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 âhave 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