Some have advocated creating better support systems to identify and help teens suffering from or at risk of depression.
Others have emphasized the need to examine school practices, such as homework policies, schedules, coordination of tests and counseling systems.
And still others point to the need to engage and educate parents on their role in helping to tone down the intense competitive atmosphere that has engulfed high school life.
School board members and Superintendent Kevin Skelly have at times reacted defensively and bureaucratically to this input for much of the last year, but last week these issues were front and center in new annual goals recommended by Skelly and adopted unanimously by the board.
The goals for the coming year put the district on a firm course toward tackling ways of reducing "unnecessary" stress on students and creating a "more supportive school culture."
School principals and others will begin to "examine the purpose and volume" of homework at all class levels and create a new district policy on homework. The scheduling of tests and school projects will be studied and recommendations developed to address avoidable "perfect-storms" when students are assigned tests or projects by multiple teachers all at the same time.
The board also placed a priority on implementing the youth-wellness framework called Developmental Assets, a system for assessing and responding to more vulnerable kids and involving parents and other community members in supporting them. (See guest opinion on the facing page and the insert in today's paper for more information on this program.)
Finally, the goals include a study of the very different high school counseling programs currently operating at Paly and Gunn and elsewhere, determining best practices and making appropriate changes.
The adoption of the goals brought guarded praise and optimism from parents who have been pushing the board on the issue of student stress. Ken Dauber, who with his wife Michele just seven months ago had called for new leadership in the district and formed a group called "We Can Do Better," said "The content of these goals is quite remarkable and I appreciate the progress."
The goals also drew a promise of support from Matthew McDermott, rector of St. Mark's Episcopal Church and a JLS parent, who said he will involve his congregation in the "slow and challenging work" of helping to implement the stress-reduction goal. After the cluster of Palo Alto student suicides that began in 2009, the St. Mark's volunteers and those from other churches lobbied for nearly two years for the board to adopt programs that would promote "student connectedness."
Superintendent Kevin Skelly, who acknowledged that he hopes "members of the community see their handprint on the work we have for this year," said it will take time to implement the goals. On the homework policy, he said research could be completed this academic year and its impact on "teachers, course outlines and expectations" could be seen next fall, or possibly by the spring of 2012.
Tension is likely to persist over the district's "site-based decision-making" philosophy, which leaves many policy and programmatic decisions in the hands of principals and their teachers and site councils.
The approach often results in different programs being developed at different schools to address the exact same need or goal, rather than the development of a "best practices" approach implemented consistently across all 17 school sites.
Skelly, reflecting the views of his principals, is a big proponent of site-based decision-making, but some school board and members of the public are questioning whether the concept is inefficient, or worse, unfair.
Skelly and the school board deserve praise and support for adopting these goals for the upcoming school year. It is evidence that they are listening and responding to the community and are prepared to make changes.
As a past critic of the district's lack of urgency and attention to the issues of student stress and emotional health, we are encouraged that meaningful and measurable progress will be made this year, including better outreach and communication with parents.
After all, ultimately it is the parents of the community that must decide what kind of environment they wish for their kids enrolled in Palo Alto schools.