Our first decisive action as a group involved successfully urging the Palo Alto Unified School District board to adopt "connectedness" as a priority focused goal for the 2010-2011 school year. The board's commitment in the arena of students' social and emotional health through this goal of "connectedness" holds great promise for continuing, positive progress. We seek to highlight this connectedness goal, our ongoing work with the school district, and our mission to engage the good community support for our youth as seen in our May 2010 and February 2011 public meetings.
What is connectedness, anyway, and why did we seek to codify it as part of school governance? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) offers the following definition: "School connectedness was defined as the belief by students that adults in the school care about their learning as well as about them as individuals." The goal is to make sure that every child is recognized and has someone to turn to in times of need. The CDC cites adult support, belonging to a positive peer group, students' commitment to their own education, and positive physical and psychosocial environments at school as being key elements of connectedness.
Of course, school is not the only place where connectedness happens: our families, faith groups, sports, clubs and other entities share key roles in supporting kids' connectedness, too. Our focus is directed on schools because that's where children spend most of their days. Promoting connectedness helps to create a caring community in which both our children's academic achievement and psychosocial health may thrive. Such progress is true success.
Fortunately, there are many ways in which our school district facilitates connectedness. One example is JLS middle school's "Panther Camp," an orientation program in which every incoming sixth grader participates and makes connections with other children and adults for a few days before their year of academic work begins. We highlight "Panther Camp" among many programs with positive elements enhancing the psychosocial environments of some of our schools, yet we note that such programs are not uniformly offered throughout the district. In our public meetings, we offer the opportunity for information on great programs like these to be shared so that awareness about what exists and about what may be needed and helpful comes to light.
To that end, in our February 13 public meeting, Kevin Skelly, the district superintendent and Amy Drollette, director of student services, offered insights into our district's ongoing work in support of "connectedness." Over 150 people, including school board representatives and numerous other public officials such as Mayor Sid Espinosa, city council members, Police Chief Dennis Burns as well as a host of district parents, attended this meeting for the shared purpose of spending time in community with each other to learn about our district's focus on students' social and emotional health. We feel blessed to be part of a community that shows up for our kids at meetings like this one. We learned a lot at this meeting, both through data shared by the school district and through frustrations aired by several students and parents. Most importantly, we learned that our work is not done.
Going forward, we will continue to engage with the district over "connectedness" as we strive to reach all students, aiming now for measurement of the effectiveness of different programs and approaches to connectedness. The yield of programs, as Dr. Skelly shared at our meeting, may be difficult to measure, but weighing effectiveness and expanding successful programs to all of our schools, and hence all of our students, is necessary, worthwhile, and needs to be pursued.
We call for our school leadership to continue its good work of implementing systemic programs, processes and measurements that will yield the optimal outcome of every child feeling connected at school. We are thankful for the devotion of our district, our administrators and our teachers to the cause of connectedness, and we pledge to continue to support their good efforts as they undertake this challenging, critical work.
Rev. McDermott is the pastor of St. Mark's Episcopal Church in Palo Alto and wrote this article on behalf of Advocates for Youth, a program launched by Peninsula Interfaith Action (PIA).