News

Schools to focus on 'student connectedness'

Emotional health tops long list of school 'focus goals' following last year's suicides

Palo Alto teachers and principals will work to "improve student connectedness," the Board of Education unanimously decided Tuesday night.

The point about "connecteness," though one of many items on the school district's list of priorities for the 2010-2011 year, was the hottest topic as officials grappled with programmatic approaches to emotional health following five student suicides last year.

Tuesday's vote followed three months of debate and wordsmithing of district-wide goals.

Parents who followed the discussions, including Greg Smitherman representing a group from St. Mark's Episcopal Church, said they were satisfied with the outcome.

The "student connectedness" debate reflected tension within the school district between top management's wishes and the district's own stated policy of "site-based decisionmaking" -- allowing each school community to determine its own programs and policies as much as possible.

While school board members appeared unified on what needs to be done, they were loath to tell principals exactly how they should go about it.

Superintendent Kevin Skelly and board members proffered long lists of emotional health-oriented programs already in place on the district's 17 campuses.

"Our sites are filled with this type of work -- it's a challenge to keep up with the multiple activities going on here," Skelly said.

"How do we bring these activities to the front so the public can be aware?"

But Smitherman and other parents insisted that programs go beyond being generally offered to pro-actively capturing students who do not sign up for things.

Officials pointed to a 2008 Gunn High School survey in which 89 percent of students rated themselves "strongly connected" or "connected" to school.

St. Mark's parent Carrie LeRoy said, "What happened to the 11 percent of students who were not connected? What was the follow-up?

"There are plenty of kids who basically hide, who are not connected. It's for those kids I feel like I'm here tonight. We need to feel like we're making progress on this, and that we're reaching all kids."

In the end, Skelly said he had some ideas on how to try to pro-actively go after disconnected students without writing specific language into the district's priority list.

"When students hide and do not want to be involved or discovered, it makes the work of staff hard, but there are things we can do," he said.

"I have some thoughts about ways we can do that. I've learned some things just in the past week and, hopefully, you'll see that sentiment in some of the responses you get back as we go forward."

In a broad approach to student emotional health, the school district has joined the City Council and other community agencies in adopting the Developmental Assets of Project Cornerstone.

The list of assets was developed by the Minneapolis-based Search Institute as "essential elements for supporting the health, resiliency and overall well-being of youth."

In early October schools will administer a Developmental Assets survey to gather baseline data on the well-being of Palo Alto youth.

Parental permission is required for the survey, which will not link a student's answers with his or her name, Skelly said.

A public presentation on the assets, "From Crisis to Long-Term Strategy," will be held Wednesday, Sept. 22 from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. at school district headquarters, 25 Churchill. It is sponsored by the Palo Alto Council of PTAs.

Other public presentations on the Developmental Assets will be held Sept. 16 and Oct. 9. In addition, a six-week "Asset Champion Training Series" begins Oct. 13.

Comments

Like this comment
Posted by Arch Conservative
a resident of Menlo Park
on Sep 15, 2010 at 11:18 am

[Post removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]


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Posted by Becky Sanders
a resident of Ventura
on Sep 15, 2010 at 11:45 am

Thanks for another wonderful article Chris! I was at the meeting and not everyone can do everything. How else can interested people who can't be everywhere at once find out what's going on locally? Thank you WEEKLY for give us the coverage we care about.

it's really important that punchless words like "encourage and request" be discouraged. Change must be deliberate, programmatic, systemic and measureable. I'm sure PAUSD to some extent must shy away from "institutionalizing" emotional health priorities because of possible costs associated with a new program. However, the cost of inaction is enormous, plus with all the experts right among us here, setting something in place and then assessing whether it's working or not is completely do-able. Check out www.Wested.org/hks California Healthy Kids Survey and the School Climate Survey. And Project Cornerstones' own surveys right here. So there's a lot of reason to hope, but only if we take the bull by the horns here!


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Posted by MJ
a resident of Gunn High School
on Sep 15, 2010 at 12:33 pm

The board attitude of giving each school complete autonomy in this area is bull. Why does each school have to figure it out for themselves, adding time and money to the solution? If project cornerstone is the district wide approach, help each school implement it. I have seen each school research and develop their own program for bullying. Instead of burdening the reduced admin at each school, get them working together toward a common approach with common curriculum. And the curriculum needs to start in kindergarten.

As for connectedness, Noreen Likens, past principal at Gunn, was trying to implement a once a week required community period for all students meeting in small groups with a teacher/staff member to establish at least one connection for each student with an adult on campus. Some staff members were resisting this but this would be a great start. I hope the work Noreen started will continue with the new principal.


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Posted by Dubious
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Sep 15, 2010 at 1:03 pm

This "connectedness" thing seems to miss the mark. I recall that the kids we tragically lost last year were actually well connected. In at least a couple of cases I know for sure that they had lots of friends and lots of school-related activities.


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Posted by The point is..
a resident of Gunn High School
on Sep 15, 2010 at 1:14 pm

The point is that have lost may Gunn Students, and this is a big cry for help. We all need to keep working to make it better for students. If the schools were doing such a good job, how come we lost 4 students. Plus 3 more who have graduated and had ties to Gunn? the damage students get in this age is very detrimental and follows students whatever they go. We need to help them while they are under our wings. Good for the people who are working so actively to make changes in the district (PIA and Saint Marks Avocacy Youth Group). We have to do every thing we can to avoid another incident even if it cost a lot of money work and time the school district and parents.


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Posted by The point is..
a resident of Gunn High School
on Sep 15, 2010 at 1:24 pm

Correction to my last posting. I pushed to submit bottom, before making correction.

The point is that have lost many Gunn Students, and this is a big cry for help. We all need to keep working to make it better for students. If the schools are doing so much already, how come we lost 4 students and 3 more who have graduated and had ties to Gunn? Could it be that they started after the incidents? I think the damage students get in this age is very detrimental and follows students whatever they go. We need to help them while they are under our wings. Good for the people who are working so actively to make changes in the district (PIA and Saint Marks Advocacy Youth Group). We have to do every thing we can to avoid another incident even if it costs a lot of money work and time to the school district and parents.


Like this comment
Posted by Misha
a resident of Midtown
on Sep 15, 2010 at 1:29 pm

To Dubious and The Point Is...

You are right that lack of connectedness is not the only problem but on the other hand, stronger connections can be helpful support.

This is why work must continue at the many points in the continuum, ranging from Project Cornerstone on one end to Trackwatch and grief support at the other end. I hope that the schools and district do not put all their energies into the one basket labeled PC, which at present is all about data gathering and if there is any change that actually touches a student, it will no doubt come years later.

One area the schools are in a very good place to effect positive change right now is in the school structures and environment (e.g., start times, recognizing and addressing social cruelty) and empowering students with education on awareness and courage so they can help friends when inevitably some are at risk due to emotional and mental health issues that connectedness and Project Cornerstone cannot cure.


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Posted by PAUSD can't be everything to all people
a resident of Midtown
on Sep 15, 2010 at 2:06 pm

The schools can't do everything for all students all the time, it's just impossible.

How many of the 11% of students who are isolated come from families that are dysfunctional and/or with intractable mental health problems of one or more members of the family? As hard as they may try, the schools won't be able to fix things for all students coming from those families.

With budgets as stretched as they are, although it's reasonable to expect the school district to be somewhat proactive, it's unreasonable to expect the school district to throw all its resources at non educational problems it cannot entirely solved by itself.

Also, I would argue that there are quite a few students who do not participate in any after-school activities at school but who are just fine because they belong to other groups and have such activities outside of school. That's certainly been the case for my children.


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Posted by Enuf
a resident of South of Midtown
on Sep 15, 2010 at 2:07 pm

When did the public schools become responsible for my kids' mental health?! I am fed up with all the social-emotional non-sense the schools are involved in. Let's get back to hiring teachers on the basis of the knowledge of their subject and their ability to project it and not because they are a nurturing soul!


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Posted by OVER programming is our disease
a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 16, 2010 at 9:07 am



I completely agree with Dubious, that connectedness misses the mark, and would add that the suicides of Gunn students reported in the press seemed to describe kids who were actually OVER connected.

they were in sports teams, they were in theater, they were in church activities, they had two parents, siblings, did well in school, some were already accepted to good schools, they did community service, they had friends.

maybe the kid that does nothing and is an outcast is actually healthier than the over programmed over friended and and clubbed out kid.


Like this comment
Posted by OVER
a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 16, 2010 at 9:36 am

[Post removed due to same poster using multiple names]


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Posted by Dubious
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Sep 16, 2010 at 12:13 pm

Have to add that having a train roar through your neighborhood 10-15 times per day also contributes to the problem. There were times, when I was an adolescent, when I might've been tempted to avail myself of that train. But my town didn't have one so I had to settle for feeling very very sorry for myself.


Like this comment
Posted by parent
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 16, 2010 at 1:39 pm

Sorry in advance for the long post, but I care deeply about this issue:

“The point is…” at Gunn wrote
“We have to do every thing we can to avoid another incident even if it cost a lot of money work and time the school district and parents.”

So I have to ask – if other people agree with “point”, why then are we spending huge amounts of money right now on changes to our high schools that will reduce connectedness?

If we need a systemic program to improve connectedness, why then are we allowing our district to charge ahead with making Gunn and Paly campuses take more students (at a premium of cost) instead of demanding they consider whether we can reopen Cubberley?

We now have around 1800 students at Gunn and Paly, each. The plan is to enlarge them to take 2500 or more. Just the enlargement expenditure is many tens of millions of dollars, i.e., because of space limitations, they now have to put in several multistory structures that cost a lot more per square foot. Could we reopen Cubberley for that, especially if we partnered with Foothill (if it's not too late)?

A survey of how connected students feel when there are 1500-1800 students is very different than how connected students feel in schools that have 2100-2500 students. This is ignoring the substantial research that shows a strong decline in most performance measures we care about when school populations go above 2100 students, such as math performance and connectedness.

I think it’s no accident we’ve been having these problems now, as the school populations have been growing rapidly, just getting into those sizes where quality measures we care about suffer (1800-1900 students at each of Gunn and Paly).

It might not even cost more to reopen Cubberley. No one is even examining that option. No one at the district level is discussion openly with parents the potential implications of having such large schools.

If Cubberley were reopened as a choice school, we could reduce the enrollments at Gunn and Paly without any redrawing of boundaries (600-800 students at Cubberley would make all of the programs fit within optimal size ranges again). Any moderately attractive choice program would work – every choice program in this district has a waiting list.

We can’t afford this laziness and complacency when so much is at stake. It’s time to look at this issue with the seriousness it deserves.

Here’s a few snippets from one of many papers on this issue:

From: Review of Empirical Evidence about School Size Effects

"...students are more likely to feel connected and engaged in smaller rather than larger schools."

Let me repeat that: “STUDENTS ARE MORE LIKELY TO FEEL CONNECTED AND ENGAGED IN SMALLER RATHER THAN LARGER SCHOOLS.”

In the summary section (under advantages of smaller schools):
"it is easier to develop relationships with other students in smaller environments;
smaller schools increase the chances of staff knowing students well;...
smaller schools offer students a better chance to be known by someone;
smaller schools increase the connection between student and community;
better teaching strategies are associated with fewer students;
...
Theoretical arguments underpinning the historical trend toward larger school units have not held up well to empirical scrutiny..."

Just so we're clear here about what "smaller" means, this review paper says,
"'smaller' is a relative term. In districts with secondary school sizes exceeding 2500 students, for example, smaller can mean as many as 1500 students..."

Please connect the studies that show how important student connectedness is to mental health with all the studies showing how student connectedness suffers in these ultra-large schools of exactly the size we are paying to enlarge Gunn and Paly to. Do we really want to spend our money increasing rather than decreasing the systemic challenges to our students' mental health?

We need to be seriously considering whether paying for ultra-large schools is a wise way to spend so much money, instead of using the money to improve the campuses and reopen Cubberley (as a choice school, so enrollments at both Gunn and Paly could be lowered).

I applaud those who have been discussing the connectedness issue, much good can come out of it -- but this issue has been relevant and glaringly absent.


Like this comment
Posted by parent
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 16, 2010 at 1:49 pm

To "overprogrammed"

Connectedness isn't having a lot of activities and being popular. Feelings of alienation and disenchantment can happen to those kids, too. Density of relationships might be a better term, but please don't go with my choice of words. There is actually some effort to capture and describe what is meant by connectedness in literature. You obviously care about this issue -- please dig in, because I am not the best person to translate a fairly complex concept in one term -- I know the papers I've read have gone to some length to say how difficult it is to come up with a single term.


Like this comment
Posted by Enough
a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 16, 2010 at 4:30 pm

I have to agree with the posts from Enuf and PAUSD. I believe our schools can only do so much. Where are the parents? I do believe a lot of these issues are mental health and a lot are kids just don't feel connected at home either. If you think about the yesteryears our kids were much more involved with their home life or should I say "connected" Kids had chores and were more apart of the household and family not just school and sports. Those are all good but they are a little over the top. Lets get back to basics at home


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Posted by parent
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 16, 2010 at 4:41 pm

I think blaming the parents is counterproductive and not at all called for here.

I don't know if things are different in your neck of the woods, but over here, I see some of the most caring and involved parents I have ever seen anywhere. Most of the parents I know spend a lot of time making sure their kids feel loved but not entitled, that they are connected and have responsibilities at home and don't lose sight of what is important.

We have as a community been having much discussion about what the can do, and I think most of us agree that school -- where the kids spend most of their waking hours -- has a major role.

But we have completely overlooked the elephant in the room, which is that we are spending millions on a direction for our schools that will make for less connectedness and lower performance overall, a direction we don't have to take. You may agree or disagree, but we should at least be having that discussion.

If we are serious about doing everything we can to make things better for our kids, we should be discussing the very significant issue of school size and the negative impacts of ultra-large schools on connectedness.


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Posted by OVER programming is our disease
a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 16, 2010 at 6:41 pm



Parent,

"Density of relationships" is a great term,

makes sense for schools to focus on density of relationships, in which case everything that has been said about smaller schools is on the mark.

otherwise connectedness is not like the achievement gap, that we need to worry about 11% of kids being left behind - since the very connected are just as likely to be high risk for suicide.

I'm actually uncomfortable with schools or non-vetted adults talking about emotional issues with kids. It would be nice if in the same way school that school sites have the final word on what new program will be introduced, that parents could have the final word as to what emotional education is going on with kids.




Like this comment
Posted by parent
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 16, 2010 at 8:05 pm

OVER programming,

Thanks. By the way, research on school size and the achievement gap is pretty clear, too -- enlarge these schools and we will be enlarging the achievement gap.

We choose schools because of the opportunities they give our kids. A healthy social and emotional environment are an important part of that foundation.

Kind of in line with what you are saying, I am concerned about our dealing with this in a reactive, crisis mode, rather than a preventive mode including maintaining the best environment we can so we do the best by all the kids that we possibly can.

Given what's happened, school size should really be a big issue on the table, especially since we have so many unexplored, good options here.


Like this comment
Posted by Paly Parent
a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 18, 2010 at 3:57 pm

Some actual data is in order here for 'Dubious' 'Enuf' and others. Several points to make:

1) No one is saying here that the schools should do parents' jobs. That is not the point. Parents hold the lions share of responsibility for mental health and wellness. But schools, and the relationships formed in schools are also extremely important to their mental health and well-being. This is not an 'either/or situation.

2) Connectedness is not some trendy term. It is a concept that is backed up by extensive research. Specifically, the CDC (Center for Disease Control) in 2009 published a report that synthesized 72 DIFFERENT STUDIES that found the following:

" Research has demonstrated a strong relationship between school connectness and educational outcomes including … higher grades and classroom test scores, better attendance and staying in school.”

“School connectness was found to be the strongest protective factor against …substance abuse, absenteeism, drinking and driving, and … other risky behaviors.”

“School connectness was second in importance (after family connectness) as a protective factor against emotional distress…and suicidal ideation and attempts.”

Let me repeat - 72 different studies.

3) Teenagers spend a very significant part of their day at school and in Palo Alto, and it is an extremely competitive high pressure environment. SAT score data says that if you are at the 25th percentile here, you are at the 75th percentile state-wide. As great as the schools are, and many of the teachers are, in large school environments like these it is very easy to get lost and feel insignificant. Do you know what it feels like to be a 'loser' when you are at the 25th percentile (just here?) When you would be close to the top of the heap anywhere else?

4) I agree with the comments about school size - that is an alarming trend, and your concerns are backed up by the data.

5) We are not asking the schools to turn their world upside down, or to launch an enormous program with a Capital "P", we are asking them to do their job - as the experts- and put a strategy in place that addresses these issues. If you read the data from Project Cornerstone, the various studies covered in the CDC report, and other studies such as the Bill and Melinda Gates-funded study on Americas Most Successful High Schools," There are things within our grasp that we can do immediately. And that don't cost a lot of money.

6) The quality of the schools in Palo Alto is one of the reasons many of us lived here, whether it is for our children or for the fairly direct correlation to housing values. We have some of the best schools, teachers and administrators anywhere. But the district has NOT stepped up to this issue. Thanks to the various groups such as Project Safety Net, the St. Mark's group, and others, they are being told this is an issue that will not go away.

We care about the kids here. We have high expectations for them. It's only right that we should have high expectations for the school district as well.


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Posted by parent
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 18, 2010 at 4:37 pm

Paly Parent,
Thank you for post that. I'd like to add to that and my previous post, that the vast majority of educational research on school size points to ultra-large schools negatively impacting connectedness.

So why aren't we examining this issue, right now, while we are pouring millions and millions of dollars into enlarging our schools to take the school population from a size that borders on too large, to a size that the studies pretty much say is too large? Especially since we have options, like reopening Cubberley as a choice school and keeping our school populations optimally sized? Why are we spending money to make these important factors of quality and emotional health far more challenging or worse?


Like this comment
Posted by Misha
a resident of Midtown
on Sep 18, 2010 at 7:11 pm

Dear Paly Parent ~

Hear hear! You have summed up nicely the role the schools and district should and could play. Any more inaction borders on negligence...


Like this comment
Posted by over programming is our disease
a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 18, 2010 at 8:30 pm




reality is that there is no mention of making schools smaller


Like this comment
Posted by jparent3
a resident of Gunn High School
on Sep 19, 2010 at 6:25 pm

Did any freshmen or junior parents go to the Guidance College night last week? Any thoughts?


Like this comment
Posted by parent
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 20, 2010 at 12:22 pm

programming,
You're right, there has been no mention of making schools smaller. Why is that? Why are we planning to make them bigger, spending tens of millions JUST on aspects that would increase size and with all of the attendant strains to connectedness, even while we talk about how important it is to improve connectedness?


Like this comment
Posted by OVEr programming is our disease
a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 20, 2010 at 2:39 pm



parent,

maybe because creating new programs creates connectedness for the adults in charge



Like this comment
Posted by OVER programming is our disease
a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 20, 2010 at 2:43 pm



sorry meant to add that if the focus would be on smaller schools, and not new programs for the big schools (programs which get lost anyway), students would stand to benefit the most




Like this comment
Posted by josswald
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Sep 20, 2010 at 3:07 pm

i think it would be helpful for a feeling of connectedness, if the district policy was modified to ban all coffee breaks prior to 10 a.m. I think that would really help build morale.


Like this comment
Posted by parent
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 20, 2010 at 10:50 pm

Over,
You wrote: "sorry meant to add that if the focus would be on smaller schools, and not new programs for the big schools (programs which get lost anyway), students would stand to benefit the most"

Agreed. But if you want smaller schools, parents are going to have to get on the ball and get involved, because construction is moving now. It's not too late to change things, but it's eleventh hour.

Here's another quote from a paper (in the conclusion section): "...four school attributes -- classroom management climate, SCHOOL SIZE, severity of discipline policies, and rates of participation in extracurricular activities -- explain a significant percent of between-school variance in school connectedness. Not only are these four factors amenable to change, but evidence suggests that schools have successfully changed these factors."

Three smaller schools offer that many extra spaces on the school paper, the choir,etc. It might not even cost more. Call your school board members and the superintendant.

*From Promoting School Connectedness: Evidence from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health


Like this comment
Posted by parent
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 20, 2010 at 10:57 pm

"In smaller schools, students, teachers, and schools administrators all have more personal relationships with each other," said Blum. "They know who you are. This is important to keeping kids engaged and a part of school.” And there is such a thing as too small, Blum cautioned: "Other research has shown that optimal high school enrollment seems to be between 600 and 900 students." When high school enrollment falls below 600 students, academic achievement tends to suffer because schools that are that small have few resources. When school enrollment burgeons to more than about 1,200, both connectedness and academic achievement diminish."

My question again is what are we buying for our money when we are enlarging our schools? The district should open a dialog with parents about it, and if not, parents should demand it, now.

From Robert Wood Johnson Foundation webiste: Classroom Management...


Like this comment
Posted by Paly 08 grad
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Sep 23, 2010 at 12:48 pm

So our "problem" is that a small minority of teenagers in our district self-report feeling like teenagers?

This whole discussion will amount to a few hundred pages of internal communication in the district office, and a few mandatory advisory periods in which nobody listens to some talk about "connectedness". The kids who show up for that period will be handed a questionnaire about how connected they feel and, if the district is very lucky, only 5% of the kids will report feeling disconnected next year.

I can't believe the galling sanctimony of the people here who act like this program could have saved Sonya. Trust me, she was beyond the reach of 25 Churchill. She would've thought this was just as ridiculous and ineffectual as any other actual student in this district. In fact, if you asked her what was wrong with the district, I'm pretty sure she would've had more to say about the achievement gap between EPA and Palo Alto kids, just for starters.

If you want to help, go volunteer. Go actually talk to a kid who is not your own. Try to improve that kid's life on his or her own terms. Quit posting on the Internet about the latest round of the ed-theory shell game.


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