Principals describe 'new campus cultures'
Attention to student feedback, mental health stressed in report to board
The new principals at Gunn and Palo Alto high schools stressed a "change of culture" on their campuses in their first formal presentations before the Palo Alto Board of Education this week.
At Gunn, which suffered a cluster of student deaths by suicide last year, many more students are "breaking the code of silence" and speaking with counselors when they're worried about a friend who seems depressed, Assistant Principal Kim Cowell said.
"We have a lot of kids who get it," Cowell said in a special meeting of the school board Wednesday.
"It used to be, 'I can't tell, my friend will get mad at me,' but it's not that way any more. The change in the school culture in getting help is a major milestone."
The two principals who assumed their roles last summer, Katya Villalobos of Gunn and Phil Winston of Paly, said they frequently exchange texts and e-mails and recently dined together at Hobee's in Town & Country Village to compare notes.
Both described concerted efforts to keep their doors open as well as wander around campus to speak with students and solicit viewpoints.
"If you ask for somebody's opinion, you have to do it authentically," Winston said. "If you get information different from what you'd hoped for, there's nothing wrong with acknowledging that and asking how we can use it to make our lives better."
Based on student feedback, Winston said he'd made "pretty dramatic changes" in Paly's new tutorial program. Introduced at Paly last fall, tutorial is a period every Thursday in which teachers are available to provide extra help, or students may simply find a spot on campus to study.
At first, students were permitted to go to only one teacher's classroom. Now, students may see multiple teachers during tutorial, or go to the library, the Academic Resource Center or physical education facilities.
"As the year has evolved, students are making appointments and seeing guidance and college counselors during tutorial. We are also having guest speakers for students during tutorial," Winston said.
At Gunn, administrators said they've held "adult education" sessions intended to help immigrant parents understand the U.S. system of high school and college preparation.
"Especially for some of our parents who are not from the U.S., they have no clue about college-admissions tests — why would they?" Cowell said. "We want to help them understand what that's all about."
Villalobos also pointed to the College Pathway project at Gunn, aimed at supporting minority students and their parents in the college-prep process.
At Paly, Winston said he had lunch with "underrepresented (minority) students," and later placed them in groups of 10 with faculty volunteers.
"I had lunch with them to explain our motives," Winston said. "There's no hidden agenda here — we want our students to go to college.
"To really meet students' needs you have to actually sit down with folks and have a conversation. They aren't data. You have to understand each other, and understand where they're coming from.
"We have spreadsheets to get information from the students who need us, and use the information to have honest conversations about what we need to do better. I don't think we'll make good movement until we really dedicate ourselves to that."
Winston said the faculty volunteers are "challenging each other to see who can meet with their 10 first, so it puts us in a proactive mood."
Mindful of two teen deaths by suicide this month at the Caltrain tracks — one a Paly student in a residence, and another a 19-year-old man who graduated from high school in another community — the principals mentioned mental health measures now in place on both campuses.
"We await the results of the Developmental Assets survey to guide us on what we can do to increase resiliency skills among our students," Villalobos said.
She said Gunn's peer support group known as ROCK "will be the foundation to build connectedness among students. The school also is exploring bringing the Challenge Day to campus, a program that describes its mission as providing "youth and their communities with experiential programs that demonstrate the possibility of love and connection through the celebration of diversity, truth and full expression."
In a recent survey taken by 350 students, 70 percent said "they have at least one adult in school they can go to with problems," Villalobos said.
"A remarkable culture shift has occurred," she added.
"Students are coming to counselors, teachers and administrators and sharing when they're worried about a friend, and there's more self-referring when they're distressed. Gunn's message that we're here to support them is getting through to students."
School board members responded to the principals' presentations with a standing ovation.
"The fact that the principals are collaborating so much together and seem to like each other is nice," Board President Melissa Baten Caswell said.
Staff Writer Chris Kenrick can be e-mailed at email@example.com.