Gunn to reform counseling program
New direction follows school board discussion of high school counseling models
Gunn High School administrators said they will move toward significant reforms in the school's guidance counseling program following a discussion with the Board of Education Tuesday night.
The sometimes emotional, four-hour discussion came in response to a consultant's report on guidance programs in Palo Alto's two high schools, which employ substantially different systems for counseling students.
Consultant Kelun Zhang said her report was intended "expressly not to compare the two models," and she did not recommend one high school's system over the other.
But several school board members expressed "a sense of urgency" for Gunn to explore changes, pointing to the survey of students that indicated consistently higher levels of satisfaction with counseling at Palo Alto High School than at Gunn.
Though saying they were loath to dictate specifics, a majority of board members suggested Gunn shift to a counseling system closer in structure to that at Paly, which augments its four-member guidance-counseling staff with 46 "teacher advisers" and several college counselors.
By contrast, Gunn employs six guidance counselors, who are charged with the gamut of academic advising, college and career counseling and student social-emotional health.
In particular, board members said they wanted to see more built-in "touch points" between students and adult counselors than the current once-a-year model at Gunn. At Paly, students meet in groups of 22 with their teacher-advisers at least monthly throughout their four years of high school. In junior year, they meet one-to-one with college counselors.
"I'm in no way saying we have to take a system from one school and dump it on another, but there are specific goals I'd like to see us do," board member Barbara Klausner said.
Gunn Principal Katya Villalobos and Superintendent Kevin Skelly said they will consult with staff members and return to the board in June with suggestions on how to proceed.
Zhang said she felt "discomfort" about data from her report being used to advocate one high school's system over the other's.
"The original intent of the report and study was expressly not to compare the two models or make recommendations about which is the right model," Zhang told the board.
Among Zhang's findings was that Paly spends more than Gunn on its guidance counseling program — about $1,522,536 compared to Gunn's $1,213,086 — when total salaries, benefits and stipends are considered.
Board members recalled that Gunn had elected instead to invest in smaller class sizes in English.
Skelly suggested it would be difficult and time-consuming for Gunn to fundamentally alter its model.
"These are not trivial changes. I'm not happy with the (survey) results at Gunn, and I'd like them to be as high or higher than Paly's are, but these are part of a larger ecosystem at those schools.
"We know we need to add resources at Gunn or experiment with different things," he said.
But board members and others kept returning to the surveys, with high response rates at both schools, reporting consistently higher levels of satisfaction with counseling at Paly.
"We can't have different investments at the two schools in something as important as this," board member Melissa Baten Caswell said.
"I'm OK with small differences, but this just seems like we have major differences, and I don't understand it in a community with only two high schools.
"I'd like to know what's going to be different next year as a result of this," Caswell said.
Klausner cited a comparison chart prepared by the community group We Can Do Better Palo Alto, which reformatted data from Zhang's student survey into a direct comparison of satisfaction levels at the two schools.
"Given that Paly's numbers ... are higher, I'd like to look at those and figure out if there's something to be adapted," Klausner said. "There's something our students at Gunn are not getting."
We Can Do Better, which advocates for policies to reduce academic stress, has pushed aggressively for the past year for Gunn to adopt Paly's teacher-adviser model.
The group assembled seven parents Tuesday who spoke in favor of Gunn adopting Paly's model.
"A year ago we brought forward evidence of student and parent satisfaction levels at Paly much higher than those at Gunn, and a year later we have more evidence of exactly the same thing," We Can Do Better co-founder Ken Dauber said.
"There really isn't any further reason for delay.
"I know the district instructed our consultant not to compare these two schools. I don't know why that was. I'd like to hear that because it seems like a real missed opportunity.
"We have a lot of analytic ability here that has not been fully made use of," Dauber said.
"It's really time to stop wondering what's going on or looking for the underlying reasons and to give to Gunn parents and students what you're giving to Paly parents and students. It's a simple matter of equity and fairness," he said.
TALK ABOUT IT
Do you favor changing Gunn High School's guidance system to more closely resemble the one at Palo Alto High? Talk about the issue on Town Square, the community discussion forum on Palo Alto Online.
READ MORE ONLINE
The consultant's 43-page report is available on online at www.PaloAltoOnline.com/pivot/?counseling.
Staff Writer Chris Kenrick can be emailed at email@example.com.