution is to have the traditional start and finals before the winter break,” says board member Dana Tom. “Sadly, this isn’t feasible as it has been currently presented.”
Turns out it really is only a few high school semester-long classes that are driving the need to bring the calendar deeper into August. These classes, mainly in social studies and English, need a full semester to ensure the full curriculum is taught.
Bringing exams before winter break and not changing the start date leaves these classes in a bind according to conventional wisdom. So, it comes down to only a few high school classes driving the calendar for every elementary, middle, high school student across the district. Must be something we can do, right?
Enter a group of innovative high school teachers from Paly, who have come up with a seemingly reasonable recommendation: Keep the current calendar, have final exams before the winter break AND use those last two weeks of the semester in January for meaningful project based learning—you know, the kind we keep hearing is best for our children’s acquisition of knowledge. This will ensure that everything that must be taught can be and still allow us to keep the calendar we all know and “love.”
When I discussed this alternative with school board member Melissa Baten Caswell, she worried that some teachers may still assign homework over winter break, but she cheered the teachers' efforts.
“It speaks to someone working toward a meaningful compromise and thinking 'out of the box,'” she said. She’s right.
The teachers plan to present this alternative at the school board meeting on Tuesday. The meeting will be held, as always, at 25 Churchill Ave. Come and hear this solution. It may well be the closest thing we will get to eating cake.