Palo Alto Weekly

News - March 23, 2012

Neighbors, educators seek to encourage Palo Alto youth

School board, city looks to resident groups for help in increasing teens' resilience

by Sue Dremann

The majority of Palo Alto teens think their neighborhoods are unfriendly, but residents in Midtown say they want to change that perception.

Residents brainstormed about ways to improve the sense of connection youth feel to their neighborhoods in a meeting with Palo Alto Board of Education member Melissa Baten Caswell Tuesday, March 20.

Only 35 percent of Palo Alto high school students felt valued by their neighbors, and only 22 percent felt valued by their community, Baten Caswell said, referring to the results of the city's 2010 "developmental assets" survey.

"That's very sad," Baten Caswell told Midtown residents.

The survey was taken by 4,055 students.

The numbers aren't much better for middle and elementary school students: 40 percent of middle school and 34 percent of elementary students feel valued in their community.

The meeting was part of the city's effort to engage neighborhood associations and community groups in supporting teens. Through an initiative called Project Safety Net, school board members plan to meet with neighborhood associations and community groups in the coming months, teaching them about 41 developmental assets that help youth stay resilient in the face of stress. Project Safety Net was started after the series of student deaths by suicide that began in 2009.

The developmental assets are divided into broad categories: support, empowerment, boundaries and expectations, constructive use of time, commitment to learning, positive values, social competencies and positive identity. Within those groups, individual assets include whether a child feels support and protection from family or school, feels a sense of value in his or her community, is involved in sports or creative activities or feels that life has a purpose.

Baten Caswell asked residents to sign a pledge to reach out to youth in one or two asset areas. The outreach could be as simple as saying "Hi" to teens or hosting a barbecue — anything that says youth are valued and recognized, she said. She cited as an example a teen who said being asked how she was doing on a day when she was feeling low changed her whole attitude.

The more assets a child possesses, the less at risk he or she is to depression, suicide and risky behaviors such as drinking and drug use. Children with only 11 to 20 assets in their lives are considered vulnerable, and those with fewer are at risk, according to Project Safety Net.

Among Palo Alto students, 38 percent are considered vulnerable, with 6 percent at risk, according to the survey.

The survey asked students how they felt about statements such as:

"In my neighborhood there are a lot of people who care about me."

"Adults in my town make me feel important."

"Adults in my town don't care about me or care about what I say."

And "No one ever says 'Hi' to me on the street."

Among elementary school students, 57 percent said they experience caring neighbors. For middle school students, the number was 49 percent.

Baten Caswell asked residents to engage with their neighborhood youth.

"You don't have to have children to make a difference," she said. Every contact, from complimenting the teen grocery-store clerk to just saying hello, matters.

"Do you remember an adult who made a difference in your life?" Baten Caswell asked.

Resident Cynthia Tham recalled two adults who had given her jobs when she was very young.

The message she received?

"I felt useful," she said.

Terry Godfrey, Project Safety Net member and vice president of the nonprofit Partners in Education, said she set up a trampoline in her yard and invited the neighborhood kids. At first, she was concerned the number of bouncing children would crush little ones. But she had the older ones be responsible for watching the small kids, she said.

Some residents considered adding more social events, pointing to a monthly neighborhood soup party that attracts families.

Annette Glanckopf, the Midtown Resident Association's emergency-preparation chair, suggested perhaps block-preparedness coordinators could hold more social events or train youth in the program.

Baten Caswell said the goal is that two thirds of Palo Alto youth will have 21 or more developmental assets (putting them in the "adequate" category) and that none will have fewer than 10 by 2021.

An initiative by the City of Los Gatos, which was spearheaded by its mayor, shows that a dramatic turnaround is possible, she said.

In 2006-07, 62 percent of high school students were termed "at risk." In 2011, the number had dropped to 47 percent, she said. At-risk seventh- and eighth-graders dropped from 42 to 21 percent.

"The mayor did a youth-friendly business campaign; 17,000 adults signed pledged that they would commit to assets," she said.

Information about Palo Alto's Project Safety Net is available at www.psnpaloalto.com.

Staff Writer Sue Dremann can be emailed at sdremann @paweekly.com.

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