By Jay Thorwaldson
On Deadline: There are many ways to feel 'connected' in school, not all positiveUploaded: Jun 20, 2011
Over the years I have made it a practice to ask adults -- most of them more or less successful in their lives -- if they were straight-A students in high school.
Most just laugh, chuckle or smile knowingly at my basic journalistic query. A few declared they hated high school, adding that it was far worse than college.
So my question is how to translate that chuckle into a community culture that is telling kids that unless they are hyper-performers getting 4-point-something grades they are falling short and are likely to be failures in life.
I use the word "translate" because the idea of something less than tops seems to be a foreign language to many young persons and their families and peers.
The potential tragedy of the hyper-standard is that it leaves many students feeling bad about themselves. The sense that a young person may not be able to "measure up" seems to have played a background role, at least, in some of the deaths of young persons in the past decade.
But school officials reported a strongly positive statistic this month at a Board of Education meeting: That 89 percent of Gunn High School students felt "connected" to their school (as reported June 15 in the Weekly, available online with comments at www.paloaltoonline.com/news/show_story.php?id=21480 ).
That's great news, even though some parents have pointed out that it is based on a pretty broad question and that it is based on a 2008 survey.
The important element in the story is that school officials are striving mightily this year to strengthen a "supportive school environment," which officials outlined in some detail to the school board.
Defining that phrase also could be a bit vague, but for the most part it means school staff paying more attention to individual students, and simply spending more time talking with students.
But there's a deeper message, or need, known in educational and psychological circles for decades: Caring.
Most adults, I believe, can look back on at least ONE teacher or school official who took a personal interest in their well-being beyond test results or grades. The lucky ones had several teachers or staffers who cared about them, knew them, talked to them.
Here's a challenge and invitation: In the "Comment" section below, share with me and the community an anecdote about YOUR "teacher who cared" and how he or she made a difference to you.
I was lucky: As editor of the student newspaper at Los Gatos High School decades ago I got to know Principal Fred Canrinus pretty well, yet had a hostile relationship with the Dean of Boys. But I had a terrific journalism teacher, a great freshman English teacher, a super speech teacher and a really fine history teacher. I won't discuss my grades (I spent a lot of time on the newspaper), but I learned a lot.
In a few cases friendships formed that lasted far beyond high school.
On the surface, developing a "caring" environment might seem simple enough. But reality quickly sets in when one looks at the teacher/student or counselor/student ratios.
And at many high schools the role of "counselor" leaves room for broad interpretation. Should they have primarily an academic focus or focus primarily on students' emotional well-being?
In the Palo Alto schools they seem to be expected to do both, which raises the question of whether they can do either well, either by time or training.
Once, back in the 1970s, Palo Alto's then-three high schools had "special problems counselors" on each campus. District budget woes and some other issues ended that program.
The district also for a time had an active "peer counseling" program where trained students, usually older, spent time with students struggling with school life.
Today, the community-based Adolescent Counseling Service fills in for many of the emotional issues with students -- although there still seems to be some barrier problems between identifying students in need of some help and the ACS counselors. And ACS is struggling with its own budget woes and is seeking more community support.
As for the "good news" statistic of 89 percent connectedness, some parents quickly note that that means 11 percent of high school students don't feel connected or strongly connected to the school: More than one in 10!
So several hundred students don't feel linked to their high school, a scary number but also not new. A much higher percentage reported they didn't know to whom they could turn at school for help if needed.
And what does "connected" mean again?
In a non-positive sense, it could mean imprisoned, chained, bound by the daily grind of bells and hustle and nightly grind of homework and worry about their performance, future lives (and college), and parental and peer approval.
And it's long been known that about 10 to 15 percent of students are struggling, often due to family situations, some type of childhood abuse or personal mental-health issue (such as depression).
But focusing on the positive is essential in sustaining the energy of parents, teachers, counselors, administrators and students themselves.
Yes, there are students who are struggling to feel linked positively to their school, even classmates.
Yes, there are students who need help and should be encouraged to seek help: Help helps in most cases.
And yes, yes there are teachers, parents, adults of all persuasions who really care if someone is hurting. (Let someone know!)
That's the truly good news, kids.