Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - September 10, 2010

Editorial: Schools, community face a crucial test

Palo Alto schools, city and community together must improve our response to emotional needs and well-being of our young persons

The needs of adolescents and the appropriate supporting roles for teachers, parents and professionals may finally be getting the attention the subject deserves in this high-achievement community.

In a powerful teacher essay published last week, and in a round-table follow-up discussion this week, the Weekly presents several perspectives of the challenges teens face — including the overriding message that all young people need to feel cared for as individuals and to see themselves as worthy in their own right, not just as a reflection of their academic standings.

The panelists' conclusions, plus scores of thoughtful, supportive responses to the teacher's essay in the online Town Square forum (www.PaloAltoOnline.com), comprise a forceful statement that the teacher is not alone in the observations in the essay.

There have been significant strides this year in the immensely difficult task of re-examining the roots of our high-achievement culture in Palo Alto, asking, "Have we gone too far?" Do we need to correct our course and seek a better balance?

The issues raised with eloquence in the essay and discussion do not belong to the schools or school district alone. They are community issues, and they require a community-wide response.

Such a response is beginning to take shape. The Project Safety Net group is taking an overview position to help coordinate and suggest areas needing attention. Community volunteers have spent many hours seeking answers, sponsoring forums and outreach efforts, and even volunteering with Track Watch.

The community response includes professional counselors and medical organizations. It involves scores of students, parents, teachers, administrators and community leaders.

The spirit of caring collaboration has been strong. Both the city and school district have established the well-being of young persons as top priorities, a solid step. Yet unless there is a continuing effort — and organizational backup — the priorities will be only hollow words that sound good but lack substance.

One such initiative relates to the "Developmental Assets" for young people, which is being implemented (see below). Another potential resource is the "Challenge Success" program, developed by Denise Clark Pope and others at the Stanford School of Education. This locally grown program is being used in schools nationally — but not effectively in Palo Alto, where it was pioneered more than a half dozen years ago.

Building that substance will entail making some hard decisions on school start times and testing times. It will require strong leadership and commitment from school administrators and community leaders, especially from members of the Board of Education. It is a test as important as any academic test administered to our students. It is a test we must not fail.

Building on our assets

An important component of assuring the well-being of our youth is about to take place. It is a way for Palo Altans to learn more about ourselves and how we are doing in providing a solid base for our young people.

The tool is student survey on "Developmental Assets." With parental consent, it will be given to all 5th and 7th graders and high school students. The survey is intended to measure how well our community is doing in terms of fulfilling 41 assets that years of research show determine behavioral and emotional outcomes of young persons.

"Assets" are common-sense items such as family support and communications, connections to other adults, even a feeling that the community values its youth. Research shows that young persons with more than 30 assets do better in life and school than those with fewer.

The survey is a collaborative effort of the city, schools and community-based agencies.

"It will be a huge milestone" if there is enough participation, according to Greg Hermann, a management specialist in the city manager's office and coordinator of the "Developmental Assets Initiative." An overview of the assets is at http://www.projectcornerstone.org/html/assets/index.htm .

Parental approval for the survey is required because some federal grant funding is involved — approval that is administratively hard to get.

Yet a poor response to the survey will undermine results and hamper the community's ability to design programs to strengthen its existing assets. Broad participation is key to getting this vital baseline information. If you're a parent of an eligible student, please return the consent form promptly.

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