On Oct. 11, 2019, a bill that mandated high schools to start at 8:30 a.m. or later and middle schools to start at 8:00 a.m. or later was signed into law by governor Gavin Newsom. Although Palo Alto Unified School District (PAUSD) middle schools are in compliance with this new law, Gunn’s schedule must be shifted back by five minutes, and Palo Alto High School’s (Paly) schedule must be shifted back ten minutes. The timeframe for this issue is not immediate, as schools do not have to complyuntil the fall of 2022.
The district has decided to use this mandated change to evaluate overall issues with the secondary schools’ bell schedules, as well as take steps toward standardizing them. “Since we’re doing this, we thought that it makes sense to explore schedules that could allow for some movement back and forth,” Superintendent Don Austin said. “So maybe a class is offered at one school that isn’t offered at the other, and a student could attend both schools for a little bit or a staff member could teach between two of the schools.” He added that there are only two things that are mandated: ensuring schools have the proper number of instructional minutes and pushing start times back to 8:30 a.m.
Standardizing schedules and allowing teachers to move between campuses could save money for the district as a whole. When School Board President Jennifer DiBrienza first joined the board, a conversation surrounding budget cuts that she had was that there were two periods of a class at one school and one period at another. Since the district had a teacher at each school, they thought about why one teacher couldn’t do both. “They said the schedules are totally different so you just can’t. That’s not necessarily a reason to change the schedule, but it’s the kinds of things you think about when you’re organizing a district,” DiBrienza said. “When there do have to be budget cuts, one of the most expensive things that we have, 85% or so of our budget, is our staff, our employees.”
Since the schedule changes are not immediate, schools have time to ensure that the schedule changes are the best they can be. “All of the secondary schools will be looking at their current bell schedules and eventually, I suspect next year, we’ll have a district-wide group that will be working on bell schedules,” Principal Kathleen Laurence said. “We’ll put out a survey, probably after the first of the year, to see what people like about the current bell schedule, what they think could be better, what are the things they think are important. Then that’ll go into the big pot that goes for the district wide community.”
The board will probably not start weighing in on the issue until at least the next school year, if not later. Dibrienza added that the proposed changes are currently tabled, but board conversations will most likely continue in the 2020- 2021 school year. PAUSD will then begin to decide on the new bell schedule in order to prepare for more concrete alterations for the 2021-2022 school year.
Austin added that both student and staff feedback would be important in this process. According to Austin, students and teachers will be consulted when the board begins to form a new schedule. “The only thing we’re doing a little differently is that we may provide some parameters,” he said. “The board can select start times for the schools, so that might not be something that’s up for discussion. What the actual bell schedules look like, whether they use or don’t use block schedules or modified blocks or traditional scheduling, that’s all open for discussion, and I would expect that the schools would reach out to the students for sure as part of the process.”
DiBrienza added that the role of students will be particularly important, as they are the ones that will be the most affected by the changes. Because of this, the board is reliant on student feedback when making decisions. “I do wonder if there’s feedback on which one works better,” she said. “A couple years ago, Gunn had an event where school board members and administrators came and talked to students in small groups. I had mentioned, as a teacher because that’s what I do professionally, I love the idea of a block schedule because it gives you time to delve into ideas. However, several students said it was too hard to pay attention for 90 minutes. It doesn’t mean you don’t do it, but it’s an adjustment for students so that’s another thing you want to consider. It’s important to find out what’s working for you and what’s not working for them.”
One of the important considerations in this process will likely be the addition of zero periods, as the law allows for a limited number of these early-morning classes. “The board can definitely weigh in on zero period, because in the new law, zero periods are allowed in a limited number, but the board will definitely have a say in that,” Austin said. “The board could not authorize zero periods if they chose. I have no idea what their stance will be on that, but that is definitely what’s in their purview.”
DiBrienza sees both sides of the argument for zero period, but says the discussion has not yet come up for the board. “There’s an argument to be made to just have no zero period and starting later doesn’t fit everybody,” she said. “The question for the board will be, do you make accommodations because this doesn’t fit for everybody? Or do you say that this is what’s best for the majority of people and the research is clear, so we’re sorry. I can’t predict where the board will go with that. Certainly, I see both arguments, but given that the purpose of the law is to prioritize sleep, I would be surprised if the district moved back to giving a bunch of zero periods because it kind of undoes the purpose of the law.”
Laurence believes that the law may have detrimental effects on students’ lives, as it pushes all scheduled athletic events back. “The later we start, the later we get out. That impacts other things like athletics, other extracurricular activities. It just means everything starts later,” she said. “How does that impact students? It’s just interesting to me how the sleep is pushing it one way, but all it does is shift it. That’s great for some kids who are not morning people, and it’s not great for kids who are morning people. There are people who do like to get up and get going and be done.”
It will be important to consider how these schedule shift will affect after-school sports. These changes will shift school five minutes later for Gunn and ten minutes later for other schools, including Paly. “The question becomes whether we start having meets later,” Laurence said. “My guess is it will have to be. Where that comes into play is that there are some schools in [Santa Clara Valley Athletic League], who do not have lights, so they may not be able to start their games later when we’re there, which means kids will be out of school a little bit more.”
However, the time change may have positive effects. To mitigate this issue, since other schools’ start times are pushed back as well, meets will likely start later, allowing students to miss less class. “Statewide, if everyone has to start later, theoretically everyone will end later,” DiBrienza said. “We’re hoping that’ll be less of an issue because when we were the ones starting and ending later, we’d ask the schools to start meets later and they’d say no. I’m hopeful that at least the law is going to push everyone to later and that’ll be less of an issue.”
Austin is excited to hear school feedback on the bell schedules, and adds that he has no set idea for what the revised schedule will look like at this time. “I have zero predetermined ideas on start times or bell schedules,” Austin said. “I have no agenda on this other than making it a real robust and authentic process. The only thing I would definitely ask is that we look at how we can make the schools line up better if possible.”
DiBrienza characterized the board’s overall role as a final check before the new schedules are implemented. According to DiBrienza, in order to perform such a final check, the district staff is working behind the scenes to gather information and look at other districts to make schedule change recommendations. “[The board] always asks questions and then maybe pushes back on some things. But we tend to, at least as a starting point, go with their recommendations, and then if there’s reasons to go beyond that, we go beyond that. They’re putting so much work in to get there that we’re generally operating from the assumption that whatever they’re presenting to us is the best
alternative given all options.”