The cancellation of academic zero period at Gunn High School has sparked controversy throughout the Palo Alto community. The Paly Voice sat down with Palo Alto Unified School District Supt. Glenn “Max” McGee to discuss his rationale behind the decision to remove academic zero period.
The Paly Voice: When and how did academic zero period start in this district?
Dr. Max McGee: It’s been here for a while.
PV: Do you know why Gunn has it, but Paly doesn’t?
MM: I think the schedule had something to do with it. Gunn had a more traditional schedule, with six classes every day, and because of that schedule, students wanted to have an F and G [fifth and sixth] period break later in the day.
PV: Why do you think there are major differences in the scheduling and academic offerings at Paly and Gunn?
MM: Those emerged over time, and I don’t think it’s good for our students or our community. I talked at the beginning of the year to all our teachers about the importance of being a collective community, not just a collection of autonomous communities. There’s a balance — you need to maintain school autonomy and character — but when you have a common vision and more collaboration amongst schools, you get better ideas. I think we could build on ideas from both schools. There are things at Gunn that would benefit Paly students, and vice versa.
PV: Out of the board members, parents, teachers and other community members, who has been most vocal in wanting to end it [zero period]?
MM: First of all, it was an administrative decision, so it’s my decision. And I think that’s important because some people assume that it’s a board decision, but it was my decision to do so … I think one of the board members got the ball rolling on this — Mr. [Ken] Dauber was very interested in this — and we heard from several pediatricians. Frankly, the most vocal ones have been the pediatricians.
PV: Where did you get your evidence to support your position? Did you actively look for studies about sleeping habits, or did you consult
with students or teachers?
MM: I did. I have a book called “The Teenage Brain.” It’s really good. And that had information about sleep. And I heard from Dr. [Shashank] Joshi, who I deeply respect, and also Dr. [Steven] Adelsheim. These weren’t just random scientists or doctors; these are people who I’ve worked with, who I trust and who are really knowledgeable about this. I also talked with the faculty. Some of them supported the idea, but most of the them preferred the idea of student choice. I talked with students. I read Chloe Sorenson’s survey end to end. Ms. Haas, the department chair of math, did a survey with 92 students and I read that. The survey asked ‘Why do you want to take zero period?’ and they responded, ‘Because I want a break F and G period.’ And that was the reason behind 80, 90 percent [of respondents]. The reason driving this was a need for a break. And why was there a need for a break? Because they had a more traditional schedule.
PV: It [the zero period ban] is not something that pertains to everyone, yet it’s such a focal issue for the Gunn students. What about it makes it such a big problem for them?
MM: Well, two things. One, I think they’re right about the student choice. Had we had more time, I would have liked to spend more time listening to the students and really having some serious dialogue. The fact of the matter is, we [the Board] have a lot of issues, one being the creative bell schedule, the report from the minority talent and achievement committee, next year’s budget, multimillion dollar building projects, and frankly, I need to retain our focus on significant education issues. At some point, you need to make a decision and move on. I wish I had spent more time listening to students. Whether it would have changed the decision — maybe, maybe not — but one of the students actually said, ‘I feel like we’ve been heard. It’s just human nature to think that if you tell people your opinion but it doesn’t go your way, people feel that they haven’t been heard.’ I hate to disappoint people, but again for most people, this is the best decision. And part of the reason was to drive [Gunn’s] schedule change.
PV: When the first suicide happened in early November, was that when you first caught on to this idea of ending academic zero period?
MM: I went to the student memorial for Cameron [Lee]… and one of the students spoke about how you could videochat and text Cameron at any time at night; he was always there, whether it was two or four in the morning. He was such a great, gregarious person, and he really cared about others. She said that, and others repeated that theme. And that made me think of my own kids, one of whom slept with his computer by his bed — I could not get him out of bed in the morning — and I thought, sleep is involved in this somehow. It really made me think hard about the part that sleep deprivation plays in behaviors. Dr. Joshi, who investigates these deaths by suicide, and I had a conversation about that.
PV: And then as the next Gunn suicide, and eventually the Paly suicide, happened, did this movement gain more traction?
MM: Yes, it did. They both happened very early in the morning. I’ve had the opportunity to talk with the parents of these students, which is just — it’s hard to describe how badly I feel for them — and I have kids of my own. And it’s hard to describe because we are all just so focused on our own lives and what matters to us. But as superintendent, as a leader, what matters to 4,000 high school students is more important than what matters to anyone individually.
PV: There have been some rumors about the administration clamping down and preventing students from taking two academic classes in a certain subject, or putting a limit on Advanced Placement classes. Is this true?
MM: Right now, we have a new sign off form required for if you take three or more AP classes. Basically it’s a release. It says, ‘taking too many APs can be hazardous to your mental health and wellbeing.’ That’s trivializing an important issue, but it’s true; you’re putting yourself at risk. We instituted that this year, but for right now, there’s no discussion about limiting APs.
PV: What would you say to the students at Gunn who are upset or disappointed by this decision?
MM: First of all, I wish I had listened [to student voices] more. I wish that I had spent more time with them. But I did meet with a group of 25 students — not ASB, not SEC, just regular students — and we got some great ideas from them. I will commit to listening to them. But I did take their feedback and survey data into mind, and I made a decision, once again, that’s the best decisions for the greatest number of students. I think the debate about zero period is essentially a schedule problem. It had really been a problem with the more traditional schedule at Gunn versus the block schedule at Paly. If students are losing sleep because of a schedule problem, then we need to fix the schedule.