Palo Alto Weekly

News - May 9, 2014

Palo Alto school board members praise counseling reforms

However, critics say they're still dissatisfied with 'unequal' Gunn, Paly programs

by Chris Kenrick

Palo Alto school board members Tuesday said they were pleased with efforts by high school and middle school guidance counselors to improve their programs.

Their comments came after nearly 20 counselors turned out for an evening meeting to show their support for a new, districtwide "logic model" for counseling developed in monthly meetings since last summer.

The "logic model" describes the mission and goals of Palo Alto's counseling programs, even though individual schools — including Gunn and Palo Alto high schools — use different counseling delivery systems.

Student Services Coordinator Brenda Carrillo, who has managed the district-wide counseling discussions, said the new model is based on principles recommended by the American School Counselor Association.

Counselors from Gunn and Paly described plans to measure the effectiveness of their programs through surveys of students and parents, including the district's annual strategic plan survey, alumni surveys and the California Healthy Kids Survey.

Gunn Assistant Principal Tom Jacoubowsky said Gunn had "stolen some really good ideas" from Paly through the collaboration, and also begun implementing some of the 40 reforms suggested by an internal Gunn advisory committee last year.

"To see the kind of collaboration going on is fantastic," board member Dana Tom said. "It's a great opportunity to learn, share ideas, improve and identify where you can most improve."

Board President Barb Mitchell said a previous gap in spending on counseling between Gunn and Paly had been addressed and that a "major infusion" is rectifying the problem.

"I'm really excited about your work and the strides you've taken, and they will show up in many ways in the lives of our kids," Mitchell told the counselors.

But Tuesday's presentation did little to satisfy longtime critics of Gunn's counseling program, who for years have urged the board to order the school to adopt Paly's model of a "teacher advisory" system. Under that system, about 40 "teacher advisers" augment the school's small counseling staff. Two critics testified Tuesday.

"The central fact, and a peculiar fact, about our district is that we have two high schools and two very different models for delivering counseling services," said Ken Dauber, a prospective school board candidate who has long urged consistency between the two high school programs. Dauber ran unsuccessfully for the board in 2012.

"I can't imagine that's terribly common in California or nationally ... and it immediately raises the question of whether the two models are delivering equivalent services and whether we're efficiently using our resources," he said.

Dauber cited past survey data of parents and students indicating a "persistent gap" in quality levels between the Paly and Gunn counseling programs. Despite years of discussion, the district has yet to find "clear, stable measures" to determine whether the quality gap is closing or growing larger.

But Superintendent Kevin Skelly said it was a mistake to "fixate" on selected satisfaction data without looking at the "larger picture," noting that Gunn is 10 percent higher than Paly in its percentage of graduates who complete a four-year college prep curriculum.

"We do want to have those (counseling) services improve," Skelly said. "It's an area that's important to our community. But I would not change the Gunn model without doing great investigation into how it would affect the overall school quality, and making sure you had the buy-in of that staff at Gunn High School.

"This conversation in many ways started with the suicide cluster (of Palo Alto students in 2009 and 2010) and has just continued unremittingly for four years and, frankly, I think it's been unfair to Gunn to focus on the counseling program without celebrating the successes of that school and the multiple dimensions in which the parents are very satisfied," Skelly said.

Staff Writer Chris Kenrick can be emailed at ckenrick@paweekly.com.

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