Frustrated parents interrupted school district officials Sunday evening in a sometimes tense discussion of the emotional well-being of students in Palo Alto.
As school officials described a myriad of efforts to promote a sense of "connectedness" for students on Palo Alto's 17 campuses, some parents expressed impatience, saying progress has been too slow.
Sunday's gathering, titled "Stand Up For Our Youth," was organized by 11 local religious congregations and by Peninsula Interfaith Action, a coalition of 30 congregations. It was held at St. Mark's Episcopal Church in Palo Alto.
At the invitation of the religious groups, school officials described efforts by principals to meet the district's top "focus goal" for this school year: improving "student connectedness."
A committee of parents from St. Mark's had urged the district to focus strongly on "connectedness" following a series of student suicides in 2009 and early 2010.
School district Student Services Coordinator Amy Drolette said all secondary school teachers and staff members will complete suicide-prevention training by the end of February, and described explicit social-emotional health curricula in place on all 12 elementary campuses.
But as Drolette presented a lengthy list of district efforts toward social-emotional health, she was interrupted twice, by parents who suggested the activities fall short.
"All your words -- I'm sure they mean something to somebody, but they don't mean much to us as parents of kids who are struggling," said one parent of three Palo Alto students.
The mother described her children as "lost and confused and they don't think anyone cares."
Superintendent Kevin Skelly pleaded with parents to "be gentle."
"These are hard goals," Skelly said.
"I understand people's frustration around these issues, but we're all in this together. It's not easy for us either, as a district, to have these things happen in our lives, so let's be gentle with each other."
In a town of high-achieving parents, "it's natural for us to measure ourselves against those folks who are close to us," Skelly said.
"One of the challenges we have as a community is to have students think about themselves in absolute terms -- in terms not measured against other kids, where they realize they have value that comes from being a member of a family, a member of a faith community, a sense of gratitude."
Skelly analogized the school district to a fisherman who uses a variety of hooks to attract different students. "We have lots of hooks and we go fishing for kids," he said.
Palo Alto High School junior Lucas Brooks said high school is particularly difficult for the "in-between students, who eat lunch by themselves and go home early -- these are the ones who fall through the cracks.
"We have to change that. We have to reach out to them," Brooks said.
Al Brooks, also a junior at Paly, described "a lot of academic pressure ... with a lot of attention to Ivy League schools," making many students feel like they don't belong.
"Teach us to value ourselves outside of academics and outside the high-achieving vision of the Palo Alto community," Brooks said.
Miranda Chatfield, a 2008 Gunn High School graduate, recalled her frenzied high-school life of sleep-deprived "competition" to get into a top college.
"I believe most kids at Gunn thought that way," Chatfield said. "But when I got (to college), it didn't make sense....
"Now I realize you don't have to excel at everything because I don't think that's humanly possible. You can achieve without pushing yourself to the breaking point."
Chatfield said she is taking this year off after two years at Cornell University.
Pressed by parents on how he plans to measure the district's progress toward "student connectedness," Skelly said he wasn't sure.
"It's an elusive target," he said. "We've asked students, 'Do you feel connected on campus?' but I'm not sure that's a full enough measure.
"It's a great result to have more kids connected -- but if your kid is not connected it doesn't matter that 97 percent or 98 percent are, if your kid is not."
Skelly said principals have considerable autonomy to craft "connectedness" programs to meet the needs of their individual schools, adding he is loath to "mandate" specific approaches.
School board President Melissa Baten Caswell said the district's priority on student social-emotional health is a "long-term commitment.
"What's different this year? We have a dedicated person, we've put money against it and we've put people's time against it.
"From the board's perspective, this is very important and we'll continue to put resources against it. It's also important to figure out what to do about kids who aren't connected -- how do we find them, and how do we do something? That is something every school is working on."
Sunday's meeting drew more than 150 people, including several parents of students who have died by suicide and at least four members of the Palo Alto City Council.