Faith groups lobby for teen 'connectedness'

Local congregations will push school board for a 'systematic and measurable' approach to student connectedness

Palo Alto's religious congregations have taken an active role in community discussions about the social and emotional health of local teens in the past year.

Amid a multitude of plans to address teen mental health in the wake of five student suicides, faith-community representatives are insisting that programs be structured in such a way that no student can fall through the cracks.

Beyond services in which students can participate on a voluntary basis, they are pushing for programs, such as JLS Middle School's Panther Camp, that reach all kids, particularly those who never sign up for anything.

"We think it's fantastic that the (school) district is putting 'student connectedness' at the top of the agenda," parent Greg Smitherman told the Board of Education recently.

"We want to make sure the result is systematic, that it reaches every kid -- especially the kid who's not going to raise his hand and volunteer to be part of athletics, choir or a school team."

Smitherman is one of a group of St. Mark's Episcopal Church members who have met regularly since last October.

The Midtown neighborhood church long has had an active youth program that welcomes teens from across the community.

But, shaken by the suicides, a group of up to 30 St. Mark's parishioners, from young parents to seniors, gathered to go beyond what was traditional. Their meetings evolved into a research-and-discussion forum about how to better support teens.

Similar concerns were raised in other local congregations, including All Saints Episcopal Church, Congregation Beth Am, First Presbyterian Church, Iglesia Fuente de Vida, St. Bede's, St. Thomas Aquinas, Our Lady of the Rosary and Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto.

Once the St. Mark's group satisfied itself that immediate concerns about suicide prevention were being addressed by others, members turned their attention to research on overall youth well-being.

"When you looked through all these studies -- from the Gates Foundation, CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), the Youth Community Survey and others -- the one consistent thing they found was that being connected and building community was consistent with well-being," Smitherman said.

"If you have some sort of systemic program that would better connect kids with other kids, and kids with adults, there's absolutely no downside to it.

"Being connected makes kids feel better, relieves stress and ironically -- even though in theory it's taking time from academics -- they actually do better academically. It can also help alleviate other risky behaviors, drinking, drugs, sex too early -- all those other things you don't want to have happen."

St. Mark's, working with other congregations through the coalition Peninsula Interfaith Action, drew 175 people, including two school board members, to a May meeting, to discuss ways to boost support for vulnerable teens.

Faith-community representatives have since become regulars in school board discussions of student social-emotional health.

When the board considers the final version of the district's "focused goals" for 2010-11 Tuesday (Sept. 14), the faith representatives will push for a "systematic and measurable" approach to "student connectedness."

"We need to make sure the programs capture all the kids, with none falling through the cracks," parent and St. Mark's member Carrie LeRoy told the board at its last meeting Aug. 24.

While not pushing for any particular program, LeRoy said, "We are advocating some measurement and assessment" of effectiveness.

Smitherman points to JLS Middle School's Panther Camp as a model for the kind of program his group is seeking.

"For the first couple of days of sixth-grade they break kids into groups of 30, do team-building exercises, learn about the school, where things are. They make new friends, meet the teachers. Suddenly, this new school that seemed really scary coming from elementary school becomes a wonderful place.

"It's the kind of thing that doesn't have to cost a lot of money and pulls in all the kids. It's critical that you can't have something kids can opt out of."

Smitherman and LeRoy believe the students they're concerned about represent "a fairly large group."

"They're not the kids that are easily identified as having real issues. It's the large group in between, oftentimes quiet, who sit in the back of the classroom, don't raise their hand and feel completely disconnected," Smitherman said.

The Developmental Assets Program recently adopted by the school district to foster student emotional health is "a good starting point," Smitherman said.

Smitherman and LeRoy stressed that anyone is welcome to attend their meetings, which typically draw 15 to 30 people, including parents, older people and representatives from other religious congregations. They meet roughly every three weeks in the Parish Hall at St. Mark's.

"Our meetings are completely open to anyone of any faith or lack thereof," Smitherman said. "We're pushing a very secular, community-focused agenda."

Added LeRoy: "This is not a religious issue at all, but a way of organizing people together to get some sort of critical mass for this issue. We welcome anyone to get involved in this, to come to board meetings and push for concrete focused goals.

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