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Will Pre-Break Finals Really Reduce Student Stress? [Part Two]

How have other schools fared after making the switch to pre-break finals? Are pre-break finals the only solution to student stress?

As Tuesday night’s vote on a changing school calendar by the Palo Alto Unified School District Board of Education looms ever closer, Palo Alto Patch asked a handful of local experts and professionals the million-dollar question—will a switch to pre-break finals really help reduce student stress? Or, could it potentially increase it?

Read “Part One: Will Pre-Break Finals Really Reduce Student Stress?”

Becky Beacom, manager of Health Education for the Palo Alto Medical Foundation and a member of SHARE (Student Health Awareness through Resources and Education) and Project Safety Net, said if the PAUSD Board decides to take the plunge and shift first-semester finals to before winter break, that it is not alone—approximately 60 to 70 other schools in the surrounding area have pre-break finals.

So, Palo Alto Patch asked—what do these other nearby districts have to say about pre-break finals and student stress? Did the families of the other districts have to struggle over the potential “trade-offs” as well?

“Every single high school district in Santa Clara and San Mateo counties already does this, or will be doing it soon. Palo Alto and Campbell are the only two that won’t have this next year, and the few that don’t have it now, are [switching] to it next year,” Beacom said. “Study what others have experienced. The fact that so many other schools have done this is a real indicator that it can be successful.”

Beacom said she recognizes that many parents and district members have expressed concern about the “trade-offs” of shifting first-semester finals to December, such as an earlier August start date and a time-crunch in December between finals, college applications and extra-curricular activities. Therefore, she said, the district should not just approve a calendar with pre-break finals and move on—the concerns should be addressed, and additional plans put into place to help everyone adjust to the transition, should the new calendar be approved.

“You can’t just drop in finals before winter break and expect right away for it to be panacea,” she said, and quoted a letter SHARE recently sent to the school board in support of the switch to pre-break finals, that stated, “There are trade-offs in any calendar design, and we know that there are different opinions in our community,” and “the benefits far outweigh the challenges.”

Beacom said the district shouldn’t feel as though it has to struggle with the decision alone, when there are so many examples to draw guidance from. An opportunity should be presented, she said, to have a back-and-forth dialogue between the district and those in the community that have concerns with the new calendar, and at that meeting, representatives from other nearby districts that have made the switch to pre-break finals should be invited to share their experiences and what worked or didn’t work for them.

“Let them speak about their experiences and say things like, ‘this is what it was like in the beginning right after the switch; it wasn’t easy, but this is what we did to address that, and this is what it’s like now,’” she suggested.

Beacom said, she thinks solutions to concerns such as uneven semester lengths and the “crunch” in the month of December might be found by talking with other districts as well. She said adjustments will have to be made, and people just have to be willing to work on it, for the overall benefit of the students.

“I believe it could be possible if people were willing to work on those other things,” she said, be it summer vacations that may have to be changed, alternative day cares that may occasionally need to be found, holiday performance schedules that may need to be shifted, and so forth.

San Jose Unified Says—Why Not Try a Pilot, Like We Did?

Indeed, many other districts have made the switch to pre-break finals—and many are more than happy to share their experiences with PAUSD.

Karen Fuqua, an employee of the San Jose Unified School District, said the district was very interested in a potential switch to pre-break finals for many reasons. They first started exploring the issue just a few years ago.

“We looked at it instructionally, and we really felt like it would be best to, first of all, equalize the instructional calendar between the two semesters, [rather than break the first semester up], and also to be able to have staff and students be able to relax over break; let them be able to finish up before the holidays and get a bit of R&R,” she said. “We know how hard our students and staff work preparing for finals, and we wanted them to be breaking, not preparing for finals over that time they should be breaking.”

Fuqua said not having finals in January actually helped students be more prepared for AP tests at the end of the year. She said, previously, students had to busy themselves preparing for finals for other classes during January, essentially “wasting” an entire month they could have been focusing on AP studies.

“It allows them more instructional days prior to the AP tests. It doesn’t have them breaking up the month of January to prepare for finals,” she explained.

Though the idea of the switch sounded appealing, SJUSD decided it was best to try a “test run,” first, during the 2008-09 school year.

“[We tried] a pilot program first, to see what the effects would be,” Fuqua explained. “We didn’t want to just jump right in.”

SJUSD has seven high schools, between its comprehensive campuses and alternative programs. For its pilot program to test out pre-break finals, Fuqua said, they made the switch in only five of the seven campuses, and did not alter the calendar or any dates within it during the pilot. She noted that this did result in uneven semesters.

Fuqua said that the feedback was overwhelmingly positive, so the district decided to officially make the switch, district-wide, for the following year, 2009-10.

The one suggestion that many made at the end of the pilot year was that it would have been better if the semesters were more equal in length. So, the district decided to push the school start date back to mid-August, around the 15th or 16th, to help even out the semesters.

Fuqua said, not only have many students expressed how much less stressed they feel after the change, but she can also see it in them, visibly.

“Their shoulders are down now. Our kids were just so stressed; they were wound so tight, especially the juniors and seniors. So with pre-break finals, they are just so grateful. That really validates for us, what we did.” she said. “The kids really like it. They really get to relax and say ‘I am on break’ [over the holidays]. They get to reinvigorate themselves and get themselves ready to go back to school [in January].”

Fuqua said that she can understand many of the concerns PAUSD families have, and said SJUSD was presented with many of the same concerns when the idea was first proposed.

Regarding the “squeeze” in the month of December, she said, “December is a busy time, and people were somewhat concerned, but if you talked to any of our students, I don’t think the majority of our students would want to go the other way. It [does make December] a stressful time, but then, they are so ready for that break when it comes. Having [done all that work], there was that sigh of relief, thinking, ‘now I get to have that break.’”

Fuqua said the earlier start date of Aug. 15 or 16 was initially met with frustration on the part of families as well, but added, families seem to be adjusting.

“I think, in the beginning, there was this concern of, ‘why?’ But I think people have gotten a sense of why we’re doing it, now,” she said, describing talks she has had with kids who are juniors or seniors now, who were freshmen and sophomores when the change was first implemented. She said, the students feel positive about the change, and said they do feel less stressed now, thanks to the two-week break they have in the middle of the year.

“I really couldn’t tell you one of them who would want to go the other way,” Fuqua said.

Many Say, Pre-Break Finals Isn’t the Only Answer

Many who are in favor of PAUSD switching to pre-break finals say they don’t want that to be the end of the student stress discussion—it’s not a “Band-Aid” that will fix the problem, overall.

Beacom said that a switch to pre-break finals is only one thing that needs to be changed to help students’ stress. She said there are other suggestions that have been made in the district in the past that have not been given a chance, such as designing a “test calendar” to help spread out testing days and major assignment deadlines between teachers, or a block structure in which different classes only meet a couple of times a week for longer periods, much the way most college classes are organized.

“This would help ensure that, on any given day, a student would never have more than three tests, versus seven, like is possible now,” Beacom explained. “Kids have told us in the past that there are some days in which they might have five or six homework assignments due, plus a test. We continue to put our kids into an environment that makes it very difficult to be successful.”

In the end, Beacom said, “There are many things that could be done in this district and this town to reduce our kids’ stress. Even if this passes, we still need to keep working hard to help reduce their stress.”

Amy Drolette, coordinator of student services for PAUSD and a co-chairperson of Project Safety Net (PSN), a City-supported organization that strives to create plans for bettering the mental health of local students, including suicide prevention plans, said PSN is poised and ready for whatever decision the Board makes, to support students in making the transition.

“We understand that there are strong opinions to both the new calendar and pre-break finals, but we’re all committed to helping students to be more resilient and less stressed,” she said. “So whatever the board decides, we will work on the issues, and continue to work on the issues.”

Denise Pope, co-founder of the Stanford-based program Challenge Success, said the action plans she and her colleagues customize for schools all over the country are comprehensive, and focus on fostering a healthier environment for students, overall.

“Come up with a much saner schedule for kids; really take a look at the pressures that are on them, what’s going on in the classroom as far as engaged learning, and what the assessment system is like,” she said. “Ideally, with plans that do that, depression and anxiety rates go down. We have good research literature that connects more engaged students with better mental health, and research that shows that kids are healthier when there is more time in the schedule for students and teachers to connect.”

When asked if she thought pre-break finals would still be worthwhile if it meant semester lengths were uneven, Pope answered, “Schools that have made the change have made it work. There’s a whole hubbub about how semesters have to be even, but frankly, semesters are never going to be even, after you factor in holidays, staff development days, and so forth.”

Pope said that if teachers are teaching in an engaging way, being uneven by 10 days or so won’t matter, overall.

Michele Dauber of the community group We Can Do Better! said that if the benefits of a switch to pre-break finals outweigh the challenges, then it is what’s best for the students.

“[The calendar issue] has been on the table a long time. It is a well-understood method for reducing student stress in the aggregate,” she said. “That does not mean that there won't be a family or two that is inconvenienced by the change, but the overall goal of stress reduction has to take precedence over anyone's vacation plans, for example.”

Pope went on to stress the point that, reducing student stress is not the ultimate responsibility of the schools.

“Everyone is part of the problem, so everyone needs to be part of the solution. That’s why Challenge Success [advocates] a systemic approach, with every stakeholder involved,” she said, and explained that a “stakeholder” is someone with a stake in a child’s future, such as a parent, teacher, or school staff member, and the students themselves. “Everyone needs to be on board for an effective solution to be in place. Everyone’s got to admit that each stakeholder plays a role, and all stakeholders need to do their part. A real effort needs to be made on the part of the school and the parents and the students to be sending appropriate messages and implementing appropriate policies and practices.”

Anne Ehresman, executive director of Project Cornerstone--an organization that strives to develop healthy, caring and responsible youth--echoed that sentiment. She said pre-break finals is a step in the right direction, but at the end of the day, it is just that—a step.

“I think looking at it as ‘one piece of the puzzle’ is a good analogy,” she described. “Maybe there are some clear and evident solutions that could be implemented quickly—and I think pre-break finals is one—but I think, when the community looks at the overall challenges and the environment kids are in, stress is not just about finals. So, I don’t fault the Board at all for finding a piece of the action they can act on.”

Ehresman agreed, responsibility cannot be placed solely in the laps of the school board, as far as fixing our students’ mental health and stress levels.

“The ‘something’ that needs to change in the community is something the school board can’t legislate,” she said. “I think so much of it is a culture that exists between the kids themselves, and expectations that come with families—and the school board can’t legislate those.”

“Once we're through this I look forward to continuing work around school climate and student social and emotional health,” said Terry Godfrey, executive president of the Palo Alto Council of Parent-Teacher Associations. “It feels like a hard look at homework is in order and, of course, I enthusiastically embrace the concept of building developmental assets in our kids. It's a great district with fabulous teachers and kids, and we've lots to do.”

Ehresman added, “The district’s responsibility is preparing students for life, and life isn’t just college. We also need to celebrate the whole child and all their accomplishments, and not just focus so much on college.”

The Palo Alto Unified School District Board of Education is expected to vote on whether to approve the proposed calendar for school years 2012-13 and 2013-14, which includes pre-break finals, on Tuesday, May 10 at its regularly scheduled meeting. The meeting will be at 6:30 p.m. at the PAUSD offices at 25 Churchill Ave. The meeting is open to the public, and members of the community can request to the address the board during designated points in the agenda. For more information, visit www.pausd.org.

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