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Elusive Gunn Survey on Pre-Break Finals Released

Survey was conducted in final days before PAUSD Board narrowly approved the calendar change.

Parents who have been anxious to dissect a controversial survey of Gunn High School students will now get their wish.

The survey, available in the right column of this story as a .PDF and obtained through a public records request, has been at the center of an to move mid-year finals to before winter break.

In the waning hours before the pivotal May meeting at , Board Member Barbara Klausner received the results of the Gunn survey and at the time called it the primary influence behind her decision to cast the tie-breaking vote in favor of the calendar change.

For months, parents upset about the new calendar have been sharply critical of Klausner’s decision to allow that survey into the discussion, given that it was not made part of the official Board Packet and only surveyed students from one school, among other complaints.

Phil Mahoney, a representative of Time to Thrive, a parent group with more than 300 members, Thursday blasted the survey as being “not worth the paper it was written on.”

“It was not done very scientifically, it was not done conclusively,” said Mahoney.

The study was conducted by Jesse Zwerling, 2012‐2013 Senior Class President at Gunn, between May 5 and 6, 2011, on the Thursday and Friday before the Tuesday Board meeting.

The survey found that 74 percent of the 967 students who responded preferred moving the start date of school to earlier in August and taking exams before winter break. 

When asked if the change would reduce stress, 72 percent said yes, and 66 percent said pre-break finals would not impact their college application activities.

The problem, according to some parents, is that a separate survey, conducted at Palo Alto High School, showed very different results and utilized a different—some say more valid—methodology.

The Paly survey asked respondents to rate, on a scale from one to four, how much of a problem it would be to have pre-break finals if the dates of the exams overlapped with completing college applications. When asked this way, a majority of students said it would “definitely be a problem.” A majority of students also said it would be a problem for winter break to start late, on December 22nd.

Ultimately, 51 percent of students from Paly were opposed to the calendar change.

Barbara Klausner said Thursday that, contrary to what Time to Thrive parents are claiming, the Gunn survey did explicitly ask students to consider the consequences of pre-break finals.

“It references not only the earlier start date, but also the dates for break and the end of the year,” she said. “While it does not spell out every possible benefit or drawback, it does refer to timing with standardized testing schedules and college applications."

Phil Mahoney had a different view on the survey.

“The questions in the survey can be very leading,” he said. “It’s like asking you, do you like ice cream? Yeah, of course I do! Oh, I didn’t tell you you’re gonna put on 30 pounds around your waist. Do you still like ice cream?”

Tekla Nee, a parent who is also against the changes, said the board members who voted for the new calendar essentially cherry-picked the Gunn survey because it best supported their view.

"The board took this report of Gunn's support for the change and ran with it, ignoring Paly's survey showing students were against the change. Instead, they should have run from it."

Mahoney said that the board members who favored the change made a poor choice in going against the will of a majority of parents.

“I’ve been around politics a long time,” he said. “I’ve rarely seen elected officials that are so callous to their constituents.”

Klausner took issue with that claim, saying that there are strong voices on both sides of the debate and that it would have been impossible to appease everybody.

“The calendar issue obviously has people with strong views on both sides,” she said, “including people who very much want students to have finals over and done with before winter break.”   

Klausner noted that in making her decision, she also reached out to people in surrounding school districts, where a majority of schools have pre-break finals.

“I spoke to people in those school districts and heard that while there were issues, on balance the communities thought the calendar served students' interests,” she said. “I do not believe that a difference of reasoned opinion is grounds for a claim of callousness.”

Regardless of the tension between parents and Board members, the calendar issue is for now a done deal. The Board agreed to revisit the issue in March, when a committee will report back on how the district intends to mitigate and adapt to the changes.

Paly Parent December 03, 2011 at 06:10 AM
It's not very clear in this article why I said "run from the survey". After seeing the survey for the first time, thanks to this reporter's diligence, I gave the reporter my thoughts on why this survey had no validity (in fact, given the error I explain below, I'm surprised the votes for the early start calendar weren't even higher, given the alternative presented in the survey. Here's the main point I made to Aaron: "The Gunn survey sets up a straw man--and even a nonexpert like me knows that you can't do that and get data that has any meaning. (Continued in next comment)
Paly Parent December 03, 2011 at 06:11 AM
Option 1 was not the rollover calendar before the board. Rather, it was a restating of a disastrous calendar from 2007-2008. That year, instead of the traditional 3-weeks-to-go-to-semester-end-after-break, the board squeezed finals closer to the winter break, taking away the 3-day study weekend (thanks, Martin Luther King) that students find helps them so much in dealing with finals. Everyone---and I mean everyone--was unanimous in that that calendar was a disaster. (I remember it being rough in my house for sure.) Kids had to study during break or panic in the squeeze before finals, there was no time to do much of anything before finals hit. It was so bad, that in 2008 the board set a formal policy instructing the district not to ever do it again, that is, not to start finals any sooner than two full weeks after break. Yet this is the calendar presented as Option 1 in the Gunn survey. Here's specifically what the Gunn survey gets it wrong: last day before break: Gunn: 12/21 Actual: 12/20 (that can be important, one more free day before college apps are due, or for family travel before the busy weekend) last day of first semester: Gunn: 1/18 Actual: 1/24 (followed by a local holiday on the 25th) first day of second semester Gunn: 1/21 Actual: 1/28 (continued below
Paly Parent December 03, 2011 at 06:13 AM
So the Gunn survey set up the early August start calendar against a calendar that in the past proved so disastrous that it was banned in this district. Bit of a problem, no?" I went on to describe additional flaws with the Gunn survey--but this one I just laid out, I believe, was the most problematic, and calls into question the validity of any results.
Patch Reader December 04, 2011 at 03:06 PM
I watched that board meeting and heard the Paly student board rep tell the board that the Gunn survey was flawed because of an error in the dates. It's extremely disappointing that Barb Klausner not only did not ask questions about the error once it was pointed out to her, she went on to say that the Gunn survey swayed her vote. I don't recall the other board members even mentioning the survey. What caught my eye was that only 1/2 of Gunn students took the survey despite it being given during history class which every student takes in every grade, with the juniors and seniors less represented than the rest. Could the fact that 1/2 of the jr and sr classes were out taking AP exams the days the survey was given be why? Excluding AP kids from the survey would be a huge omission that would bias the results too.
Palo Alto Resident and Parent February 12, 2012 at 05:12 AM
Stunning. While I appreciate that the students did a survey, it is so fundamentally flawed, it is of no value. With so many parents in the community that have consulting and marketing backgrounds, why not take the time to do the survey professionally? Further, at a fall board meeting, the board requested benchmark surveys to be taken this year. To accomplish this, surveys would need to have been conducted in December and January, post the break and post exams. Was this even attempted? If so, I am eager to see the questionnaire and results.

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