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School board under pressure on counseling
Original post made
on May 25, 2012
Under scrutiny over guidance counseling at Gunn High School, Palo Alto school board members this week said decision-makers at Gunn should have all the data at their fingertips but reiterated earlier statements that reforms must be shaped by the school's own community.
Read the full story here Web Link
posted Friday, May 25, 2012, 9:04 AM
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Posted by Ken Dauber
a resident of Barron Park School
on May 25, 2012 at 6:59 pm
The real story is more complicated than is presented here and in the comments. The school board is looking to the Gunn administration to come back with a plan for counseling at the June 12 school board meeting, but it has given the administration some significant constraints that aren't detailed in the story. However, senior district staff intervened very early, in early April, to direct the process at Gunn in a way that will make it difficult for the administration to meet the school board's requirements. The question now is how that will all play out. This is a lengthy post but I think it's useful to lay this all out in some detail.
As the story notes, at the March 27 school board meeting our parent organization, We Can Do Better Palo Alto, presented data drawn from PAUSD that shows that students at Paly are much more satisfied with their guidance services than are students at Gunn, and that they report that they have much more access to a varied set of services than do Gunn students. The school board recognized the service gap, and (with the exception of Barb Mitchell) spoke strongly in favor of change at Gunn to make guidance services comparable between the two high schools. The board also directed Gunn to strongly consider adopting teacher advisory in order to achieve comparability. (You can read about that meeting at Web Link).
At the meeting on Tuesday night, the school board reiterated its commitment to comparable services, its conclusion that the services are not now comparable, and its instruction to Gunn to strongly consider teacher advisory. The following is drawn from a summer of the meeting I posed to our Facebook group page, at Web Link, and you can check my summary by viewing the meeting yourself, at Web Link (scroll down to item G, about the open-ended student responses).
Three of the four Board members present (Camille Townsend left early because of an ongoing health issue, and Barb Mitchell continues to oppose significant change at Gunn) reached consensus on the following directions to staff.
Barbara Klausner made two points:
1. The data analyses and comparisons that We Can Do Better has performed should be sent to the high schools for use in understanding the current state of counseling at the two schools. This is important because the district's data does not allow comparison, does not fully capture the benefits of multiple overlapping guidance roles in advisory, and does not allow easy access to the student comments. It also does not allow analysis of the effect of the different guidance modes on services for minority students.
2. Gunn's plan must provide for comparable services to Paly. Klausner explained that comparability means that Gunn's plan must provide a similar number of touchpoints over time, overlapping roles between adults (for example, both TAs and college advisors deliver college information to students, making it harder for students to slip between the cracks), a division of labor among adults, and multiple adults in guidance roles for each student.
Dana Tom said that Gunn must seriously consider a change to a teacher advisory system or another major change that delivers comparable services, and must be prepared to discuss in detail how it considered that change and how it reached its conclusion. (Ironically, he wondered aloud how to ensure that this message would get communicated to Gunn).
Melissa Caswell agreed with Klausner's and Tom's points, and added the explicit instruction that guidance models be compared on their own terms, without attention to speculations about impacts such as larger class sizes, fewer electives, etc. These supposed negative effects have been a major part of the district's rhetoric in resisting change at Gunn, even though, as we've pointed out repeatedly, the financial impact is relatively small and there are many options for funding this change other than cuts to classroom teaching.
Taken together, the Board's action strongly underlined its March 27 direction, and provided an even more detailed set of criteria and expectations. Clearly Board members felt frustrated by the resistance to their directive of March 27, and felt that they had to set forth specific language to limit discretion.
If anything, the Gunn administration is more constrained than it was after the March 27 meeting, because the Board reaffirmed its commitment to comparable services, described in some detail what "comparable" means, required that Gunn take into account the data comparing the two high schools, and clearly stated the expectation that Gunn should consider a structural change to its counseling model, and be prepared to defend a recommendation not to make such a change with clear and explicit evidence.
However, the Gunn administration is operating within another set of constraints, these imposed from above by senior district leadership, most importantly Superintendent Skelly. As has been reported, Dr. Skelly wrote a memo to the school board on April 20, telling them that he had met with senior district staff, including the director of secondary education, Michael Milliken, and the Gunn principal, Katya Villalobos, and decided that Gunn should make incremental improvements in counseling rather than make a change to teacher advisory, including hiring 2 additional counselors. Dr. Skelly told the board that he was communicating that down to Gunn staff. (It's important to note that in addition to the direction already noted in the March 27 meeting, the board told Dr. Skelly not to hire more counselors at Gunn, as those resources would be needed for teacher advisory if that was the ultimate decision). That memo is the subject of the Brown Act discussion that will be the subject of a special meeting of the school board next Thursday. We received the memo via a Public Records Act request, which we made after it became clear that there was a private process going on that was not consistent with the school board's March 27 direction.
What has not yet been reported is that Dr. Skelly wrote a memo to his senior staff 2 weeks earlier, on April 6, laying out his rationale for opposing the school board's decision on March 27. We also received that memo via another Public Records Act request. That memo can be seen at Web Link. The memo consists mostly of commentary interspersed into a long email from the district's consultant on counseling, Kelun Zhang, sent following her presentation to the Board on March 27. Dr. Skelly asked senior district staff, including Charles Young, the associate superintendent, to take the lead on next steps. What is most useful about the memo is that it lays out in very clear terms the basis for Dr. Skelly's opposition to counseling changes at Gunn. In brief, Dr. Skelly believes that guidance counseling is largely about college counseling, and therefore that the service gaps identified by the PAUSD data in the areas of academic advising and social-emotional support are mostly irrelevant. For example, he writes "AS A PARENT, I DON'T REALLY CARE IF THE GUIDANCE COUNSELOR MEETS WITH MY FRESHMAN OR SOPHOMORE STUDENT. THEY DON'T HAVE THAT MUCH TO TALK ABOUT AND I DON'T WANT TOO MUCH HYPE ABOUT COLLEGE TOO EARLY. I AM FINE IF, AS A PRACTICE, OUR COUNSELORS FOCUS ON STRUGGLING KIDS. BUT THIS MEANS MANY STUDENTS DON'T HAVE A PERSONAL RELATIONSHIP WITH THEIR COUNSELOR. AND SURVEY RESULTS ARE LOWER." In fact, of course, there is little likelihood that students struggling with social-emotional issues will be noticed by counselors who don't have time to meet with them. But Dr. Skelly's memo at least sets out clearly his vision for guidance at Gunn, and it bears careful reading.
The problem is not that Dr. Skelly opposes implementing teacher advisory at Gunn, although I think most parents disagree with his argument that freshman and sophomores don't need guidance, and that students don't need personal relationships with their counselors. It is that he has not made his disagreement with the school board public so that we can have an open and honest debate, and has instead directed a process at Gunn that is not responsive to the school board's direction at its March 27 meeting. We can get a hint of that in his instruction to senior staff that "we should be courageous in terms of our next steps but also cognizant of the conversation we had at the last board meeting" in the April 6 memo, and a full acknowledgement in his April 20 memo to the school board. That was followed on May 5 by a letter from Dr. Skelly and Principal Villalobos to the entire Gunn parent community, assuring them that Gunn would make no major changes to counseling, and by an announcement to the press by Principal Villalobos of a process of further study that will return to the school board in March 2013, even though the school board has made no such decision.
Dr. Skelly has also played a direct role in opposing teacher advisory at Gunn. He met with instructional supervisors and restated his opposition to teacher advisory. He recounted to me personally an encounter with a Gunn math teacher who told Dr. Skelly that he was interested in teacher advisory, and might be interested in being a teacher advisor himself. Dr. Skelly responded with a long list of negative consequences, to which (at least in Dr. Skelly's telling), the teacher responded by saying that he was no longer interested in teacher advisory.
So the reality is more complicated than this story indicates. The school board has asked the Gunn administration to return with a plan for comparable services, but with a substantial set of conditions attached. The Gunn administration, however, is contending with a senior district leadership that opposes consideration of teacher advisory, which is realistically the best (and probably the only) way to satisfy the school board's demand for truly comparable services with Paly. According to school board members, as of two weeks ago Gunn staff had not even met with Paly teachers to discuss teacher advisory, despite having had over a month to do so. It's difficult to see how Gunn can return to the school board, in the face of the position of senior district leadership, with anything other than a plan for more delay. Unfortunately, the school board is likely to accept that delay unless parents communicate clearly to board members that they really do want guidance services at Gunn as effective as those the district is delivering at Paly.
For more details and links to data, you can visit Web Link.