Palo Alto Weekly
Spectrum - March 25, 2011
Editorial: A growing school movement
Deep concerns over the emotional health of our kids demand stronger leadership from school officials
A sympathetic but defensive school board did little Tuesday night to reassure concerned parents that they shared their alarm about an academic and achievement culture in Palo Alto that is threatening the health of our teens.
Instead, the board and Superintendent Kevin Skelly focused on the good work that is already underway and the obstacles to responding any more quickly in the face of other district priorities.
It is inevitable that some parents, especially those whose lives have been directly impacted by the teen suicides of the last two years, will never be satisfied that the district is moving fast enough.
But what the school board and Skelly do not seem to acknowledge is that a large and growing number of parents, including those of academically high-achieving kids, are questioning the competitive and stressful culture we are all responsible for having created in our community.
Challenging this culture is very threatening to all those who embrace it and whose policies contribute to it. It leads to the uncomfortable posturing witnessed at Tuesday's meeting, where school board members and Skelly come across as unresponsive and bogged down in their bureaucratic policies, procedures and jargon.
We don't for a second believe that our school officials are as insensitive as they appear. They correctly point to a number of initiatives, including the just-completed student survey aimed at assessing how well 5th graders, 7th graders and high school students are doing by measuring their development of 40 "assets" that have been shown to foster emotional health.
They deserve credit for embracing the Project Safety Net program, which issued an outstanding report and recommendations last summer and is the focal point for community collaboration on addressing concerns over teen stress and health.
But the school board and Superintendent Skelly keep missing opportunities to demonstrate they aren't as tone-deaf as they appear, and to truly lead our community.
At both board and community meetings, they find themselves trying to convince concerned parents that much is being done rather than clearly articulate how we as a school community will discuss and reconcile the desire of some parents for the most rigorous and competitive academic environment possible and the belief of others that we need to redefine success and implement policies to impose limits on things like AP classes, homework and school projects..
In compelling remarks at Tuesday's meeting, former Paly parent Karen Kang called on district officials to make PAUSD a national model for reinventing the school culture in an achievement-oriented community.
She quoted her 24-year old daughter, who wrote "Getting A's, being in AP classes, doing extracurricular activities and attending a prestigious college was all part of the religion of achievement."
"The five years I spent under the spell of this religion of achievement were a complete waste — I spent my time working hard at what I didn't care about, got physical and mental problems, and was extremely miserable. I've had to put every ounce of my energy for the past few years unlearning those backward lessons I learned as a student in Palo Alto."
Such stories abound, and Palo Alto parents are bravely starting to share them, only to discover that many others have had similar experiences.
To be sure, the problem is much bigger than the school system and it's not fair to expect the school board or administration to unilaterally "fix" it. The entire community must take responsibility, including parents, students and teachers, as well as the college application imbroglio.
It will take bolder and more courageous leadership if we are to succeed in redefining our school culture.
But as one of the most respected school districts in the nation, we can have an enormous national impact if we really commit ourselves. It is especially important that admissions deans from elite colleges hear our voices and be engaged in seeking change.
Could there be a more perfect district — the one that educates the kids of Stanford faculty — to lead this movement?
Posted by Ken Dauber,
a resident of Barron Park
on Mar 27, 2011 at 11:16 pm
I'm happy to see that Retired Teacher is engaged in the debate in a serious way, but I'd like to clear up a couple of misconceptions from his/her posts that I think are not particular to him/her. Incidentally, it t would really help if some of these posters chose to reveal their actual identities -- I don't necessarily agree with Retired Teacher on all points, but I think his/her points don't require the cloak of anonymity, particularly if s/he wishes to draw on his/her authority as a former teacher in the district. In any case, anyone can email me at email@example.com and I'd be happy to get together for coffee or to talk on the phone to see if we can find common ground.
Contrary to Retired Teacher's statement, this is not a dispute with "PAUSD and its educators". We're actually asking the district to implement its own existing plan and policy, and the Superintendent and the school board are so far refusing to do it. Rather than restate all of these points, I'm including below comments that I made in another thread following the school board meeting on March 22:
I put the item on the school board agenda to discuss the implementation of item P-8 in Project Safety Net's plan (the P stands for "Prevention"). Here is a link to P-8, which includes both its rationale and the proposed next steps: Web Link
It's important to realize that Project Safety Net (PSN) is the district's plan, developed in coordination with the city of Palo Alto and a wide range of community organizations. The PSN subcommittee is co-chaired by the district. High level PAUSD staff, including the director of Student Services and the vice principal at Gunn, as well as the district's consulting psychiatrist and mental health provider, were all on the executive committtee that drafted the PSN plan, including P-8. The district is assigned ownership for implementing P-8 in the plan itself. The district has signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the other organizations in PSN promising to align its goals with the PSN plan.
As the school board acknowledged at its meeting, this is not an effort by a group of citizens to press a new priority on the district -- this is an effort to get the district to implement its own plan. At the school board meeting on Tuesday night every board member and the Superintendent (with the exception of Camille Townsend) acknowledged that P-8 is part of the district's own plan, that it is important, and that the district should do it. Several members expressed support for making it a focus goal for the 2011-2012 school year.
The remaining issue is timing, but it's a critical issue. P-8 calls for the district to "study, discuss, and implement" changes to reduce academic stress in the schools, and to apply those changes across all schools in the district. That is going to take time, and we're already late in getting started. There's no good reason to wait longer to begin studying options, our own experience and the experience of other communities, and to reach out to experts for help.
I proposed to the school board that the Superintendent appoint a task force of parents, district staff, teachers, and administrators to begin the study phase of P-8 now. The Superintendent appointed a similar task force two weeks ago to study gifted elementary math education. But the Board of Education decided not to appoint the task force now. Instead, the board responded by saying that it has already set its planning priorities for this year and P-8 isn't in them. The Superintendent and the Board agreed that it wouldn't be "fair" to change existing priorities or add new ones without engaging in a long, drawn out, planning process that can only happen on a rigid annual schedule.
Ordinarily this response might make sense, but this isn't an ordinary situation. The premise of Project Safety Net, shared by the district, is that our kids are suffering a public health crisis. The report from the developmental assets survey that almost half of our high school students are vulnerable or at risk underlines that. There is no higher priority for the district than responding to this crisis. The work that the district is doing on other parts of Project Safety Net is valuable and important, but there is no reason that it cannot do more than one thing at once. And if there are competing priorities unrelated to student health and safety that make it impossible to fully implement our suicide prevention plan, the Board should identify them and explain exactly why they are more important.
Clearly, the school board members have lost sight of what is really at stake here. The Board of Education is placing a higher value on its own bureaucratic processes than it is on our children's health and safety. P-8 is an integral part of the district's suicide prevention plan. Their job in a crisis is to force the organization to break out of its normal routines in order to effectively respond, not to bless inaction by pointing to a planning process. They can correct that by instructing the Superintendent to move forward now and implement all aspects of the suicide prevention plan, including P-8.
I encourage you to watch the video of the board meeting, to check my version of it and to form your own opinion. It's linked at Web Link -- it's under "E. Information Item" and it's Project Safety Net, and you will see my name in the text above it. Many parents spoke in support of implementing P-8, and their testimony is well worth listening to, in addition to observing how the school board members chose to react. One of the most moving statements was by Paly parent Karen Kang but the sound is missing from the video. Her statement is quoted in the PAOnline story.
At the board meeting, Kevin Skelly once again questioned the link between academic stress and depression, mental and emotional health, and suicide. He said that it would "unfair" to link the suicides with anything about the environment at our high schools, including Gunn. With all due respect, we didn't make those linkages, Project Safety Net did. I am part of a community-based coalition of parents, including parents who have lost children to suicide, who seek nothing less than the full implementation of the district's own suicide prevention plan.
Much of this debate, at least in the various Palo Alto Online threads, has consisted of caricatures of positions -- for example, that we're calling the immediate implementation of radical changes to Palo Alto's schools (as opposed to beginning a process of study, discussion, and implementation, as called for in P-8), or that we blame all the problems of our children on the schools (as opposed to acknowledging that the schools have a real but not all-encompassing role in their lives). I think that we would all benefit from trying to be clearer about what it is that is actually at stake. I also think that this process would benefit from less anonymity and more accountability on all sides, and I encourage everyone involved to follow mine and Michele's example in this regard.
Finally, I invite those of you who share our concerns to join our Facebook group, We Can Do Better Palo Alto, at Web Link.
If you were a member and logged in you could track comments from this story.