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Local school districts take divergent views on the controversial zero period

Some see advantages to early-morning offerings, others consider it antithetical to later start times
Sophomore Julian Schultz reads in class at Gunn High School in Palo Alto on March 16, 2022

Under the new state law mandating later school start times, high schools can still offer a period that starts before 8:30 a.m., known as "zero" period. But the classes must be for a limited number of students and the period can't be used to calculate a school's average daily attendance for the purpose of receiving state funding.

Schools throughout the Peninsula are taking divergent approaches to the period that has in the past stirred controversy, with some administrators seeing the advantages of offering additional courses and others viewing it as antithetical to the spirit of later start times.

According to Associate Superintendent of Educational Services Teri Faught, the Mountain View Los Altos Union High School District opted to eliminate its zero period when it made the shift to later start times several years ago because administrators believed having zero period as an option would make some students feel academic pressure to enroll in another class.

"Honestly, we felt like it was opening a window of students getting into a situation where they're sacrificing their sleep," she said.

Sequoia High School senior Helena Landels agrees that zero period runs counter to teens' natural sleep needs.

"The sleep deprivation in the zero period classes was just, like, ridiculous," she said.

Nearly half the students in her morning period were regularly absent, she said, adding that between going to class and sleeping in, many would choose the latter.

"It's just not natural for people my age to wake up that early. And most of my friends were not going to bed any earlier. So I think it's really damaging, really dangerous to students' health," she said.

Sequoia plans to continue offering a zero period but for a limited number of classes, such as advanced dance and the capstone International Baccalaureate course.

Other schools are attempting to walk the line between respecting teens' sleep patterns and accommodating the need to schedule courses outside of the normal hours that serve the majority of students.

Woodside High School will offer a zero period at 7:30 a.m. for elective classes (like jazz band), but only about 100 students of the roughly 1,725 study body will be enrolled, said Chuck Velschow, Woodside High's administrative vice principal.

In Palo Alto, only physical education takes place in zero period, as an option for kids who want to get up and exercise early, Director of Secondary Education Kathleen Laurence said. Zero period has previously been the source of dispute in Palo Alto, including a heated debate in 2015 about Gunn High School's practice of offering rigorous Advanced Placement courses starting at 7:20 a.m. Then-superintendent Max McGee ultimately decided to stop offering any academic subjects in zero period.

Menlo-Atherton High School is eliminating zero period this fall to create a schedule in which all students start at the same time. The effect is that class will actually start earlier for the roughly 80% of students who didn't take zero period.

For about the past six years, Menlo-Atherton has had a six-period day, with a zero period in the morning at either 7:50 a.m. or 8 a.m. for students enrolled in seven classes. That meant students without a zero period arrived between 8:55 a.m. and 9:30 a.m., depending on the day.

Starting this fall, everyone will start school five days a week at 8:30 a.m. The zero period was replaced with a seventh period after school, which runs until 3:45 p.m.

"Consistency for start time and lunch time will help with kids forming a better routine," Principal Karl Losekoot said. "For kids on a seven-period day, I have heard they are excited to start a little bit later. Some are anxious. They didn't want the day to go later than 3:45."

This article is part of a larger story, "To combat teens' sleep deprivation, California schools must start their days later."

Zoe Morgan is a staff writer for the Palo Alto Weekly and Mountain View Voice. Angela Swartz is a staff writer for The Almanac. Leah Worthington is a staff writer for the Redwood City Pulse.


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