Balancing student emotional health, academics

Annual school board retreat allows members to discuss how to confront challenges of upcoming school year

Around a table littered with napkins, stacks of documents, car keys and carafes of iced tea, Palo Alto Board of Education members Monday grappled with challenges of the upcoming school year.

Two questions dominated the day, reflecting the razor's edge balance in the district:

What specific things can schools do to support the social-emotional health of students?

How can schools boost college readiness among low-achieving students while helping top students realize their Stanford and Ivy League dreams?

Both questions are set in a context of a district spanning 19 campuses with nearly 12,000 students from kindergarten through high school.

The setting was the board's annual two-day retreat, held this year, as it was last year, in donated space at the University Club of Palo Alto.

But there was no swimming or tennis. Except for restroom breaks, board members never left a small conference room where sandwiches and cookies were delivered to fuel the conversation.

The retreat offers board members and Superintendent Kevin Skelly a chance to step back from daily distractions to hammer out broad, long-term goals and priorities.

Ways to bolster the social-emotional health of students dominated the day's discussion, though there was little direct mention of the four student suicides in 2009 that catapulted that issue to community-wide -- even national -- attention.

Board members sought to define a policy to assure emotional health is addressed on every campus while giving principals' leeway to tailor specific approaches to the needs of their particular school.

"I don't want to be prescriptive about specific tactics, but I would like all the schools involved," board member Barb Mitchell said.

"I want it to be a limited number of initiatives ... that are manageable and realistic."

Mitchell expressed concern that the lengthy to-do list in last month's report of the community-wide coalition Project Safety Net is not realistic.

"We need to communicate a much narrower set of expectations than we have right now," she said. "We have to communicate what we're taking on from (Project Safety Net)."

"I think this community is so much on the same page, and we're just struggling over different documents and language."

Board member Camille Townsend said she welcomed the involvement of the city, non-profit agencies and religious groups in the broad question of teen well-being.

The vast majority of parents – 80 percent, according to surveys – think their own children are "doing fine," she said.

"I want to have a balanced statement that recognizes that," she said. "On the other hand, there are kids in particular distress and those are the ones you want to work on this year."

Last year the board spent great effort on the "tip of the pyramid with kids who are especially at risk," board chair Barbara Klausner said.

"This year we'll focus more on the base of the pyramid" using the youth-wellness program developed by Project Cornerstone -- known as the 41 Developmental Assets.

In the academic arena, board members also said they want to help vulnerable students while not neglecting the top achievers.

"It's similar to what we say about social-emotional health," board member Dana Tom said.

"We're interested in helping the kids who are at risk, but we want to help all kids.

"Are we doing enough for our middle and higher-end students so they have strong advocates to help them get into the stronger colleges?

"Our schools are so strong. If they're subject to any kinds of quotas, or some kind of cap (on admission to top colleges) ... that's not a fair thing.

"Is there some kind of advocacy we need to be doing with colleges?"

Board members expressed concern that repeated survey results show many elementary parents feel their children are not sufficiently challenged in math.

Another complaint often heard from parents is that their child has been identified as "gifted," but has not been given extra challenges, members said.

Several members noted an increasing number of district children are taking some "high-end" classes out of the district at private institutions such as Lydian Academy, the School for Independent Learners and St. Francis High School.

Members urged greater attention to "relationship-building" between the district's counseling staff and admissions officials at top colleges.

"What do our counselors do to develop relationships at schools our community cares about?" board member Melissa Baten Caswell asked.

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Posted by palo alto mom
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Aug 3, 2010 at 11:25 am

Thank you to the BOE and Superintendent for discussing these important topics.

As a reminder, when the kids were asked what would reduce their stress in school, there were two VERY easy to implement items at the top of their list:

Respectful, kind teachers
Prompt return of homework, papers and tests.

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Posted by Concerned mom
a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 3, 2010 at 12:44 pm

Why are we surprised that our kids feel pressure when even the school board is focused on our kids getting into "top colleges", defined as Ivy League colleges or Stanford? I would prefer the district's counseling staff spend more time getting to know our kids and finding schools right for them than developing relationships with admissions officers at top colleges. How are we defining success for our students?

Like this comment
Posted by DeeDee
a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 3, 2010 at 2:16 pm

Full-time, credentialed counselors at every elementary school who provide a comprehensive, developmental guidance curriculum would be a good start!

Like this comment
Posted by another
a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 3, 2010 at 2:46 pm

How about discontinuing the practice of finishing up textbooks before STAR testing? Let kids have those extra six weeks to learn instead of cramming. Our teachers and schools already have high grades!

How about recognizing that many of our minimum level or unlaned high school courses go above and beyond UC requirements, excluding some kids from our system? That is stressful when your cousins in another middle-class part of the state or country are doing courses which are not available to you just because you live in Palo Alto.

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Posted by palo alto mom
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Aug 3, 2010 at 3:52 pm

another - or your cousin is taking the same AP class at a top school district in another part of the state - and their class is half the work and they are done when the AP test is given? And you both score the same on your AP test?

We can be rigorous without making school impossible for some - is it any wonder we have an achievement gap?

BTW - Paly has only one full-time and one part-time college counselor, I think they are mainly funded by PiE.

Like this comment
Posted by Palo alto mom
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Aug 3, 2010 at 4:06 pm

For those who are concerned we are not serving our top students well enough on their quest to top schools -kids from Paly going to IVY's and Stanford:

Stanford – 11
Harvard – 2
Yale – 3
Brown – 6
Dartmouth – 3
Princeton – 2
Cornell – 3
Penn -1

Add a few other top schools:

UCLA – 5
MIT – 1
Cal - 17

7% of the Class of 2010 from Paly are attending Ivy's or Stanford. More than 12% are going to top schools. I think we are serving our "top students" very well.

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Posted by another
a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 3, 2010 at 5:44 pm

Palo Alto Mom, I don't recall mentioning AP classes at all. Those students make the choice to go to accelerated programs. I am talking about students who do not. Lower and middle lanes of high school classes and middle school classes tend to be accelerated here also.

I agree that we are serving our 7% well. I'm wondering if we are serving the middle percentage - is the material accessable to all of them? Are these 7% worth pressurizing the middle 80% of the students?

Like this comment
Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on Aug 4, 2010 at 4:05 am

Interesting to see those Paly stats. Not much different than Cubberley 40 years ago (I have that old Catamount issue somewhere). To be meaningful however, we'd need the number of seniors who wished to attend such colleges and failed to gain admission. Perhaps many of the remaining 88% are top students we are not serving well.

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Posted by palo alto mom
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Aug 4, 2010 at 8:52 am

As a district we are definitely not doing enough for the lower 80% of the students.

More Paly stats:

Stanford - 94 applied, 14 accepted, 11 enrolled
Yale - 27 applied, 7 accepted, 3 enrolled
Cal - 132 applied, 38 accepted, 17 enrolled
UCLA - 127 applied, 37 accepted, 5 enrolled

Another - my comment about AP classes was to illustrate that we are more rigorous than we need to be at all levels. And there is a big difference between the high schools, for example, Gunn offers 3 levels of Biology in 9th grade, Paly offers only one.

I'd like to see some consistency between the schools so our students have the same academic opportunities at both.

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Posted by Count your blessings
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Aug 4, 2010 at 1:36 pm

PA Mom,

What I see from the selected stats you post is that less than 1/2 of the top 20% you mention get into the colleges you listed.

So are you saying that:

1. The 80% who don't apply to these colleges need more help getting the grades and scores so they'd qualify too?
2. The 20% who apply but don't get in need more help?
3. Both?

Certainly you must realize that these colleges reject tons of qualified candidates and that grades are not the only factor colleges look at for entrance; much has to do with the student's interests, what he/she does outside of school, what he/she can afford, how close to home the student wants to stay . . .

And then there is the quota factor alluded to in the article. Colleges can't take everyone who applies from one school even if all were qualified (and probably have quotas on the number they can take from a town anyway). The college entrance stats don't tell me much about the quality of education we get here in Palo Alto.

There are plenty of great colleges in addition to those name brand ones you mention. That almost all Palo Alto kids go to college is good, very good.

If you have concerns about specific classes being too hard or too easy, I'd let the school know about that. With all the classes available, difficulty in a class may mean that the teacher is not the best fit for your child (happens at every school) or your child needs to move to a different level Paly offers.

What's really impressed me about Paly is the amazing number of options kids have - in classes and after school. That's why so many who can afford private school opt instead to go public for high school here. If you look around at other high schools in the Bay Area or state you'll see how incredible our schools are here.

Like this comment
Posted by Gunn Parent
a resident of South of Midtown
on Aug 4, 2010 at 3:31 pm

This is why I don't go to the 'parent meetings' as they generally devolve into this sort of small minded nattering by people who don't seem able to understand the concept of well being as it relates to young people.

Like this comment
Posted by Pay Attention to the Conversation
a resident of Downtown North
on Aug 4, 2010 at 4:25 pm

(Anyone notice how the topic has drifted from the original few posts? Where it is now? What is being offered as a measure?)

Drifting back: I look forward to seeing how concrete strategies, like Paly's later start time and 4-Day block schedule, affect students' sense of well-being AND engagement in their subjects. The intent is that it will help both. The school's action on this reveals their belief that something needed to be done and that they care enough to make a major change on their campus.

Thank you, Paly teachers and leaders, for making it happen, for trying it out - for honoring, and finding a way to implement what students have been requesting for years.

The challenge the school board and admin shouldn't be for the lack of ideas, or for which to choose - these are well known and in practice at good schools around us and across the nation. The challenge is in actually making a decision to change, to act, to lead. Paly leaders whoever you are - thank you.

Like this comment
Posted by HPA
a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 4, 2010 at 6:24 pm

The changes of getting into a top school are very slim. Yet, I hear kids in elementary and middle school saying that they are "going to" Standford or Cal . . . This kind of thinking spreads from child to child. The kids seem to have no idea that the odds are against them. The last kid that told me that he was going to Stanford was struggling in elementary school. I didn't know what to say (so I said nothing). It really bothers me to think, however, how disappointed this child (and all the others) will be when it doesn't happen. Obviously, this child's parents put the idea into his head. This is a lot of pressure to put on someone. Times have changed. It is much harder to get in to these places now.

It would be better if people would be more careful about what they say to young kids in Palo Alto about what they should expect. This way kids can grow up "looking forward" to going to a college that fits their needs/interests. Students could then focus on what interests them without having to feel that they need to get an A in everything.

There would be less disappointment if the subject of colleges was dealt with more honestly right from the start.

Like this comment
Posted by They Grow Up
a resident of another community
on Aug 5, 2010 at 9:05 am

Ever thought that around here "going to Stanford" is another way for kids to say they are going to college? After all, it is the college they hear about, their parents may have gone to, and they've seen. Don't impute too much meaning into what comes out of the mouth of babes.

My kids said they wanted to go to Stanford when they were young too without knowing anything really about it other than it was college, and certainly without our or others' pressure or prompting.

Soon enough, kids grow up and get a better view of what they want and where they want to go, live happy full lives, and are not scarred by not having gone to Stanford.

Like this comment
Posted by another
a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 5, 2010 at 12:06 pm

Gunn Parent, How is asking for high school level classes at a high school small minded nattering?

Like this comment
Posted by Gunn Parent
a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 5, 2010 at 10:16 pm

To Palo Alto Mom, resident of Embarcadero Oaks,
You did such a good job at letting us know the statistics of the universities where students applied and where they enrolled, however you forgot to mention, that some students got knowhere even though they tried very hard, and some unfortunate only got to the grave yard. The district is doing a very poor job.

Like this comment
Posted by Gunn/Paly
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Aug 5, 2010 at 11:50 pm

I'll tell you what the problem with Gunn and Paly is. It is good that students are so focused on academics, but as an alum I think the schools lack collaborative and supportive environment where students celebrate each others' successes rather than try to put others down. Another problem is serious lack of meaningful extra curricular activities. I did several ECs, but I found that many students were just trying to add stuff for college apps instead of trying to get real value out of and grow from the experiences. It is possible to have great academics as well as a great and resilient personality, but too often people at Gunn and Paly are too narrowly focused on the academics, ignoring other aspects of their lives, including health and happiness. In the long run this only hurts students.

Like this comment
Posted by Mike
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Aug 6, 2010 at 12:30 am

I agree with "Gunn/Paly".

I would say a large part of the problem is that going to a good college is framed in a such a way that some students think their life will be ruined if they don't attend a Top 10 or 25 school. At the end of the day, getting a good education is important (for sure!), but hard work and practical real-life skills (like team work and a good attitude) make the difference.

Like this comment
Posted by new in town
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 6, 2010 at 8:31 am

I just read that 25% of graduates of Hunter College High School in NYC attend Ivy League colleges. This is a gifted high school that only accepts high IQ kids who pass a rigorous entrance exam.

Newsweek does not even include Hunter in its ranking because (their words) "despite their exceptional quality, their sky-high SAT and ACT scores indicate they have few or no average students"

These are all high IQ kids - no average kids - and only a quarter of them go to Ivies. Why any PA parent or school would expect even half of that acceptance rate at a public high school is beyond me - even those in the shadow of Stanford and Google, etc. Not everyone here is gifted intellectually - and thank goodness for that!

The culture of entitlement and expectation of an Ivy/UC education is unrealistic and detrimental to student's health and to having a sense of community that celebrates and honor the gifts of every one of our young adults.

I hope that the schools bring in plenty of examples of "successful" and happy adults who went to state colleges or non-UC universities.

Like this comment
Posted by Planner
a resident of another community
on Aug 6, 2010 at 8:40 am

Palo Alto Mom,
How did you get these Paly college acceptance statistics? I tried to access them on Paly's Naviance but couldn't find them there. Thanks in advance.

Like this comment
Posted by palo alto mom
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Aug 6, 2010 at 10:10 am

Planner - Naviance has the info under College, Acceptance Rates.

I posted this info because I think our BOE, while well meaning, needs to focus on the
"bottom" 85% of our students. The top kids are doing fine.

Count Your Blessings - that is my only comment - the top kids are doing fine and don't need more of the school's attention or energy The BOE was wondering if they needed to advocate at the colleges to eliminate a quota of PAUSD students.

We do not serve our average children well. For example, Biology is a graduation requirement, yet Paly offers only one level - an advanced level. Gunn offers 3 levels. So if the class is too hard for you, your only option is to do poorly.

Like this comment
Posted by ~tHe CaLlOuT~
a resident of Gunn High School
on Aug 7, 2010 at 2:25 am

Newsflash: it's not hard to get into a good school from Gunn. It's probably the same at Paly.

If you have B's and A's, you're pretty much guaranteed a spot in a CSU, if not one of the UC's. If you've got mostly A's and some AP's tossed in there, you might even get into Cal. (not Stanford though, since HERP DERP LEGACY)

"But A's and B's are hard to get, especially in this competitive environment!" you say? The only way to get anything less than a B- is to do all of the following:
1. Not pay attention in class (frantically copying down notes and not actually absorbing the material DOESN'T COUNT AS PAYING ATTENTION STOP DOING THAT)
2. Not do homework/copy from friends
3. Not study
4. Skip class regularly
Each of those lowers your grade about half a letter grade from my experience.

Few people really screw up and do all four. [Portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

Parents, here's something to try:
Next time your kids are "doing homework" or "studying with friends," check if they really are doing as they say. I guarantee you that most of them will be out talking about boyfriends and gorging at In-n-Out instead of working at the library, or are facebooking away instead of writing up that reading log. And yet they'll still pull A's and B's consistently.

You people don't know how good your kids have it, especially since you haven't been through the system. Ask your kids - see if they really feel they are being shortchanged.

Like this comment
Posted by ugh
a resident of Gunn High School
on Aug 7, 2010 at 2:32 am

don't add another dumb graduation requirement.

teaching about the birds and the bees in 5th grade wasn't helpful at all. the only fun thing was yelling PENIS out loud on the playground.

living skill is hella dumb too. so is FOUR YEARS OF ENGLISH AND FOUR YEARS OF HISTORY.

and if people can take AP physics C without a physics pre-req, then you should let people take AP bio and skip freshman bio to satisfy the bio requirement.

get rid of dumb requirements and remove obstacles to high level classes is the way to go. upper-tier kids can go straight to what they want, and lower-tier students don't get the grade-curve so skewed.

Like this comment
Posted by Gunn Graduate
a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 7, 2010 at 11:56 am

Does anyone think that rather than focusing on getting every student into an Ivy League college, we should focus on educating students about other terrific colleges that may not be as academically selective and may even be a more worthwhile experience than attending Harvard or Yale?
Last time I checked, the Ivy League schools and Stanford are hardly the only places where one can have a terrific education and a positive college experience. Speaking as a student who had his parents pressure him to attempt to get into all the top Ivy League schools and Stanford, I have to say that I have been very happy with my experience at Reed College, a school that few Gunn students apply to.

Like this comment
Posted by Planner
a resident of another community
on Aug 7, 2010 at 3:14 pm

Palo Alto Mom,

Thanks, but I still can't find it--there's no Acceptance Rates or History on the Paly Naviance that I could find:

Web Link

Gunn has it--maybe it's not available when you log in as a guest on the Paly Naviance?

Thanks again!

Like this comment
Posted by palo alto mom
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Aug 7, 2010 at 6:45 pm

Planner - looks like if you are logged in as a guest you can't access that on the Paly version, but I could get to it as a guest on Gunn's site...

Like this comment
Posted by Agreed
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Aug 7, 2010 at 8:41 pm

I agree with ugh. The graduation requirements are poorly structured. School administration, wake up and realize the graduation requirements are poorly structured in a "one size fits all" way. Give students the freedom to explore interests and achieve their potential.

Like this comment
Posted by Planner
a resident of another community
on Aug 8, 2010 at 11:41 am

Palo Alto Mom,

Thanks--that's what I thought. At least we have the stats you gave--thanks!

Like this comment
Posted by anonymous
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Aug 9, 2010 at 4:57 pm

Some students around here have the $ to do more than 20 college apps! The competition gets extreme - all on extraneous factors and one-upmanship.
Some students around here are lucky to be legacies/parents major donors at Ivies or Stanford. That sure helps with offers.
SOME students are more intelligent and research universities and colleges that should be a good fit and they apply to those rather than merely seek a BRAND LABEL.
Please learn to show some judgment and good taste, Palo Alto teens and parents.

Like this comment
Posted by Greer Stone
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 15, 2010 at 6:49 pm

There are two things that should be our main priorities as a community and as a school district: first, is the well-being of our students and the children of Palo Alto; second, is the academic success of ALL students in the district regardless of their GPA. As many people have posted above, our high schools have an incredible amount of graduates who go on to Ivy League schools and we should be proud of that. What we cannot be proud of is the well being of many of our children in the district. This goes for the horrible events that have taken place in the last few years where students have claimed their own lives, to students in our district who do not feel like they belong, to those who do not feel challenged enough in their studies.
The main thing that the school district needs to do is prioritize; not ignore the problems that our district has and find out how to squeeze three more students into the next incoming class at Stanford. When I say prioritize I mean that we need to fix the broken system inside our schools and find out why we have so many students committing suicide or being bored in class because they are not being challenged. We must recognize that there is a wide spectrum of students in our schools, and with a district of a population of 12,000 students, who would be shocked by this. We must be open to accommodations for students, allow for more ranges in class types where struggling students are given the resources to catch up and excelling students are given the opportunity to be the best that they can be. We must higher more counselors for each school, and train our teachers how to properly handle ‘at risk’ kids, to not only be there for the students as a teacher or a administrator, but also as a friend who they can turn to in times of need. Our schools must be a community for our children, not a prison where they feel stuck day in and day out.
Finally, we must incorporate ‘Community Based Schooling’, a term I have coined, to ensure that our students are in a school where they are known by their teachers and have the same teacher for more then a semester or a year, but for 2-3 years in order to develop a relationship with the students. This type of schooling would involve a team of teachers working together to insure that students are given a proper amount of work each week, and to watch out for at risk students (both academically and emotionally) throughout their years in school. We have programs like this at Paly, the Team program, and at Ohlone Elementary School, both of these programs and schools appear to be better off in the overall well being of students and that’s what we must focus on.
For too long has the school board neglected to answer these basic needs of the students in our community, and when we fail to do so we see the horrific circumstances which occur. It is for these, and many more, reasons why I am running for the school board next November. I believe it is time for our schools to start taking an interest in the well being of the students as a whole and less interested in boosting our Ivy League acceptance by one percent. Yes, academics is a key priority for any school, and our district must never loose sight of that, but to what extent do we sacrifice the well being of our children and students for those scores. We must strike the perfect balance, and I believe that this is possible to do; we just need leadership on the school board to stand up and face the problems that are most pressing in our community. I look forward to running for the board and helping our community face these challenges.

If you would like to get a hold of me to ask me any questions or share any concerns I would be happy to talk to you, thank you.

Greer Stone
(650) 575-0405

Like this comment
Posted by Sharon
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 15, 2010 at 7:04 pm

We need to avoid the mistakes of 20 years ago, the self esteem movement was a complete disaster and is now being repackaged for resale.

Todays editorial

Opinion:Web Link

20 years later: Self esteem movement was Utopian hucksterism

"Self-esteem was never shown to play a causative role in the six social problems the task force studied," Shannahoff-Khalsa told the Times. "The report is a massive effort to mislead people. There's no basis for what is written in it."

Critics took the self-esteem movement as confirmation of California goofiness, and Garry Trudeau lampooned the task force mercilessly in his Doonesbury comic strip. That did not stop "Toward a State of Esteem" from becoming the best-selling state document of all time, at 60,000 copies. More than 40 of California's 58 counties formed self-esteem task forces.

Twenty years later, one is hard-pressed to find any evidence that the task force solved any social problem. With a current deficit of $19 billion, it certainly did not prove "the best budget balancer, by far," as Vasconcellos claimed. But his vaunted "revolution" did have negative fallout, most apparent in education.

Like this comment
Posted by palo alto mom
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Aug 16, 2010 at 5:13 pm

Greer -

I totally agree that our schools should have teachers who are "not only be there for the students as a teacher or a administrator, but also as a friend who they can turn to in times of need. Our schools must be a community for our children, not a prison where they feel stuck day in and day out."

Our elementary schools are real communities, because of the level of parental involvement and the caring of most elementary teachers. Our middle schools are not bad, there are many caring teachers who are there for the kids. But in my son's 3 years at Paly, with 23 teachers, there are only 4 who were really caring people not just teachers. Less than 20% of his teachers were approachable and kind enough for him to feel comfortable discussing anything with, much less something personal.

Unfortunately, tenure means that teachers can stop trying and caring and we can do next to nothing about it.

Like this comment
Posted by Greer Stone
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 22, 2010 at 5:10 pm

Palo Alto Mom-

I agree with you that our elementary schools are very good at making sure that the kids feel welcomed and accepted, my mother and brother are both elementary school teachers in the district and are committed to this kind of community with the students, and our middle schools are good but do need more work. The concern you raise about tenure is a real problem for most teachers who do not care about these issues. However, each year teachers attend several mandatory teacher workshops which are meant to educate teachers in new teaching styles or introduce them to new lesson plans. These mandatory workshops should include each year a day to work with teachers on how to make their classroom an environment where the students feel accepted and to educate how to spot signs of 'at risk' kids. These workshops are mandatory for all teachers in the district and offer us a great avenue in which to educate the teachers, even those who have tenure and would not wish to pursue this type of teaching. It is a shame that your son has had so few teachers at Paly who cared enough to make themselves more approachable to students, I went to Paly myself not too long ago and was frustrated many times by the unwillingness of teachers to work with me and to accommodate my needs. It is my belief that the school district should, and can, do more with the teachers and administrators of each school to ensure that each school is as much as a community as our elementary schools - there is no reason why they cannot be.

Greer Stone

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