Following a lengthy school board discussion of survey data that paints a mixed picture of student emotional health, a group of parents argued the schools are not doing enough to reduce academic stress.
One mother of three Palo Alto High School graduates, who criticized what she called "the marathon of achievement," said she was "speaking for what I believe is the silent majority of parents and students in Palo Alto."
"My daughter and her Paly friends routinely stayed up until the wee hours of the morning to finish their homework," Karen Kang said.
"It was physically impossible to complete their assignments in a normal day. Not wanting to appear like losers, they suffered in silence. For students taking AP classes, this is not unusual."
Kang said the daughter, now in her mid-20s, attributed the anorexia, anxiety and depression she experienced in high school largely to "being enrolled in the Palo Alto school system."
Citing a string of student suicides in 2009 and 2010, the parents said the district has failed to "propagate things that work" (to reduce stress) such as Paly's new bell schedule and reforming homework and testing policies.
School board members said while they agreed with the broad goals of the complaining parents, differences exist on timing and tactics.
"I don't agree that nothing's been done and that we've sat back and allowed a crisis to occur and not responded," board member Barbara Klausner said.
"A lot of things have been done and they fit under (what you are asking for).
"I'd say we are doing some of these things (you ask for) but there are some key factors we haven't necessarily addressed."
Klausner and other board members asked administrators to consider whether the parents' concerns could be addressed through the district's priorities for next year.
In particular, the parents asked for immediate implementation of a policy to foster a "supportive school environment," which was among 22 recommendations in a report issued last summer by Project Safety Net. Formed in response to the suicides, Project Safety Net is a community-wide coalition to boost the social and emotional well-being of Palo Alto youth.
Among the 22 Project Safety Net recommendations, officials this year chose five to particularly focus on, and those did not include the "supportive school environment" item, known as P-8.
Superintendent Kevin Skelly said he would find a way to do so, but added that he rejects what he called a "dangerous" premise of the parents' request — "that there's a direct connection between the suicides and Gunn High School.
"I think that's a dangerous place to go, and unfair to the school, the district, the students and faculty who have worked very hard to create an environment there," Skelly said.
"What we're looking for is an expanded definition of success within the schools and community that embodies an appreciation of the variety of aptitudes and avenues that define success.
"We have a particularly unique challenge around that, living in the community that we do. ...
"Changing the definition of success is going to take the entire community," he said.
"There's no reason we can't address this in powerful ways."
Kang urged the Board of Education to "be bold and grab this opportunity" to be a national role model in stress reduction.
"We have excellent local partners, a good plan and a highly visible school district. ...
"It's a win-win for the students, the community and the district," she said.
Kang's comments came shortly after the board discussed results of an emotional health survey taken by more than 4,000 Palo Alto students last October.
The survey, measuring the degree to which fifth graders, seventh graders and high school students possess 40 key "developmental assets" needed to thrive, offered a mixed picture.
In general, results showed that elementary students have more positive attitudes than older students and that kids feel less supported and less hopeful as they move into their teen years.
Palo Alto's results are a few points above — but not significantly different from — results in other communities throughout the county and the nation, according to Anne Ehresman of the nonprofit Project Cornerstone, which helps schools in Santa Clara County interpret the survey data.
The Developmental Assets Survey, originally developed by the Minneapolis-based Search Institute, has been taken by more than one million students in hundreds of communities, including 50,000 Santa Clara County students last fall, Ehresman said.
Survey results can guide parents, schools and youth-serving organizations to change their behavior to become "asset builders," she said, citing efforts in Los Gatos that boosted students' "asset levels" between 2007 and 2010.
Decades of analysis have established that children who possess higher asset levels tend to thrive, while those with lower levels engage in more high-risk behavior, Ehresman said.
Groups in Palo Alto, including the City Council and the school district, adopted the Developmental Assets model last year in response to the suicides.
School board members and others focused on different points in the wealth of survey data presented Tuesday, which showed some students to be "thriving" while others "vulnerable or at risk."
Noting that 47 percent of high school students are "vulnerable or at risk" (defined as possessing 20 or fewer assets), Gunn parent Ken Dauber said, "That's a really high number.
"If I had hair, my hair would be on fire. This underlines the urgency we continue to have in this community."
School board president Melissa Baten Caswell offered a different perspective.
"You can look at this as, 'Oh my God, my hair's on fire, we've got a huge problem,' or you can look at this as an opportunity to do great things in this community," Caswell said.
"We've done (great things) before, and we can do it again."
Caswell challenged parents and others to volunteer in upcoming "community service days" — including Paly's March 31 Cesar Chavez Day — using it as an opportunity to bond with teens.
"We could take this to heart ourselves and ask, 'What are we doing personally on each of these assets?'
"I don't want to be preachy, but I'm trying to live this model as well."
Amy Drolette, the school district's coordinator of student services, said the survey data will be studied by principals, PTA groups, Project Safety Net and others in the community and used to formulate action plans.