Survey: Differences in Gunn, Paly guidance systems

While two-thirds of students feel 'pressure to succeed,' just half know a 'trusted adult' on campus

Two-thirds of high school students in Palo Alto "feel tremendous pressure to succeed academically," according to surveys taken at Gunn and Palo Alto high schools.

Majorities feel "anxiety" about their school workloads and "pressured to take a challenging load of honors and Advanced Placement courses," the survey said.

At the same time, at least 70 percent say they are "fully able to pursue interests outside of academics," and more than 65 percent say they "feel valued for talents other than my academic success."

That portrait of high school life emerged from a survey administered by consultant Kelun Zhang, who was charged with analyzing the counseling systems at Gunn and Paly.

Zhang will present her report and recommendations to the Board of Education Tuesday, March 27.

"Students at both schools face significant academic, college-going and social pressures in high school," Zhang said in her report. "At the same time, some students have not yet developed strong connections with adults on campus and with their high school community."

Just half of the students on each campus said they "have a close, trusting relationship with at least one adult at school," according to Zhang's survey data.

Though Gunn and Paly have substantially different guidance-counseling systems, Zhang steered clear of a direct comparison.

Rather, she took each model on its own terms to recommend improvements.

However, where survey data made comparisons possible, Paly appeared to have an edge in terms of student satisfaction with counseling services.

Gunn employs six guidance counselors who are charged with academic guidance, college and career planning and social-emotional support.

Paly augments its staff of four guidance counselors with a network of 46 "teacher advisers," who meet regularly with students through their high-school years.

Higher satisfaction levels at Paly's were reflected in a number of survey responses.

For example, 67 percent of students at Paly and 49 percent at Gunn agreed with the statement: "My guidance counselor is an important resource for me."

As for the statement, "I find it easy to talk to my guidance counselor," 73 percent at Paly, and 63 percent at Gunn, agreed.

In the area of social-emotional support, 55 percent of Paly students and 42 percent of Gunn students agreed with the statement: "I believe my guidance counselor can help me with personal issues."

Asked about their general levels of satisfaction, 53 percent at Gunn agreed that they are "satisfied with the level of support I get from my guidance counselor." Seventy-two percent at Paly said they are "satisfied with the level of support I get from my teacher adviser."

Those results seem to lend credence to the arguments of a parent group, We Can Do Better Palo Alto, which last year called on Gunn to adopt Paly's "teacher adviser" model.

Leaders of that group are urging members to express their views at Tuesday's meeting.

The survey data make it clear that "the Paly teacher advisory system is strictly better than the Gunn traditional counseling model," We Can Do Better organizer Ken Dauber said in an email to school board members.

Dauber and his wife, Michele Dauber, reformatted Zhang's survey data into their own comparison chart.

"You said clearly to the community a year ago that it's unacceptable to deliver services of significantly different quality to students at different schools within the district," Dauber said in the email to the board.

"That is what is happening in the high school counseling systems, and it's time to move Gunn to a teacher advisory system on the Paly model."

Dauber said he was disappointed the counseling report "seems designed to obscure the central fact that the data reveals."

In her district-wide findings, Zhang said "both schools have solid foundations with talented, hard-working, student-focused guidance counseling teams.

"Yet guidance counseling remains one of the least understood functions in a school."

Guidance counseling could "greatly benefit" from strategic planning that would articulate a mission, determine metrics to measure goals and create accountability systems, Zhang said.

Tuesday's public meeting begins at 6:30 p.m. in the board room of school district headquarters, 25 Churchill Ave.


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Posted by Michele Dauber
a resident of Barron Park
on Mar 26, 2012 at 10:11 am

Please see all the data, comparisons, and a critique of the district's report -- as well as historical data, here:

The comparisons are stark and clear. Across all grades and virtually all services provided, including both academic and personal counseling, Paly's Teacher Advisor method provides clear advantages and students are far more satisfied with their connections to adults at school. Please take a look for yourself at this startling new data:

Web Link

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Posted by randy albin
a resident of Mountain View
on Mar 26, 2012 at 10:37 am

it seems as though it is tougher to grow up in palo alto now than it was when i was a teen. hang in there and keep on giving it your very best. the Gunn Alumni Association is very active

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Posted by Pamela
a resident of Barron Park
on Mar 26, 2012 at 12:32 pm

I believe it would be to the benefit of the students to have a system similar to Paly's. Though my child has a connection with his counselor at Gunn, it was not due to the initiative of the counselor nor my child. In fact I went out of my way to make sure that my son had a connection with the counselor, it was not an easy task. Especially, since the counselor's at Gunn have over 350 students on their case load. But, now he has a connection and feels comfortable to go to her for his academic and social needs. However, I know this is not a common occurrence for the majority of the students at Gunn. And to think that the common teacher is challenged with 22 students in a classroom! Good luck tonight.

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Posted by Trentz
a resident of Barron Park
on Mar 26, 2012 at 12:46 pm

Why is it everytime I log onto Palo Alto Online, there is some study or metric comparing every facet of our children's lives (broken down into percentages)? Is our community nothing but some social experiment where our children are the subjects? All of this seems very contemporary. Sheeesh

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Posted by L's, damn l's! & statistics
a resident of Crescent Park
on Mar 26, 2012 at 1:53 pm

And when you change it around and the survey comes back with exact same results or, God forbid, worse results....what then?
Looking at the 12th grade, I'm not sure I'd want to change from the Gunn Model to the Paly model.

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Posted by Michele Dauber
a resident of Barron Park
on Mar 26, 2012 at 2:12 pm

There are 22 categories on which Paly and Gunn can be directly compared for 12 graders. On these, in 9 instances Paly seniors were five or more percentage points more satisfied than Gunn seniors. On only 5 measures was this pattern reversed. Paly seniors are happier than Gunn seniors with both personal and academic counseling. For example 70% of Paly seniors think that their Teacher Advisor is an important resource for them in dealing with the demands of high school, versus only 55% of Gunn seniors who feel that way about their guidance counselor.

And the results for all other grades are even stronger in favor of Paly. For 9-11th graders there is literally no comparison. For freshman the situation looks like an emergency; only 37% of freshmen at Gunn are satisfied with the level of support they receive from their guidance counselor, versus 71% of Paly freshman who are satisfied with the support they receive from their Teacher Advisor. That gap remains in place until senior year when it finally evens out.

Please see the full data here: Web Link

The right answer is to implement Teacher-Advisor counseling at Gunn and then improve college counseling at both schools, not leave Gunn students with a far worse system.

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Posted by mom
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Mar 26, 2012 at 2:45 pm

I absolutely agree that the Paly model should be adopted at Gunn.

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Posted by L's, damn l's! & statistics
a resident of Crescent Park
on Mar 26, 2012 at 3:09 pm

Michelle, in the highly prized categories of students believing their advisor can be helpful in applying for college and feeling well informed about the college application process, Gunn's approach walks all over Paly's. Likewise in making time for students, Gunn's approach is massively better 84 to 69. Funny how you missed that.
Where Paly wins the results are appalling for both approaches (45, 35, 24 - really?). Adopting either shouldn't be an option.
Gunn's approach is obviously the better one for 12th graders.

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Posted by Me Too
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 26, 2012 at 3:24 pm

My kid, a Gunn senior, has had a fairly good experience with her counselor. She has had teachers who took an interest in her too. But the counselor definitely knows her, understood her situation, was there when needed (including a couple of 'emergency' situations). He also was quite a good, thoughtful person who knew how to do his job well.

We supplemented in certain situations with parent involvement and a college app person. But I don't view that as a deficiency of the system - it was just what we wanted.

I can't speak to other systems, but the current one at Gunn served us well.

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Posted by Michele Dauber
a resident of Barron Park
on Mar 26, 2012 at 3:24 pm

I really hope that Gunn parents as well as Paly parents who care about student social-emotional health will take time to look over the data for yourselves. Web Link

One fact that we discuss in our comparison document is that these proportions are certain to understate the extent to which Paly is superior. That is because the survey asks separately about TAs and guidance counselors at Paly. So in the item you note, 69% of Paly seniors say that their guidance counselor makes time for them, as well as a different, overlapping, 75% of Paly seniors who say that their TA makes time for them. While there is some overlap between these two groups of seniors they are not entirely coterminus, meaning that the actual number of Paly seniors who feel that they have a guidance staff member who makes time for them is certain to be greater than 75%.

What seems apparent from these results is that the Gunn counselors have many roles, wear many hats, and are overworked with 350 kids in a caseload. They are triaging their time toward senior college applications and shortchanging the rest of the students, particularly 9th and 10 graders. College counseling is important but it is not all that guidance staff is supposed to do, and it is not more important than ensuring social emotional health of the students at Gunn as the events of the last few years make clear. Besides, we don't have to choose -- we can have both advisory and improved college counseling.

At Paly, they capture efficiencies and use a division of labor in order to allow guidance counselors to counsel, college advisers to advise, and TAs to handle academic counseling. In practice, this leads to a higher touch experience for all students, who are wildly happy in comparison to their Gunn counterparts.

In order to provide anything similar at Gunn such as Paly's 75:1 student/guidance TA model, they would need to hire 21 more counselors. For the money spent the value of TA is enormous. The question isn't whether either system is perfect. The question is whether one is clearly better than the other, and the answer is in.

The right solution is to implement the proven-better Teacher Advisory method at Gunn and then improve college counseling for both schools.

(see Web Link)

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Posted by Sigh...
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Mar 26, 2012 at 3:27 pm

[Post removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

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Posted by L's, damn l's! & statistics
a resident of Crescent Park
on Mar 26, 2012 at 5:42 pm

"Paly seniors who feel that they have a guidance staff member who makes time for them is certain to be greater than 75%."

That conclusion requires a leap of faith. Both the TA (69%) & Counselor's (75%) at Paly fall way below Gunn's model (84%). It's not even close.
I'd be extremely hesitant disrupting what is working at Gunn. 84% is a high bar, switching to a system that would result in a 12% average reduction isn't something I'd be recommending to the board.

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Posted by limit of posts
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Mar 26, 2012 at 10:22 pm

The Gunn system is fine. It works well.
[Portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

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Posted by Former parent
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 27, 2012 at 10:22 am

My daughter and her friends had a horrible experience with Paly's TA system. They loved their counselor, Susan Shultz, but had to seek help from other teachers when the TA system failed them. It's nice in theory but shouldn't be assumed it is the best system for everyone.

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Posted by parent
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 27, 2012 at 10:56 am

Michelle's conclusion is not valid. This is a subjective question and many constituants believe that Gunn's system works fine and Paly's is not good. Nothing is "proven" at all from that data because there are many other facets to this discussion that the survey did not include. For instance, why some folks are so eager to change so many things about Gunn when so many people are satisfied.

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Posted by Michele Dauber
a resident of Barron Park
on Mar 27, 2012 at 11:22 am

Regarding whether this study is "valid" because it did not consider some unspecified variable that "parent" thinks it should have considered, this was Kevin Skelly's own study.

Regarding whether or not Gunn graduates and parents are satisfied with the current counseling system, please see this article from the Weekly from 2008, recounting a board meeting (with the current Superintendent and Board) at which parents and grads, along with the principal and then-student body president all supported a change to advisory. Max Keeler, the student body president of Gunn supported a change to the Paly system because,he said, the counseling system at Palo Alto High School was preferable to Gunn's.

"I really like Paly's system. Their advisors get to know them," Keeler said.

Web Link

In a follow up survey Gunn took as part of its 2009 WASC review, 78% of Gunn students supported moving to advisory. Still nothing happened.

Then the strategic plan surveys and WASC surveys showed that Paly students and parents were far more satisfied with counseling than Gunn students and parents. Still nothing happened.

Then there was the terrible series of tragedies. And when it happened, Gunn had fewer boots on the ground than it needed -- than it might have had, had it moved to advisory sooner -- in the form of trusted adults who were connected to students. In an advisory system, the TA provides an extra set of eyes, watching out for students and making referrals for help. And still nothing happened.

Since the suicides, the school has done some things to try to improve its system. However, even with all those dollars spent and all that effort, the survey just taken of approximately 1500 students at each school (75% response rate!) show that Paly's system is just better on pretty much every dimension for every grade. In Paly's TA, the ratio is 75:1. At Gunn it is 350:1. That's a big difference in knowing and being known.

These data are overwhelming. I have never seen anything like it. It isn't even remotely a close call. It's fiscally irresponsible to continue to maintain such an inefficient system in which worse services are delivered at a very high price. Please parents look at the data for yourself: Web Link

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Posted by A
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Mar 27, 2012 at 11:37 am

An obvious question to ask that no one seems to have brought up is whether the difference between schools is due to the system or whether there are just a few more bad counselors at Gunn than at Paly. We are only talking about a handful of counselors here, so one bad one could account for the difference. Did the questionnaire ask which counselor students had and will that be seen by administration? How is the performance of counselors judged at review time?

My son at Gunn felt his counselor was useless, and after a meeting I had I understood why.

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Posted by Michele Dauber
a resident of Barron Park
on Mar 27, 2012 at 11:49 am

"A" asks a good question, is it the system or is it a few bad counselors at Gunn? And the answer is that I am sure that the counselors at Gunn are probably of as good quality as the counselors at Paly (more on this below) however the structure of the system is such that with the caseloads they have they are unable to deliver as good a job across the grades. The caseloads and multiple responsibilities they have force them to triage their time toward seniors and college applications and give short shrift to other grades and other responsibilities. This makes good counselors do a worse job. It's not their fault -- we are asking them to do too much with too little.

But even if you are right and some of the counselors at Gunn are not that great (after all, there are always some good and some less good employees) the virtue of TA is that it spreads the work among 47 Teacher Advisors ensuring that one "bad" advisor only affects a smaller number of kids rather than hundreds. By also having counselors and college advisors in addition to TAs, Paly's system gives each student multiple trusted adults to go to rather than just one -- thus, if there is a poor advisor in the pack, the damage that person can do is less. The chance that a kid will slip between the cracks is less because there are fewer cracks.

My personal view is that there is no reason to think that the counselors at Gunn aren't great people being asked to do the impossible. Let's do the sensible thing now.

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Posted by Michele Dauber
a resident of Barron Park
on Mar 27, 2012 at 12:10 pm

Hopefully the formatting for this will be readable. This is I think an excellent illustration of what I mean when I say "there are fewer cracks" in the safety net for students at Paly. Below is a table that you can see here: Web Link

It shows HUGE gaps between Gunn and Paly students in terms of whether students think that counselors can help them with personal and emotional support. For example, 80% of Paly students but only 44% of Gunn students think that a guidance counselor can help them if they are struggling emotionally. The gaps in this table are on a huge order of magnitude -- Paly students are around *twice* as likely to believe that their guidance counselor is a source of support for them for personal/psychological issues.

We should have safety nets in each school that are equivalently good.

Table M.9: Select the things that your Guidance Counselor CAN help you with during your time at Gunn/Paly (Appendix, tables 2 and 5)

Supporting me if I am struggling emotionally: 44%(Gunn) vs. 80%(Paly)
Supporting me if I am in a difficult family situation: 40% (Gunn) vs. 78% (Paly)
Supporting me if I am struggling with friends and peers: 42% (Gunn) vs. 78% (Paly)
Supporting me if I am feeling generally stressed: 50% (Gunn) vs. 75% (Paly)
Supporting me if I am struggling with health issues: 31% (Gunn) vs. 76% (Paly)

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Posted by Current Paly parent
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Mar 27, 2012 at 12:51 pm

We are very happy with the Paly system, particularly my children. My children have always had good information from their TAs and counselors. They have always felt that their TAs know them well and are available to them.

I have no view on whether Gunn should adopt Paly's system, but I do know that I don't want the Paly system to be changed to be the same as Gunn's.

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Posted by Current Paly parent
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Mar 27, 2012 at 12:56 pm

And for once I do agree with Michele (I very often don't).
It's important to have good counseling and support throughout high school, not just in senior year.

My current Paly student just loves his TA and is thrilled to have his support for 3 years.

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Posted by mutti
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Mar 27, 2012 at 1:30 pm

I have 3 children who graduated from Gunn and 1 who went to Paly. She was the 2nd to youngest. The difference in the two systems was clear. I could never understand why Gunn didn't adopt the Paly Teacher Advisors plan. It spread the work, gave students more adults to work with. But, it costs money. All those TAs get a period off to do this work. Gunn chooses to put its money elsewhere

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Posted by ronda
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Mar 27, 2012 at 1:33 pm

Gunn has a long way to go to support its students well. I think the survey shows some of the holes in the support system. So stop demanding the status quo and realize that change needs to happen to support the students adequately. Remember, that the schools are there for the children's benefit.

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Posted by numbers
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Mar 27, 2012 at 1:52 pm

Does anyone have access to the actual survey data? The board packet does not provide it. I'd like to see the NSAT results.

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Posted by It is getting old
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 27, 2012 at 10:56 pm

If 20-25% of Paly students do not feel supported then why is this such a great model? Surely, if we are paying for a "study" then we should be looking at best practices. I doubt that PAUSD has all the answers. Surely there are schools that rank high in counseling and student support. We should be learning from them rather than the tired, old "Paly vs Gunn" comparison.

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Posted by cautious
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 28, 2012 at 9:28 am

What about Camile's comments that she had never heard of A-G in all of her travels as a parent through Paly? What about the suicides that occurred while Paly was under the TA system? What about Gunn's small class sizes for freshman Eng and Alg? What about the fact that Gunn staff voted down TA system when Ms. Likens tried to intstitute it several years ago? What about the instructional minutes they would be transferring to TA curriculum?

Wouldn't we be better off just hiring more counselors at Gunn?

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Posted by former Paly parent
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Mar 29, 2012 at 11:03 am

I went to Gunn and my kids went to Paly- Gunn counselor experience was FAR BETTER than the Teacher-Advisor scheme at Paly. The schools were/are quite different in a lot of way, something I was dismayed by when I realized it...

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Posted by Cheng-z
a resident of Barron Park
on Apr 11, 2012 at 12:00 pm

Americans have not valued education very much in their culture so now that there are more Asians in Palo Alto there is a greater value on education. Palo Alto schools are good schools and the UC system is good for cheaper education. Now Asians are dominating all the good grades and topping the class. It is not too much stress for the students. They want to succeed to show their parents thank-you. Americans just have to accept that Palo Alto Schools are now more Asian than before.

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