Palo Alto Weekly
Spectrum - February 25, 2011
Palo Alto school district needs new leadership
by Ken and Michele Dauber
In early 2008, Kevin Skelly, then the new superintendent of PAUSD, reversed an earlier decision by the district and entered our high schools in the Newsweek "Challenge Index." The index is simple: It's the number of AP tests divided by the number of graduating seniors. Palo Alto had opted out of participating in the 2007 ranking.
According to Scott Laurence, a former principal at both Paly and Gunn, the contest would yield only "increased pressure on already stressed out students." Skelly did not share the concern about stress, deciding instead to advertise how our kids "stack up" against others. He wanted to "let folks know how good the Palo Alto schools are."
Looking back, this incident was a harbinger of things to come. The tragic series of suicides of Palo Alto high school students has propelled the issue of the emotional and mental health of Palo Alto's students into full view. Parents, mental health professionals, and academics in our community have all pointed to high levels of academic stress in Palo Alto high schools as a key factor in producing and exacerbating anxiety, depression, and other problems for students, and in undermining ties between students and teachers.
The evidence connecting academic stress to adolescent depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation is overwhelming. A recent study found that the effect of academic stress on suicidal thoughts is significant even when controlling for preexisting depression, which according to the study's authors may itself be caused by academic stress. Studies also show that pressure exacerbates depression in those who are predisposed to the illness.
Becky Beacom, health education manager at Palo Alto Medical Foundation describes academic stress as a "health issue" for students. Stanford has an entire academic center devoted to documenting the negative effects of academic stress on student mental health. A documentary film on the subject, "Race to Nowhere," has been showing to packed high school auditoriums nationwide. High achieving school districts in the Bay Area and around the country have taken steps to reduce academic stress, including steps such as limiting AP classes and even withdrawing from the AP program altogether.
Here in Palo Alto, it appeared that we were on track to finally address this issue. After the second suicide, Project Safety Net (PSN), sponsored by the City of Palo Alto, brought together stakeholders for a coordinated response. The final report recommended both increased mental health screening and services and structural reform of the schools to reduce academic stress, including concrete changes like moving final exams before the winter break and reducing the volume of homework. According to the report, "all elements of the educational system, including core principles, curriculum, policies, training, strategic plans, hiring and other practices" and not merely those addressed to mental health, are implicated in the crisis and must be reformed.
Yet Superintendent Skelly and the school district have focused exclusively on the mental health recommendations. Despite the evidence and in the face of a crisis, the district steadfastly refuses to deal with the core issue of academic stress. The school board couldn't even agree to adopt a revised calendar to move exams before the winter break rather than after it.
Skelly points to psychologist Kay Redfield Jamison's book about suicide, "Night Falls Fast," as support for the idea that stress does not play a causal role in suicide and depression. But Jamison doesn't say that. Rather, her book is replete with statements linking environmental stressors and related factors such as sleep deprivation to depression and suicidality.
In Palo Alto we have a $154 million well-oiled machine for producing academic stress and all its attendant problems, including a profound feeling among students of lack of community, connection, and caring adults. Stacked up against that are now a few social workers, some suicide prevention training for school personnel, "connectedness" programming, and a few fitfully and unevenly adopted initiatives.
It is as if we discovered that Gunn High School is contaminated with asbestos, yet instead of abating the hazard the school district decided to focus on screening children for lung cancer and issuing respirators to those who fall ill.
Parents are becoming increasingly frustrated with the district's leadership on this issue. At a Feb. 13th event sponsored by the Peninsula Interfaith Action at St. Mark's Church, district officials including Skelly made a jargon-filled presentation on "connectedness" that completely ignored student stress and school culture as issues needing attention. In response to parent questions, Skelly repeatedly insisted that the problem was "hard."
We would be making more progress if our district leadership were less impressed with the difficulty of the problem and more willing to make fundamental changes to solve it. The school administration has failed to adopt specific reforms recommended by PSN to reduce academic stress at our high schools. It has failed to engage with the experts at Stanford's Challenge Success even though they are right across the street from the district office. Skelly's views on academic stress are flatly contradicted by the best scientific and medical evidence, as well as by the experience of parents and students in our community. Worse, the district hasn't enforced those policies we already have, such as the existing ban on homework over holidays and vacations. And the district is jeopardizing its new mental health initiatives by letting individual schools decide what to implement rather than establishing consistent programs than can more effectively be evaluated.
We shouldn't have to struggle with the school district to acknowledge basic facts of life about our schools and our children. The school board should do the job that we elected it to do and hire leadership that will address the root causes of the crisis of which the recent suicides are merely the most visible part. It is well past time to enforce accountability for our elected and appointed officials. We can do better than this, as a district and as a community.
We invite anyone interested in pursuing these issues to contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ken Dauber is a software engineer at Google, and Michele Dauber is a Law Professor at Stanford. They live in Barron Park and have five children, including two who attended Gunn High School.
Posted by Observer,
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 28, 2011 at 12:15 pm
I see a lot of misinformation here, so I want to set a few things straight. This is a really important topic, people should not just be throwing out beliefs with no foundation.
Crescent Park Dad's comments are a good example of the misinformation, and are almost identical to the stop-the-problem-solving-and-leave-us-alone kinds of comments we've been getting from the administration so far.
"Stop the whining!
The residents of Palo Alto approved the bond and the projects. At this point PAUSD is following the mandate set by the people of the city.
Keep scapegoating the PAUSD - when in fact the entire city has been involved in the debate and the approval of the bond, the plans, the building, etc."
Sorry, but that's just misleading baloney. It makes me wonder about CPDad's stake.
So here are some key points:
1) Residents approved a bond project to improve our schools. The bond project included a general description of goals and sites and was clearly crafted to include rebuying the property at Cubberley and building there if the board saw fit.
2) The administration has done no outreach or open discussion with the public about the direction the high school construction. There has been no interaction with the public about whether we want the challenges and costs of mega schools and the implications to academic quality and social life come with such large schools.
3) Multi-story construction in public schools is extraordinarily expensive. We only need multi-story to make the high schools into mega schools. Construction at Cubberly may even be doable with just the additional money being spent on the multi-story premium at the high schools. We don't know, though, because no one has done a study of this to problem solve, NO ONE HAS MADE SPECIFIC COMPARISONS, LOOKED AT ACTUAL COSTS, AND OUTCOMES FOR DIFFERENT OPTIONS. A lot of people, including in the administration, make sweeping judgements with absolutely no data to back it up. This is one of the most glaring problems in the leadership on this issue.
The architect for the Gunn project stated publicly that the premium on multistory would be 15%. IMO, it's probably more. But assuming that is correct, that means $3million is being spent on just that first building JUST SO WE CAN GET A TWO-STORY STRUCTURE. More millions are being spent on square footage we wouldn't need at Gunn if the square footage were going in at Cubberley. All in all, I think at least $10 million of that $20 million building could be spent at Cubberly with no loss of any functionality at Gunn, if Gunn were not being built up as a megaschool -- and that's just the savings from ONE BUILDING, there are six mult-story buildings being planned for the two campuses. By comparison, a single-story building planned for Gunn in the same phase will cost only $8 million.
4) Meetings have been open to the public, but the big issues have not been publicized. The public was allowed to attend the planning meetings, but topics were never publicized, the implications (as stated above) were never brought up by the planners, and the public that attended had no opportunity for interaction. A short question session was allowed, but questions were taken on cards, with only 2 minutes allowed each, and no rebuttal was allowed from the public if the response was wrong or inadequate. It was not a forum for discussing the big issues anyway, there was NEVER any interaction with the public over whether to make Gunn a huge school or reopen Cubberly. This is hardly a "debate" or "the entire city" involved!
5) The state of california publishes a document that outlines things that increase costs of public school construction. It says multi-story construction is so expensive in public schools, it's almost never worth it even to save land costs. They suggest making parallel plans, single-story and multi-story, as the best strategy to save money. A member of the public brought this up, and a single-story topic was inserted on the agenda, but there was no legitimate plan produced for comparison. (Again, self-serving and sweeping, even misleading, arguments by various parties that don't have the publics interest at heart were accepted with no factual backup and again the failure of leadership was glaring.)
6) It is the elementary families who will be most affected by these decisions now, but it is very difficult for them to protest against something they have very little information about and that is so abstract. Things like these get dealt with usually when it's too late. It's eleventh hour now, but dealing with it NOW could actually save money and change the direction for the better. We should demand the district talk with the public about options, have an IMPARTIAL entity (or competing entities) run some actual numbers on the costs, and bring up the potential academic and social consequences of the options.
7) The optimal situation for a district facing such overcrowded schools and increasing enrollment is having a decommissioned school site to bring on line, which we have. We have approved a bond that could pay for renovation and is written to include that possibility. The city is willing to sell the land it's using back to the district now cheap (NOW is the time to get that land back, it should never have been sold in the first place). We could have done something advantageous with Foothill if we'd had some leadership. (I don't want to hear anymore vague and sweeping arguments -- lets have some real discussion now with real numbers and facts!)
8) There is a shallow fault running directly under Gunn High School. The combination of hubris and uncertainty that I see in this construction will almost certainly be a safety issue sometime in the future. Just as with the school size, this is an issue that should be openly discussed with the public, and should have been from the start.