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.