The Palo Alto Weekly convened a panel of local health and education professionals on Aug. 30 to discuss what local teenagers need in order to live healthy, balanced lives. The basis for the discussion was an essay by a Gunn High School teacher, "High school life: To whom it may concern," published Sept. 3 in the Weekly.
In the essay, the teacher observes that the academic environment has become increasingly competitive over the years, resulting in students feeling more and more pressure to achieve success. The teacher recommends several steps the Palo Alto Unified School District, teachers, parents and students themselves can take to help teenagers cope with a faster-paced and more distracted 21st-century lifestyle.
The panel, moderated by Palo Alto Weekly Publisher Bill Johnson, included Becky Beacom, health-education manager at the Palo Alto Medical Foundation; Roni Gillenson, program director for on-campus counseling at the nonprofit Adolescent Counseling Services, which serves Palo Alto schools; Philippe Rey, executive director of Adolescent Counseling Services; Barbara Spreng, past president of the Santa Clara County-wide PTA and longtime community volunteer; and Palo Alto Weekly Editor Jay Thorwaldson.
School-district administrators were invited to participate in the panel, but they declined.
Bill Johnson: What we're trying to do here is to take ... what I call a personal reflection by this teacher and use the four of you to broaden it out a bit and, in your various areas of expertise and experience, build on some of the things he's identifying. Our hope is to find what community members can take away from some of the observations made by this teacher.
The most powerful thing about this type of piece is that it reflects somebody who's not a parent, who spends a lot of time with a lot of kids in our community and who takes the kids' perspective. It's something that, as a parent, you hardly ever get. You have your own perceptions and might have the parent of friend of your kids you share those with. But the more detached perspective of a teacher, and what it's really like in the day-to-day world of high schools, is something that at least my kids didn't spend a lot of time describing.
You could take almost everything said here to any achievement-oriented community similar to Palo Alto.
What's your reaction to the overall portrait drawn by this piece?
Becky Beacom: As a representative of the Palo Alto Medical Foundation and working on various committees, the thing that really stuck out to me, aside from the emotional power of this, is that his recommendations are not surprising at all. It's probably an incomplete list. There are structural things around the nation being identified by the Stanford School of Education and Denise Clark Pope -- a later start, block scheduling, structural things -- that, with one stroke of the pen, schools can increase engagement in learning and reduce stress in a very fast and powerful way. Things like changing the calendar (to move first-semester finals to before the December holidays) -- 18 schools around us have been working on that calendar for years. These recommendations are not way out there. There's a lot of good research behind them. My first reaction was, 'What a caring individual, and what a powerful piece to put out there.' One of the things most important to my work is to try and give voice to all those kids, and this piece does that. The power of this piece was very moving to me. In the Youth Forum last year we kept hearing, loud and clear, 'Who's listening? Nobody's listening.' To take this away from Palo Alto, it reminded me of a poem written by the daughter of a friend in Santa Barbara in 2005. When I started in this role at the Palo Alto Medical Foundation 15 years ago we went to a "stressbusters fair" at Paly. This is not new, but I think it has gotten worse. It's been heightened even though we've been trying to work on these issues. SHARE (Student Health Awareness through Resources and Education) has been working on this for many, many years.
Philippe Rey: Yes, yes. We've heard it before; it's the same. There's nothing new in this text that we haven't heard. Going back to the history: We usually send out a survey to parents and students at beginning of year. Because our 35th anniversary is coming up, we recently went through some of the archives and found the exact same thing. Kids feel stress and pressure; there's nobody to talk to, to listen. Nothing surprised me.
Barbara Spreng: It was not at all surprising. I think my gut reaction when I read it was, 'What's it going to take for this community to start paying attention to this and be willing to make some bold changes to address things?' A few years ago after Vic Ojakian's son's suicide I was very involved in the PTA Council. I met individually with a number of people I knew were very interested in this subject. I thought we were long overdue for addressing this. I'm profoundly disappointed that our community hasn't been able to be more on the leading edge of how to teach our kids, give them the tools they need to handle the pressures they're under. When I talked to people -- all very caring, committed people -- they shared my concern, but we have this dynamic. If you're talking to somebody in the school district, it's all the pressure we get from parents to keep test scores up, or it's about the funding, or 'That's just the world of college applications. What are we going to do -- not let our kids do well enough to get into the top tier schools?' Then parents turn around and say, 'It's that darn school district, that darn school board or those darn teachers who just don't care enough.' People are just chasing their tails around this. And yet everybody knows there's so much research out there now about human development, the effects of stress and some of the things you can do, like character education. If that were started and continued all through the curriculum, if the teachers understood it better and could incorporated it into the classroom, the kids would have, I believe, more inner strength, self confidence and sense of self worth to be able to withstand the pressures of the real world. I don't think we can stop the pressures of the college application craziness, I don't think we can stop the madness.
If you isolate the college application process -- people have identified it as a very significant contributor to the ramping up of the pressure, with a feeling that you have to be a superstar athlete, a superstar academic -- we probably can't really effect a significant change in that process. But maybe we can help our kids develop more inner resources to cope with it. And then there are probably some things we could change -- class schedules starting a little later, changing the calendar so we have finals before break. I don't want to give up and say, 'We can just give our kids a booster shot.'
Philippe Rey: Ever since we've had our campus-counseling program we've had about the same number of kids every year -- except last year we had a huge jump in referrals. There was such hypervigilance on the part of teachers, parents, that students get help. When we had the two suicides at Paly seven or eight years ago we didn't have that. The community just went into denial. Project Safety Net was never formed. We tried, in little groups, but it just died. This time it's more impressive -- the number of kids coming to our programs, even the self-referrals.
Barbara Spreng: I know that suicide is the extreme resolution of some of this stress, and certainly not all kids are doing that. ... But I think it's hard for a community to grasp the significance or breadth of it because it's so private, and oftentimes people want to keep it private. We don't know about all the attempts; we don't have accurate figures. So parents, schools, educators -- it can be more comfortable not even to question it. The statistics of suicide attempts are far higher than actual completed suicides. Unless it's something really public like the train, oftentimes (suicides) are not known by the public. So the statistics and the public perception of suicide and suicide attempts are much lower.
Roni Gillenson: I've been the site director at Gunn for three years and was there during the recent suicides. What was impressive was the reaction of the student community, how they rose to the occasion to support each other. This was not surprising to me. (The level of stress) is one of those things that's just frustrating that goes on and on and on. There are so many pieces to it -- parents, students, teachers, the community, mental health services. I continue to be struck by the pressures within the students themselves. It's this kind of well-oiled machine, a thing that just continues and continues and continues. A 4.0 isn't good enough any more. A 4.5 is okay. It's difficult because there are pieces of this article pointing fingers at different parts, but it is really every part working together.
Bill Johnson: What about this feeling among teens that they're never quite good enough to satisfy the adults -- the frenzied world they live in where there's this overemphasis on external success?
Roni Gillenson: You can take this article and match it to any other highly academic institution. It's much harder to be a teenager now. It's this spiral that I think even starts in kindergarten with some kids, the pressure of getting into the right school then. ... I don't think it's just the parents or just the teachers or just the colleges. Even though I think the students are very supportive of one another, there's this competitiveness within themselves, too. They are driven by this college application process and, ultimately, that's where they all want to be. And who has the power to change that?
Becky Beacom: There have been some recommendations even from Stanford, and stress is a health issue. There's only so much we can do to thicken their skin when the environment continues to be about summiteering. There's only so much we can do before we start looking at changing the pond water a little bit. I didn't see this as pointing fingers at any school, just stating what is right now. We ask kids, 'What gives you stress?' And kids say, 'I do it to myself.' Many years ago I heard something very powerful at my son's orientation to the Young Fives program. The director at that time, Eleanora Jadwin, said, 'Children won't question the expectation; they'll question themselves.' That's not only true of 4- and 5-year-olds; that's true of teenagers. It's the pond water they grew up in. It's our responsibility to say, 'What can I do to help my community? What can I do to help kids? What can we do, and what can we do fast?' It looks simple enough to say, 'Change some of these things,' but it's big for the district if we talk about school structures. We can talk about community structures, too.
Bill Johnson: The piece makes a point about the role of the caring adult. He points out that parents aren't always in a position to be that caring adult, for better or worse, for their teenagers in those particular years. Teachers are in a unique role to observe kids, notice changes. The sense one gets by reading this is that this teacher is concerned that other teachers in general don't place enough value and priority on engagement with kids beyond the actual academic endeavor. What about the role of teachers as caring adults?
Roni Gillenson: Some teachers are more comfortable than others being that trusted adult or available person. I'm not that familiar with the training teachers get to deal with a student who is having mental health issues. ... ACS is the on-campus counseling program, and that's where we try to come in, and also the guidance counselor. Where it's too much for a teacher, they refer them out. That's the system we try to have going. It can happen as quickly as a teacher calling a guidance counselor, or a teacher walking a student over to us. This author is saying that students need more trusted adults to talk to, and teachers need to be open to that. Then we're dealing with that stigma that it's not OK not to be able to finish your homework or not to get an A on a test, that unless you've got a 4.5 GPA and four AP classes, there's something wrong with you. That's a stigma I think we're looking at, too. How do we break that within the schools, within the community, among the parents?
Barbara Spreng: It's the same difference you find among human beings all over the place. Some people have a national interest or the gift of understanding. Some people, it's just not their personality type to do that. If you look around the general population, some people are insightful, empathetic, comfortable asking and reaching out, and some are not. Teachers are just like everybody else. But because of their unique position of working with kids each day, they could benefit from staff development to give them some tools to use in that environment.
Bill Johnson: Should empathy be a criterion for hiring teachers?
Becky Beacom: What's come up at SHARE (Student Health Awareness through Resources and Education) meetings when you're talking about policy -- besides things like implementing a block schedule and a calendar with finals before the holidays -- it's hiring. It's having a consistent philosophy looking for that. In the Youth Forum last year, students said, 'You want us to go to adults, but if we don't know them, we're not going to go to them.' They said, 'Get to know us in times when things are going OK and we're more likely to come to you when they're not.' It's about relationships and connections, formal and informal. A school board representative asked, 'Are there any teachers you connect with?' and they said, 'Yes' and described teachers who shook everybody's hand when they walked in the door on the first day. The kids weren't saying, 'We want you around all the time.' They said, 'Just show us you care.'
I think there are a lot of teachers out there who do notice (when a student is having problems), and they're getting burned out. They're fighting for some of these changes. The late start and the new block schedule at Paly is a perfect example of teachers mobilizing and trying to get it done. We'll see if it works, but kids finally get to say, 'They listened.' Now the kids will have more time with their teachers, maybe they'll have more interactions. These things are structural. They mean a lot. They aren't just symbolic. That's a big change at that school.
Bill Johnson: Philippe, if you could wave your magic wand and establish priorities for high school principals and administrators, how would you approach the question of teacher capacity and willingness to engage students more than, at least some, feel comfortable with. How high a priority is that?
Philippe Rey: It's pretty high. I'll use the middle school analogy. There's only a summer's difference, but a completely different environment (between middle school and high school). Teachers and adults look at high school in a different light than middle school. Because it's high school, there's more pressure, an expectation for kids to be more self-assured, more accountable. Yet the same kid eight weeks before was in a classroom of a teacher who paid more attention, a guidance department who paid more attention.
Bill Johnson: And in high school, the kinds of issues kids are dealing with are going to be more serious to them than in middle school.
Philippe Rey: The container should be stronger around them. It's more brutal for the kids, too -- bigger issues, bigger school.
Bill Johnson: When there is a tragedy, to what extent should the administration allow grieving to occur on campus, class discussions -- especially in the classrooms where the kid was a student? Apparently Gunn took the approach, which is consistent with the overall district approach, that 'We're not going to engage in a lot of activities pro-actively. We're going to provide counseling to kids who feel they need it, but as a school we're going to move forward, try to move past it, and not create an environment where kids can process these things as part of the school day.' Is that accurate? What should it be? What's the ideal way?
Roni Gillenson: I don't believe that was the message, especially from the administration. At Gunn, the administration was very supportive not only of the students but of the teachers. There was a message of, 'We need to deal with this, talk about it, provide support.' It wasn't 'We need to move forward.' We provided groups both for teachers and students. KARA (a grief counseling agency) came in for both. We made lots of things available. What's difficult is that we can't walk every student and walk every teacher over to the group. It was something (Gunn) provided. Even when teachers and students didn't come in there was a space for it. Everyone handles grief in a different way, but the Gunn administration went above and beyond in making things available. Some ACS interns and I went into the classrooms where the kids had been because the teachers didn't know how to handle it and were themselves traumatized by losing a student in their class. The idea of not giving it attention is more for memorials, fear of sensationalizing it, (and encouraging) the copycat effect. We provided ongoing therapy and care and encouraged teachers and students to continue to talk about it.
Philippe Rey: Project Safety Net is one of the best things that's happened to this community. (A suicide) happened once. It happened twice. All of us were just flying, thinking, 'What can we do? Have we not done enough? What can we do more?' Then Project Safety Net happened, and it all gelled in one week. From one group, there were instructions coming down and plans of action: 'Research shows that glorification, memorials, may create (a copycat effect), so, schools, don't do it. ACS, you do this. PAMF, you do that,' and so on. This was the most organized, best thing that could happen. How do you talk to the press? All of a sudden, all of us got instruction -- 'Let's develop a clear message.' That box of Project Safety Net is crucially important.
Becky Beacom: The HEARD Alliance (Health Care Alliance for Adolescent Depression) with Lucile Packard, Stanford, PAMF, Santa Clara County Mental Health, ACS -- the whole mental health, physical health meeting that happened in June -- very concrete things came out of that. And Project Cornerstone -- yes, there's a momentum that should be celebrated, definitely.
Bill Johnson: The number of kids seen by ACS went up dramatically. At the same time, due to the work of the Packard folks, psychiatry people at Stanford, there were more referrals by the community to more serious help. It appeared to me that was viewed as a success, but a success nobody really wanted to talk about. There's still this tension about, if what we're trying to do is get kids help and it's happening -- even if in some cases it's at the severe level of hospitalization -- shouldn't we be sharing that so people in the community know that, No. 1, this isn't a small group of mentally ill kids in our school system that need help, that it's a bigger group, and that we're successfully reaching these kids and they're getting help? But the policy seems to have been, 'Let's not talk about that.' I'm curious about what you have to say about the number of kids that have been referred to the hospital in particular. And how could the community be more pro-active about these things ahead of time?
Roni Gillenson: At Menlo-Atherton High School at the beginning of every school year they have Challenge Day. They break freshmen into small discussion groups and later come back for larger group discussions. It's an opportunity for kids to bond with their fellow freshmen and also to say, 'Let's talk about what's not talked about. Let's deal with what's going on.' The school stuff is left outside the room. What's dealt with is what's going on with you: 'Let's talk about your issues,' and there's no stigma because that's what you're there to talk about. 'You're at school, but we're going to talk about what's going on with you.' It's an open forum for dealing with being an adolescent. Challenge Day is a national organization. They go all over the country and come in and do their thing for two days. Some teachers and parents participate. It's a completely different philosophy and culture of talking about mental health. Last year we got 80 to 90 referrals of critical cases that happened because of Challenge Day.
Becky Beacom: To devote resources to it, I can see that a school really would have to have good metrics and a belief that it works. You start off the school year, and kids think, 'Yes, this does matter to my school.'
Philippe Rey: The parent involvement with Challenge Day is huge. Even some of the board members get involved.
Bill Johnson: It impresses on freshmen how important, expected and normal these things are. That these are some of the things they're going to experience, and it's normal. What is it about the M-A culture that's given rise to that approach? Is it the parents, the principal, the faculty? What makes M-A oriented in that direction?
Roni Gillenson: M-A brought in someone from San Francisco, where most of the schools actually have wellness centers dealing with health, mental health and overall wellness of students. She's now the coordinator of student services at M-A. Several community organizations are involved, whether it's physical health, housing, jobs for kids, food bank or mental health. And ACS is part of that. So there's an emphasis on, 'This is part of school, this is what we do.' It's kind of like case management for kids who need it, so there's more of an emphasis on that.
Bill Johnson: Why? Is it because it's a more diverse school, and there's a sense that it needs that kind of emphasis?
Philippe Rey: The history is that we were invited to start services there. At the time they had a lot of gang involvement, a crisis -- a self-esteem crisis -- depression, kids running away, truancy. That has gone down since we've been there. But it's a different district. There's more of an openness there to discuss mental health, discuss the real problems and address them.
Jay Thorwaldson: Is there denial that there are real problems in Palo Alto?
Becky Beacom: It's hard for us to really say how the school districts are different without the schools being there to represent themselves. My husband works for the Sequoia Union High School District and my mom retired out of the Sequoia District, so I know what you're talking about. In any organization, to me it's about leadership, what the philosophy is. Those leaders hire; they make decisions, whether that's about schools or health care. This is a very different community than some other communities, different than Mountain View, different than Menlo Park.
Barbara Spreng: In any large organization -- any large, complicated collection of human beings -- there's a culture that gets developed. Apple is different from HP. The culture is just different. It's hard sometimes to dissect that and figure out exactly why the culture is different. There is leadership, a sense of what the leaders want. We're all chasing our tails around this. Teachers could easily point fingers at parents and say, 'Parents are not involved enough, 'or 'Parents are pushing too hard,' or 'We have to do this because that's what the parents want,' and to some extent they'd be absolutely right. But it's not everybody. We could turn around and say, 'It's because the teachers just aren't paying enough attention to this.' We'd be right in some cases, and in other cases not. So I think it's really hard to single out any one group or anything. A lot of people are really sensitive to this issue and sometimes just feel overwhelmed by the complexity of it and the interconnectedness. A lot of parents tell their kids to be happy, do as well as they can, it's not about the grades, not about how other kids are doing, that it's about their personal effort and finding a college that's a good fit. But then the kids come back convinced they're not going to get into a certain college and it's like, 'Game over.'
Bill Johnson: In Palo Alto you definitely have the segment of the community of parents that will pull out all the stops to get Johnny into the best possible college. That's what it's all about, and Johnny can put up with a lot and is going to have to push through and he'll do just fine. Then you have those with the perspective you've just articulated. I wouldn't even venture to guess which segment is the majority. How do you as a school board, school superintendent and principals of these schools ever chart a path that's not just a giant compromise? How do we organize a discussion around this point if we're not willing to, say, put on the table the question of limiting the number of AP classes a kind can take. When it gets right down to it, there are certain levers we as a district could do by fiat that would automatically have an immediate impact on some of this. Limiting the number of AP classes a student could take is probably the most dramatic example. There would be a segment who would scream like crazy, and another that would say, 'Hallelujah, it's about time.' How do we move toward common consensus on this type of cultural issue?
Becky Beacom: That dialogue has been going on for years with people right across the street at Stanford, and it actually has turned into action in other communities. I think that is part of the challenge. Clearly I'm representing health care here, but what I've learned by being part of these efforts -- because this is a health issue -- is there's a fear. Our formula has been pretty good so far. We get kids into colleges, and we don't want to mess with that. But what's coming out of Stanford -- the Challenge Success program -- is that not only can you reduce stress, but you can increase engagement and learning. That's the point. A lot of people forget that. The point was not just about reducing stress, but about falling back in love with school, and creativity and passion. Other districts have made changes. Even if you took the recent tragedies off the table, this teacher could still write this same article based on lots and lots of kids who are turned off of school, who say, 'I'm not playing that game; I can't even start to play that game,' and their life takes a different trajectory.
Philippe Rey: There's a reason all of us come here to Silicon Valley: We know it's competitive; the brains are here, the careers and so forth. Maybe it's something we all accept as a package. We come here, it's going to be competitive. What we're hearing now from the kids we heard 20 years ago. We need to develop systems where we can better identify the loner, the quiet one, the one who doesn't fit the mold in order help them meet their dreams and aspirations. But we're not going to stop technology. We're not going to stop progress. It's going to get even more competitive.
Bill Johnson: Isn't there a certain element that says, 'If there's something a student can do to be successful, if there's another thing they can do to move forward, they're going to do it?' Isn't that what we're seeing? The mountain's getting higher; more and more Sherpas are needed?
Becky Beacom: If you build it, they will come. It is worrisome. We're trying to elevate the role of primary care (medicine) in this. The fact that people already have a medical home -- their pediatrician, family medicine doctor, internist -- that relationship is going to be relied upon in terms of (mental health) screening. It's going to be automatic to talk to (patients) about how they're feeling, doing some screening -- actual depression screening. The concept is: How can primary care be the ones that really start this conversation and actually begin treatment, if necessary. Some people are more comfortable doing that than taking that walk down to psychiatry or behavioral health.
Bill Johnson: That's great, but it doesn't address the issue of the climate we've set up for these kids to deal with. It doesn't lower the mountain peak. What needs to happen in this community for these things to have a prayer of being implemented -- five suicides?
Barbara Spreng: I think there needs to be a huge, community-wide commitment to taking a really hard look and having the courage to take some risks and make changes -- fundamental, holistic, systemic changes -- in the way we deliver education around here. This community as a whole, whether we're talking about the city or school district -- how much real creativity, innovation, risk-taking of either one of those institutions been willing to take in the last 15 or 20 years? Right across the street at Stanford, Denise Clark Pope has done groundbreaking research into the whole issue of student stress, and Palo Alto is one of the last and slowest to adopt any of that. It seems to me a tragedy that we're not embracing that more. Again, I don't want to sound like I'm indicting the school district because a couple of years ago the district went through a major strategic planning process. It went through several iterations and a great deal of outreach to the community, to the parents, for their feedback. I was in a PTA Council meeting, and this was a couple of steps away from being adopted. And -- my bad -- I hadn't been engaged and paying attention to that process, and I was looking through the draft, page after page after page, and couldn't find a single thing in that document that specifically and directly referred to the social-emotional health and well-being of students. And I was shocked. This is why I'm not blaming the district, because where were the parents? Where were the teachers?
Bill Johnson: Where were the school board members? They're supposed to be reflecting the community. Is there a political perception that to get elected to the school board in Palo Alto you can't take the view you're taking?
Jay Thorwaldson: If you're a school board member and you do raise issues like this, the history is they become isolated.
Becky Beacom: There's a move afloat in Palo Alto -- and I think it's going to be really interesting to watch -- driven by the faith community, to amplify the voices of what they believe are the majority of parents who really support social-emotional approaches in schools. There may be a perception by the leadership that there's more support for the current system than for a lot of attention to social emotional well-being, so we need the community to really be clear about what it values. Some parents may assume that it's happening. To finish the earlier point about the medical piece, what this boils down to is an individual family experience: How is your child doing right now with college applications, stress; how does he or she feel right now about school? The bigger picture is something we can work on, but your family is dealing with it, my family dealt with it, every single family in Palo Alto is dealing with it right now. Some are coping fine; others are coping at the very extremes of what they can deal with; others are disillusioned and unhappy; others find another way out.
Bill Johnson: From an administrator's standpoint, the status quo is the path of least resistance because it's not going to rock the boat and we've got this incredible record of success in this district.
Barbara Spreng: Here's one really simple thing. The state of California has K-12 education standards in a bunch of different subject areas. They actually have K-12 standards in physical and social-emotional health. Who would know? Because they don't get tested. There are comprehensive standards, but they leave it up to the school district how to meet them.
Becky Beacom: Structure means something. Whether you start your year off with Challenge Day -- that's a structure that's created that allows things to be revealed. It says something. Hopefully some of the measures that have been taken in the past year will catch people earlier, whether it's in primary care, reaching out to parents, making ACS more familiar and accessible. So hopefully people won't hit that bottom and will get help earlier.