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School board prez Dana Tom reverses course, scuttles push for Gunn counseling equity

Original post made by Curious on Jun 13, 2013

Under pressure from PAUSD Superintendent Kevin Skelly at Tuesday's school board meeting, trustee Dana Tom abandoned his earlier insistence on systemic change to bring guidance services at Gunn to parity with Paly. Tom, who just 3 months ago made statements strongly supportive of equity between Paly and Gunn in counseling services, turned back an appeal from trustee Melissa Caswell to delay a vote on Gunn's plan.

Caswell advocated withholding action until Gunn returned with a timetable for implementing the full set of recommendations of a joint staff-parent committee, including the expansion of a teacher-advisory style freshman program, Titan 101, to all grades. Tom's reversal denied Caswell the support needed to create a tie 2-2 vote against approving Gunn's plan. Trustee Barbara Mitchell was not present at Tuesday's meeting.

The school board accepted Gunn's plan for next year, which includes additional assemblies for sophomores, improvements to Gunn's website, and a committee to study possible changes to the Gunn bell schedule to enable more contacts between counselors and students. Gunn staff will vote in March on that committee's recommendations.

The school board meeting came on the heels of the district's 2013 strategic plan survey, which found "a large gap in non-academic counseling satisfaction across Gunn and Paly": 54% of parents at Gunn expressed satisfaction compared with 73% of Paly parents, and 58% of Gunn students versus 68% at Paly. See Web Link, pp. 27-28. For availability of counselors, 63% of Gunn students and 75% of Paly students were satisfied, while for quality of support the gap was 60% versus 73%.

The study also found that for college and career counseling "overall satisfaction is much higher at Palo Alto High School." For example, 72% of Paly parents but only 46% of Gunn parents said that their students receive effective college counseling. These gaps tracked closely a 2012 district survey on counseling at the two high schools, as well as similar data collected for previous WASC and strategic plan surveys dating back many years.

Superintendent Skelly castigated Gunn parents who cited these results and others from previous district surveys, saying that "some things are more important than surveys." Skelly said that Gunn's success in placing students in elite colleges demonstrated that Gunn is "one of the top schools in the United States" and urged board members to support the Gunn plan. He rejected parent calls to bring Gunn guidance up to parity with Paly as a claim that Gunn is "broken."

Tom followed Skelly's remarks by criticizing Gunn parents for representing Paly as a "Shangri-La" and warned that changing Gunn to a counseling model closer to Paly's teacher-advisor model risked "breaking Gunn." A year ago, Tom reacted to the data on the counseling gap by calling delivery of comparable services to Gunn students an "urgent" issue that demanded "systemic" change. Tom lives in the Paly district, as do all of the other board members except for board newcomer Heidi Emberling whose children are not yet high school age.

Gunn was returning to the school board three months after a March 19 meeting at which it presented an earlier version of its plan. At that meeting, the school board heard the report of the Gunn Advisory Committee (GAC), which was appointed in fall 2012 to devise improvements in Gunn guidance counseling following a year and a half of controversy over the large gap in service and satisfaction with Paly. The committee's recommendations included dozens of measures, including an expansion of the Titan 101 freshman advisory program to include sophomores, juniors and seniors.

At the March meeting, board members told Gunn principal Katya Villalobos and PAUSD Director of Secondary Education Michael Milliken that they were unwilling to approve a one-year plan that lacked specifics on full implementation of the GAC recommendations. Board members also stated that they wanted to see a statement of who at Gunn would be responsible for each component of a multi-year plan. Villalobos and Milliken promised to return with a plan incorporating those details, but the plan approved by the school board on Tuesday lacked any of these elements. See Web Link.

At Tuesay's meeting, Caswell reiterated the board's March criteria, and said she would “have trouble taking action" on Gunn's plan when it still did not meet the board's criteria. Caswell pressed on Tuesday for a timetable for Gunn staff to return with details on how progress would be measured and plans for 2014-15 and beyond. Caswell specifically indicated that she wanted to hear from Tom about whether he would support her desire to have more details from Gunn but Tom refused to do so.

Caswell asked for staff to return in the fall with more details on how they would implement all of the GAC recommendations including those on expanding Titan 101, but staff resisted and agreed only to return nearly a year from now, iin March 2014 with an update on future plans. Michael Milliken, who leaves the district on July 1, told the board that Gunn reserves the right not to implement any more of the GAC's recommendations, including expansion of Titan 101 to other grades.

GAC member Amy Balsom, a Gunn parent, told the school board that the GAC was opposed to a "piecemeal" use of its recommendations, and urged trustees to provide Gunn staff with consulting support for change management to implement the comprehensive set of GAC recommendations. Balsom expressed confidence in the staff's interest in change but concern that the staff lacked the skill necessary to manage a complex change process. Skelly appeared to bristle at Balsom's suggestion, saying that Gunn staff were capable on their own of managing the change.

Tom, who a year ago characterized the counseling gap as an "urgent" issue requiring "systemic" change at Gunn, on Tuesday voted to give Gunn another year to decide whether or not

Comments (11)

Posted by spectator at large, a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Jun 13, 2013 at 10:49 pm

spectator at large is a registered user.

WOW! Curious, I can't believe this report. I was out of town and did not have a chance to view this or read any other news about it. I am very very disappointed.

This bit really upset me:

"Superintendent Skelly castigated Gunn parents who cited these results and others from previous district surveys, saying that "some things are more important than surveys." Skelly said that Gunn's success in placing students in elite colleges demonstrated that Gunn is "one of the top schools in the United States"

Which brings to mind the survey that Kevin sent out requesting that parents, staff and community members rate his performance. Who was able to view those survey results? Just Skelly? We need to get a public records release of this information. I know plenty friends, neighbors and staff that told me that they sent in very unfavorable remarks about Skelly. We need to have them published and available to the public. I even have a very old neighbor who used to work for the district and she keeps on asking me when Kevin Skelly is going to take a walk. I find this whole thing over the top disturbing. Dana Tom, you are a disgrace for backing down on doing the right thing. All of the school board members are a disgrace as well. Our students are hurting and the best they can do is give Gunn another year to futz around? Geeze.......what happens when the next student tries to seriously harm themselves? Blame it on the student's mental health which has nothing to do with academic stress or a anything happening or not happening at school? Or maybe they will just blame it on the Bossa Nova and just move on? It is a friggin joke!


Posted by The Spin Doctor is In, a resident of Adobe-Meadows
on Jun 13, 2013 at 11:10 pm

Here's the link to the "un-spun" story from earlier this week: Web Link


Posted by jls mom of 2, a resident of JLS Middle School
on Jun 13, 2013 at 11:18 pm

jls mom of 2 is a registered user.

If by "unspun" you mean missing a lot of facts and the actual story, yes. But since it is impossible to understand what actually happened when from the Weekly's story, i.e., that the board was reversing course from 3 months ago and caving to pressure from Skelly, I for one appreciate Curious's reporting.

I would have included more details like the fact that Trinity Klein lied and said that Gunn's plan had been "run by the GAC" and Amy Balsom flatly contradicted her but no one on the board cared that she lied. Subordinates tend to take on the characteristics of the org's CEO and in this case, Skelly's penchant for lying to the board seems to have trickled down. Lucky us.

Thanks Curious! Editor, it's incredibly bad form of you to lock this thread 10 minutes after it went up. What's your point? Your reporter missed the story again and you don't like it being pointed out to you? Maybe you can double lock it and put a deadbolt on it now.


Posted by spectator at large, a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Jun 13, 2013 at 11:40 pm

spectator at large is a registered user.

jls mom of 2: I am a registered user but I don't think that the editor has locked this yet in fairness to the Weekly. I just chose to use my registered name since I had just posted on another thread.

Skelly has lied many times about many things so one should not be surprised. I can't wait to see the survey results!


Posted by village fool, a resident of another community
on Jun 14, 2013 at 1:08 am

village fool is a registered user.

@Curious - thank you! I am sorry to see another informational thread being restricted to users who are logged in. It happened fast.
@jls mom of 2 - I also do not understand the fast closure. It seems to me that this happens recently by far more frequently than before. The fastest one was the following thread - Web Link which was started by "Igor Brockovich" -this thread was locked prior to any comments. Refreshing the views page occasionally, presented significant interest.
The recent closures had me start a thread, asking ( Web Link) - I got some interesting responses, including a link provided by "outside observer" to a past event that had the Stanford newspaper provide info in responding to a request that seemed to be violating the constitution.


Posted by village fool, a resident of another community
on Jun 15, 2013 at 9:51 am

village fool is a registered user.

@Curious - I am wondering about the timing of the Tuesday Gunn guidance presentation. As far as I recall - the school staff let all know on March that they had 10 days to prepare. I do not know for how long this presentation was known to all.
I am sorry to see the discussion gone. Three out of the five comments this thread had (prior to me adding this one) were posted when the thread was restricted, already.
The fast locking is appalling, especially given your post above. Obviously, a significant amount of time was put into researching, checking facts and writing this thread. It seems to me that your caring about the important issues triggered your postings. Thank you. If I could open an open board, I would.


Posted by jls mom of 2, a resident of JLS Middle School
on Jun 15, 2013 at 10:36 am

jls mom of 2 is a registered user.

VF I agree with you that it was really a shame that this got locked so fast. You are right that what happened in the Gunn case was that the school staff said that they didn't have a multi-year plan in March when they presented the first time. The board asked them to take a few months and come back in June with a plan. The school agreed but then came back with nothing really more than what they had in March and with a plan to allow the teachers to vote on whether or not to implement advisory. I am not sure what the point of the GAC was if the ultimate decision was left up to the teacher vote anyway. The GAC was dominated by staff (9 staff and 6 parents). The staff on the GAC already unanimously supported expanding Titan 101 to all 4 grades. That was the committee that was supposed to make a recommendation and it made it. Why are the teachers voting? Because the board is run by Dana Tom, a Paly parent, who says Paly is not "Shangri-La" and by that he means ???. Tom and the other Paly parents on the board (along with clueless little Heidi Emberling whose oldest child is in 7th grade) doesn't really care about the fact that during the six years that Gunn is now giving as its best case scenario for implementing Titan 102, 3000 more Gunn students will graduate with far inferior social emotional and college counseling services. His kids got the best the district has to offer and that's what counts.


Posted by village fool, a resident of another community
on Jun 15, 2013 at 12:40 pm

village fool is a registered user.

@jls mom of 2 - Thank you for your detailed response. As far as I recall, there was a discussion during the March meeting about the timing of the follow up that ended taking place past Tuesday. If I remember correctly, Skelly's initial response was - 10 days, or so. It seems to me that the current plan is some type of patching, resulting from other unaddressed issues.
I am convinced that independent investigation - for which the Weekly have called, among many others - is crucial prior to being able to seriously check such an issue as this thread is dealing with, an issue which impacts so many kids, and is so important given the unfortunate past. I have listed my questions regarding this issue here (Web Link). One of the questions I listed: Was Gunn ever given the freedom to explore all options? I do not know. I think it is hard to figure out prior to undersigning the issues that had the Weekly and others call for an independent investigation.


Posted by jls mom of 2, a resident of JLS Middle School
on Jun 15, 2013 at 3:53 pm

jls mom of 2 is a registered user.

You ask a good question -- "Was Gunn ever given the freedom to explore all options?" When I first read this, I immediately thought yes, the Board directed Gunn to consider all options. However, thinking about the history of this, I am not so sure. It is, as you say, hard to know exactly what has happened here given the amount of secrecy and lack of transparency that has come to characterize district and board operations.

It seems to me possible that Skelly and Milliken engineered the process behind the scenes and let the school know that TA was not the direction that was desired. All the teachers and admins voted as a bloc inside the GAC to vote down advisory when it came to a vote and 5/6 parents supported it. However, last year there were many emails between the Gunn union stewards, the principal, and Dr. Skelly that made it clear that at least some teachers were adamantly opposed to TA. It seemed from those emails last year that Katya was getting pushed around by the teachers, and Skelly didn't really want TA anyway so he wasn't going to fight them over it. At least last year I didn't see evidence that the school was not allowed to consider TA. THe evidence seemed to be that a small subset of teachers was pushing around the weak and not all that smart principal, that Skelly doesn't think much of TA and considers it an over-investment in counseling anyway (he stated in email that he didn't think freshman and sophomores ever needed to see a counselor and that he thinks the purpose of guidance counseling is college counseling). The board continually instructed Skelly to ensure that TA was considered, but Skelly continually sent the message to the principal and teachers that they didn't have to do so: Web Link


Posted by village fool, a resident of another community
on Jun 15, 2013 at 10:41 pm

village fool is a registered user.

Thank you. My question is part of a longer comment including five additional questions I posted here - (Web Link), very bottom of the thread. I noted that: "As far as I recall - only documents that were provided after exercising the Brown act revealed that Gunn officials were instructed, sometime way in the past, not to consider the "North" TA program. I do not know if these instructions were ever retracted."
I do not know, I do not have the time to research, now. I also noted that I believe that: "the current available data may be contaminated by the lack of transparency and lack of best practices. When there is fear of retaliation and lack of transparency everything is possible."
At this point I am convinced, as I mentioned, that there is no way to seriously address any issue prior to an independent investigation.
It seems to me that your description above about the differences between the schools, including personal background of the board members, possible irrelevant considerations that may be impacting the current decision process, is supporting my strong belief as to the necessity of an independent investigation. Some issues can be very complex. Adding lack of trust, lack of transparency, fear of retaliation etc., can easily mask the essence of the issues being addressed.
And - This dialog is taking place in the thread started by Curious. I noted above that I was appalled by the fast closure of the thread. I could not anticipate that. I am pretty sure that Curious could not anticipate as well. I am noting, again, since I mentioned in this comment that I am not sure about some facts. I could take the time and try to research. At this point I would not, since I can not know when a thread will be locked, what will be removed from a of a comment etc.


Posted by Peggy Duncan, a resident of Community Center
on Jun 17, 2013 at 5:21 pm

Peggy Duncan is a registered user.

I read this on one of the bullying threads. The original writer is complaining about the superintendent (I do agree, I have to say). I also want to say "thank you" to Curious for posting these stories, they are very informative to us who are not following school issues as closely as you are.

"If you really believe in local control, then you believe that our locally-elected politicians and salaried leaders should be leading and directing this district because right now this chap Curious seems to be having a bigger impact than any other PAUSD employee. Maybe he or she is an employee, but his post on summer school fees, hidden in the cellar of the Forum, led to an embarrassing about-face by Skelly and the board. I'm not paying all the taxes, bonds, special fees, and donations to PiE so that Curious can act as our superintendent, and that is one of dozens of embarrassments why reform is needed, beginning with the release of Skelly. Board, you can do this today, there will be no negative impact more than the current level of dysfunction, but it will signal a new beginning. He clearly does not have the honor to do so himself, but this about the kids, now, not the adults.


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