Palo Alto youth possess strengths -- but face risks

Students do not feel valued, mirroring youth attitudes nationwide

Many Palo Alto kids don't believe the adults in their lives value them, according to the long-awaited results of a survey taken last fall by more than 4,000 local students.

And the older they are, the less valued they feel.

The 160-question survey of "developmental assets" was given to Palo Alto fifth-graders, seventh-graders and all high school students in October. Developmental assets are defined as "values, relationships and experiences that youth need to thrive." They include both internal and external factors, such as sense of purpose, positive peer influence and a caring school climate.

The survey gave kids a chance to rate the adults in their lives and their sense of being valued by their schools and larger community.

In general, results show that elementary children have more positive attitudes than older students and that kids feel less supported and less hopeful as they move into their teen years.

Nearly half of the high school students surveyed were considered "vulnerable and at risk," according to survey measures, while only one in 10 were categorized as "thriving."

The Palo Alto school district decided to administer the Developmental Assets Survey following a string of high school student deaths by suicide in 2009 and 2010.

"Instead of focusing on what's wrong with kids, we wanted to focus on what's right," said Anne Ehresman, executive director of the 12-year-old nonprofit Project Cornerstone, which promotes "developmental assets" in schools across Santa Clara County.

The survey is designed to measure what is present in children's lives to help them succeed and stay away from drugs, alcohol and other negative behavior, she said.

The Developmental Assets program, used in communities across the nation, was developed by the Search Institute of Minneapolis.

Palo Alto's results generally mirror those of Santa Clara County and the nation as a whole, Ehresman said.

Other communities have successfully used survey data to refocus youth programs and other adult efforts to "build assets among youth," she said.

Decades of data has established that children who possess higher "asset levels" tend to thrive, while those with lower levels engage in more high-risk behavior, she said.

The Palo Alto Family YMCA and the nonprofit Youth Community Service program have used the Developmental Assets program for years.

After the suicides, the concept was embraced by the school district as well as the Palo Alto City Council, the Chamber of Commerce and a variety of local nonprofits. Those groups also formed a community-wide coalition known as Project Safety Net to address widespread concern about youth well-being.

The reams of survey data -- released March 18 -- will define the baseline as Palo Alto embarks on a community-wide quest to "build assets."

The survey measures 40 so-called assets, including those external to youth -- family support, adult role models, creative activities -- and those measuring internal abilities and qualities, such as planning and decision-making, achievement motivation and integrity.

According to Palo Alto's results, 18 percent of fifth-graders are considered "vulnerable or at risk." That number jumps to 32 percent of middle-school students and 47 percent of high school students. "Vulnerable and at risk" is defined as a student who has between zero and 20 "assets."

On the positive side, students possessing 30 or more assets are considered to be in the "optimal, thriving" zone, Ehresman said.

In Palo Alto, that comprised 43 percent of fifth-graders; 23 percent of seventh-graders; and 10 percent of high school students.

On questions specifically about suicidal thoughts, Palo Alto's numbers were similar to, or perhaps one point above, national statistics, according to Shashank V. Joshi, assistant professor of psychiatry at Lucile Packard Children's Hospital, a Palo Alto parent and member of Project Safety Net.

With 8 percent of Palo Alto students saying they've attempted suicide -- and 7 percent nationally, according to the Centers for Disease Control, the numbers may be within the margin of error, Joshi said.

"It's about where it is nationally -- but still a number to pay attention to," he said.

Several observers said they were surprised by Palo Alto students' low estimation of whether their community "values youth."

Only 34 percent of fifth-graders think the community values youth, according to the survey results. Among seventh-graders, the number climbs to 40 percent, but it drops to only 22 percent among high school students.

"This surprised people because these numbers are really low," Ehresman said.

"A lot of adults say, 'We're doing something,' yet the kids don't see that or feel that."

But Palo Alto High School junior Kyle Liu said the response on "valuing youth" was not surprising.

"I think it's just part of us growing up," Liu said. "When you're growing up, you feel that divide with your parents."

Gunn High School junior Ashley Ngu said the figure reflected students' desire for independence.

"If you (adults) took the survey, the numbers would be different," Ngu said.

Palo Alto Recreation Services Manager Rob DeGeus, who co-chairs Project Safety Net along with a school district representative, said survey results should guide "what all of us who live in Palo Alto can do to build assets in kids' lives, whether in our own homes, on the street or the kids you coach."

Leif Erickson, director of the nonprofit Youth Community Service, has used the "assets" approach to build service and leadership skills among Palo Alto and East Palo Alto youth. He said the survey gives parents and others a useful "baseline of measures."

"This approach puts the youth at the center because it is their perceptions that matter," Erickson said.

"For this test, it is the adults who are graded, not the students."

Survey results will be discussed Tuesday (March 22) by the Palo Alto Board of Education and were expected to be available Friday on the website of the school district and Project Safety Net,

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Posted by Time for Action
a resident of Gunn High School
on Mar 18, 2011 at 9:54 am

The disturbing survey results continue to document what has recently been said by the Daubers and others about the structural problems in our schools. For example, these facts are reported:

1. Only 39% of high schoolers in PA have assets consistent with a "caring school climate" (compared with 73% of elementary schoolers and 48% of middle schoolers).

2. Homework and school dominates the lives or our teens. The numbers on homework (93%) and achievement orientation (82%) are very high. Only 42% report that there are adequate school boundaries. Some of these achievement numbers are supposed to be "assets" because this survey was designed for low-income communities with gang problems where engagement with school is an asset. However, a look at some other numbers demonstrates the problem with using this instrument for high-achieving communities:

3. Only 31% of our students are involved in creative activities (down from 79% in elementary school), and only 25% read for pleasure (down from 76% in elementary school)

4. The "Positive Identity" numbers help to drive home the point: personal power (48%), self esteem (45%), sense of purpose (56%) and positive view of the future (70%) show that despite being economically well-off and coming from strong family backgrounds, a third of our high school students feel bleak about the future, and more than half have low self esteem and no sense of ability to influence their lives.

What does all this mean? Our kids are spending all their time on homework in a school environment that only a minority find to be "caring." They do not feel, by and large, that the pressure is coming from home. A majority report a caring home climate and only half report high expectations. By high school that pressure has caused them to give up on reading for pleasure and the arts. Their time devoted to homework increases dramatically while their sense of "bonding to school" slides from 89% in elementary to 74% in high school -- more time, the less bonding. As this goes on, their self-esteem plummets and they become depressed about the future.

It is time for action. The school district has wasted nearly two years since the first death avoiding the issue of academic stress. They BoE and the superintendent have stuck their heads in the sand, just hoping that the problem would go away, or at least be defined as one that was limited to a few, sick children so that they can go back to trumpeting our fantastic schools and cheerleading our SAT scores.

There is a big problem in Palo Alto schools. We have an obligation to fix it. We can't continue to ignore it and put the kids under this kind of strain. It's immoral and selfish.

Action now.

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Posted by curbing service expectations
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 18, 2011 at 10:59 am

It's odd that "Service to others" and Youth programs actually go way up in High School.

Is it really necessary to build such high service skills for teens? of course "some" but so much?

from a previous story, of thousands of hours of community service logged in by high school students, it's curious that this may not be a the area to focus on, and yet it seems to be where the community most wants to engage kids with, get kids to do more for each other and others.

Even for adults it can be depressing to think about solving all the world's or people's problems and yet these expectations are pushed on to these kids in some very organized ways.

I'd rather see a focus on not cheating, and other character traits, which will also serve the world in the future, and not overly done displays of service that are good but maybe not in such high measures at this particular age.

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Posted by HSS
a resident of Southgate
on Mar 18, 2011 at 11:00 am

So will Skelly act now? Will the BoE finally show some backbone and implement a connectedness program in each of the middle schools? Or was this just another study to show they are 'doing' something?

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Posted by Dr.B. Lynn Ware
a resident of Palo Verde
on Mar 18, 2011 at 11:42 am

I am shocked to hear that almost 50% of our high school students are at risk. This is a huge call for our parents to take actions that show how much we value our children. When is the last time the family had dinner together? How much time have you spent with your child this week? What is the last action you have taken to support your child's dreams?

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Posted by JSD
a resident of Palo Verde
on Mar 18, 2011 at 11:50 am

The Developmental Asset idea is that we are ALL responsible for the youth in our communities, not just the schools, not just people with teens, not just parents for their individual children - ALL adults. It's in how we interact (or choose not to) with youth we encounter in our daily lives.

Yes, our schools are a piece of the puzzle. But we are a bigger piece.

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Posted by Old Palo Alto
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Mar 18, 2011 at 12:16 pm

"And the older they are, the less valued they feel."

I hate to break the news, but this trend doesn't change through life! Another trend that will become evident is genius peaks around 18 and slowly declines throughout life.

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Posted by new in town
a resident of Palo Verde School
on Mar 18, 2011 at 12:28 pm

"I'd rather see a focus on not cheating, and other character traits, which will also serve the world in the future, and not overly done displays of service that are good but maybe not in such high measures at this particular age."

I agree. It is telling that honesty takes a big dive after elementary school when kids are likely to discover cheating or see that others cheat. Cheating is more than just test answers and plagiarism, too.

I'm sure that seeing others get away with cheating is a great way to kill motivation and a sense of control over one's direction in life (for a young person).

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Posted by Mona
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 18, 2011 at 12:50 pm

Only 25% of Palo Alto high schoolers read for pleasure? Completely unsurprising. I have two high school students attending Gunn, and they themselves report that the reading material in the English curriculum is so depressing that it has quashed their desire to explore literature. From middle school on, the books that are chosen as required reading have as their themes war, rape, lynching, poverty, and the worst atrocities and despair of the human condition. One of my children's teachers admitted to the bleak tone of the class reading material, but said that when she tried to offer a less depressing book, the students complained that it was "unrealistic". So our children are conditioned, by the reading curriculum, to see reality as bleak and hopeless. Any wonder that this survey's results reflect this unhappy outlook?

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Posted by Good-Literature-or-Bad?
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 18, 2011 at 1:17 pm

> So our children are conditioned, by the reading curriculum, to
> see reality as bleak and hopeless

It might be interesting to have some reading lists posted on-line for everyone to see what's going on at the PAUSD, literature-wise, anyway.

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Posted by whadausay
a resident of Green Acres
on Mar 18, 2011 at 2:06 pm

It is interesting to read comments on any articles that have to do with our high school "kids". All the fingers point to the schools, teachers, district, school district but never do I see parents taking responsibility of our kids and the kind of pressure parents exert on them. I am a parent of a Junior at Gunn and two elementary kids to give everyone a perspective of where I am coming from.

When our kids are young, through middle school, we often confer with our kdis on what "they" want to do. Do they want to do ballet, baseball, basketball, scouts, drawing, what have you? We give them choices, listen to them, work with them on their choices and support them. As they become high school aged, parents no longer "work" with their kids. We just "expect" them to know what they want to do or do what the parents want them to do. How can our HS kids feel valued when the people who are supposed to love them the most do not listen to them. Don't get me wrong, I know dealing with HS kids is no easy task. They are unprectible and their action can be irritating. Some days, I would rather have all 4 of my wisdom teeth pulled out at one sitting than to have to deal with my HS Junior.

The fact is, at HS age, the kids want to have independence and make their own choices (not all good mind you). Yet, this is the time when most parents take the choices away from them. We want them to succeed in life and believe we know better they do (maybe so). But, we cannot stop listening to them either. Conversely, as parents, we cannot just use the line "well, you are so grown up, why don't you tell me what you want to do??!!" Guess what, they are still kids and they cannot possibly know what they want to do with all things. Whatever happened to parents' "supportive" attitude when they were younger??

Academic pressure in our high schools did not just come the school staff or district. Much of it comes from the high-achiever parents living around here. I recall my child coming home asking to register for 4 AP classes in Sophomore year. I gasped but did not want to suggest working hard was not important. I asked, "why do you want to take some many AP classes, in Sophomore year"?? The answer was, "many of my friends are doing it." I sure know that I did not get any letters or email from anyone working for the school suggesting for my child or the friends to push themselves that hard. Where is the pressure coming from??

So, as adults, before we start pointing fingers at each other. Please listen to all the kids around you, no matter how old they are. Help them to get to the right and respect their choices even if they are not always the best in our opinion. Kids need to know that they can make mistakes and still be loved like all of us do.

Be thankful that we are still living with the grounds and houses intact around us.

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Posted by Former Paly student
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Mar 18, 2011 at 4:38 pm

Eh. I'm not sure why people are blaming the schools for all this. I went through the Palo Alto school system and I certainly had a terrible time during my high school years, but it wasn't a problem with the school. Palo Alto parents want their kids to be academically successful and compete to get into the best colleges, and the only real path to that involves some stress. Sorry. The schools would certainly never hear the end of it if they tried to enforce limits on APs or reduce the amount of homework. It needs to be parents' responsibility to know their kids and know what they can handle, and help their kids identify their strengths and build lives that capitalize on them. I think the schools are doing as good a job as can be expected - they were certainly nothing but supportive and caring when I was having a hard time.

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Posted by pamom
a resident of Barron Park
on Mar 18, 2011 at 4:41 pm

Whadausay, it is true that some parents put too much pressure on their kids. Even if we try to make more parents aware of this, it's not likely that this will stop. But, I agree with Mona above, we can change the English literature curriculum from 6th grade on. It is very depressing. Some books on war and poverty are OK but every year drumming it into our kids is too much.

And, there is too great of a demand for community service. Students feel the weight of the world on their shoulders. Schools can change even if we do have some parents who are too demanding (and I don't know how to change that). So, I think we have to focus on what we can change. The universities have a big part in all this increased pressure and stress on our students, with high expectations that students do a lot of community service, AP's, high scores, just to get into the UC's. Changing the admission process at our universities would go a long way into allowing our teens to be just that: teens with some time to explore options and the world around them.

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Posted by newmember
a resident of Downtown North
on Mar 18, 2011 at 4:56 pm

Just wanted to note that the high school pie chart is wrong. Adds up to 107%. Error, I think, is that 10%, not 17% of PA high schoolers are considered to be "thriving," at least that's the number stated in the article.

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Posted by Chris Kenrick, Palo Alto Weekly staff writer
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Mar 18, 2011 at 5:06 pm


You are correct. The percentage of "thriving" high school students (possessing 31 to 40 positive "assets") is 10 percent, according to the survey. Thanks for catching the pie chart error.

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Posted by Look Again
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Mar 18, 2011 at 5:21 pm

In the interest of moving towards a solution, I think that it is important that we see these numbers as a wake up call for EVERYONE in this community. Time For Action (above) did a good job of pointing out where the school needs to rethink, but that's ONE piece of the puzzle:
1) 32% positive family communication?
2) 35% caring neighborhood?
3) 22% community values youth?
4) 39% family boundaries?
5) 38% neighborhood boundaries?
6) 33% adult role models?
I think that if we're going to get this right, we (schools, parents, students, other community members) need to ALL recognize the perception students have of us so we can work SIMULTANEOUSLY to fix our piece. One at a time isn't working. Students cannot sustain positive change without the schools and the parents doing their part. Parents cannot sustain positive change without schools and students doing their part and lastly, schools cannot sustain positive change without parents and students doing their part. We need a multi-pronged approach here.
At a conservative estimate, this is the 4th thread on this topic in the past month. Instead of it disintegrating yet again into yet another session of various stakeholders foisting the blame or "you first", we need a cohesive plan in which everyone involved takes equal share and responsibility or this moment will go the way of all the other moments. Maybe that's what we've been missing and why we have yet to get it right?
Instead of talking about what we expect the "other side" to do (whichever side that might be)--why don't you consider whatever asset speak to your piece of this problem and suggest a way YOU can do something different here. Turn this thread into THAT.
I'll start: I'm a teacher and I DO think that the reading lists can be revamped. I'm going to get on that--that's something I can do and speaks to the "Reading for Pleasure" asset. Please do not doubt my sincerity--It might seem small, but it absolutely is something that I can be successful in doing for my students.

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Posted by Wake up call
a resident of Gunn High School
on Mar 18, 2011 at 5:33 pm

Will Skelly act now? Are you kidding? He doesn't really see the problem. How many times do I have to go to meetings to hear him talk about "the great moral compass" his kids have, or how HIS daughter managed to take 7 APs, or how HIS kids are thriving, and got admitted to Harvard? They are the kids of a high-achieving superintendent who prides himself on heading an academically competitive district. In his letters to parents he talks about our "witty" and "talented" kids. Our principal is quoted in the local paper for calling science competition winners "rock stars." Really?

I have been at many meetings where Skelly physically turns his head away from parents who are raising difficult issues about the painful experiences their kids are having, whether it be bullying, grieving friends who committed suicide, or kids with special needs. His body language speaks volumes!! When will he address the needs of the AVERAGE kid? When will he express visible compassion for the GREAT kids who are struggling with anxiety or depression or eating disorders or drugs or lack of parental involvement or pressure to strip down to their underwear at high school parties? When will he heed the urgent warning of Dr. Ginsburg, whom PAUSD hired to come to our campus to warn parents that he is very worried about our kids -- because he sees lots of average kids who are "choosing to leave the playing field" out of fear they cannot compete.

My kids may not be at Harvard, but they talk to me ...every day.... about everything. So do many of their friends. I know all kinds of things that are going on around here. And I know that many kids don't and can't talk to their parents. Because their parents don't want to hear the hard truths. I don't blame them.... it can be very troubling. How many of your kids have shown you the kinds of trash that our high schoolers post about one another on Mindspring? How many of you know the kinds of masochistic, sadistic, pornographic and bullying comments that are posted every night on this and other sites?

Great moral compass????

To my mind Skelly is just one of many parents who want to put their heads in the sand and hope that the storm blows over before they have to deal with it.

I can't ignore can't bury the voices of the six precious kids we already lost...their voices should be haunting us all.

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Posted by Wake up call
a resident of Gunn High School
on Mar 18, 2011 at 7:21 pm

Correction to above comment: Meant to say "Formspring" not "Mindspring"

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Posted by Teacher Mom
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Mar 18, 2011 at 7:30 pm

This a survey about the adults in the lives of these children, not just teachers. As a teacher (not in PA) and a mom, I can tell you that the influence of a parent will override the influence of an outsider (coach, teacher, etc...) everytime. If kids aren't feeling valued at home, how can they possibly feel valued at school by people who see them for 60-120 minutes a few days a week for 180 days? Parents need to step up and stop pointing fingers at the school. Take responsibility for your own kids, because only you have the power to make your child feel valued.

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Posted by Tired of Skelly
a resident of Palo Verde
on Mar 18, 2011 at 7:54 pm

I am tired to see so many postings about how bad skelly is doing. My question is: Doesn't he reads this postings? You will think that by now he would had done some changes in the way he administers the district, but no, he just pretends the problem does not exists and that the children who die were not trying to tell us something, but they had mental problems and had nothing to do with school. To me, they were telling us that there is something wrong with this community including the school district, and could not handle it anymore. I hope one of this times skelly and the skeptical parents wake up and realize that the schools are causing most of the stress on our kids, and something needs to be done soon.

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Posted by curbing service expectations
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 18, 2011 at 7:58 pm

Teacher Mom,

" can they possibly feel valued at school by people who see them for 60-120 minutes a few days a week for 180 days?"

because those same people together ADD UP to 30+ hours per week of school hours, and then another 10-20 hours a week for homework. School has more of our kids than anything else, including us parents. Add summer school for those ahead and behind, and don't forget community service (required). Or the plentiful options (encouraged) for after school, in school (choir, band, sports).

Actually, please do the Math of how much parents get to have with their kids in High School.

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Posted by AMY
a resident of Crescent Park
on Mar 18, 2011 at 8:23 pm

How is this Skelly's problem? Is he supposed to tear the IPhone and Blackberries out of parents' hands? Can he make parents take their teenage children to the beach for the day and leave the devices at home?

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Posted by curbing service expectations
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 18, 2011 at 8:26 pm

Teacher Mom,

Actually, what is the chance of so many parents becoming less capable from Elementary to High School?

somehow, we went from being great to not so great in 4 years? we valued our kids, and then decided not to?

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Posted by former Paly parent
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Mar 18, 2011 at 10:34 pm

- I agree about the readings (one caveat: my knowledge is slightly out of date) but to my knowledge/experience the MS and HS reading curriculum was uniformly WAY too depressing (years ago it had much more variety/positive messages - I know from personal experience)

- emphasis on character development needed (message: do your own work in all respects/discourage Tiger Moms/students: be honest - no cheating/plagiarism/have honor/avoid bragging constantly about grades/awards/SAT scores/contests

-show some class and decorum and avoid constantly stressing out your teen peers by "one-upping" in terms of bragging about your APs/late nights studying (of socialnetworking...)/parent-prepped tutoring/arranged CS/activities (some of which are more easily obtained by higher income families...)--very capable hard workers are made to feel beaten down by braggarts who often sport advantages from having Tiger Moms

- sensible perspective gained by effective administrator leadership - have a balanced view of PA/US/the world/universities etc. Emphasize value of all in community

-require clear listing on transcript (student/parent signed statement at school each term)concerning previous course-taking for AP courses if taken at HS for a grade

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Posted by PACRISIS
a resident of Barron Park
on Mar 18, 2011 at 10:58 pm

I'm not speaking on the behalf of others, but just my own opinion. I know that it was hard for me to talk to my parents about suicide or how I was feeling. I watched the lives of three of my good friends flash before my eyes. I felt like a chunk was taken away from me. I remember Gunn High School not really caring about the situation. Well, not that they didn't care, they just made it really hard to believe that they did. The stress levels stayed the same and my depression increased. I actually had the thought of "maybe their lucky to finally escape this fantasy world and the deprivation of life's true self. Maybe being gone is being better than alive." I never felt comfortable talking to friends because I felt as if they may think I'm complaining or acting-out due to the suicides. I am lucky to have found a friend that allowed me to talk to her parents and let everything out. If it wasn't for her, you may have never even been reading this. I think Gunn needs to provide some sort of program were youths can meet and express themselves how ever they please. This would allow a connection between other students and would let them know that no one in this world is alone. No one in this world has a life that is unimportant. I'm not sure what Mr. Skelly is doing about this, but he does have a lot on his shoulders. He needs to recognize that he chose this job and now he must show some sign of progress or teens will continue to feel threatened.

I could be wrong.
Any other possible suggestions?

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Posted by whadausay
a resident of Green Acres
on Mar 18, 2011 at 11:09 pm

To "pamon": since my younger ones are still in elementary school, I do not know what kind of depressing reading 6th graders on up have to read. I do agree that high school readings should be updated. It is depressing to see my Junior reading Scarlet Letter, a book which I read 30 years ago when I was in HS. Have we not had good books published since then?

To "Look Again", totally agree. We, adults in the community, have to work together. It is not one person's fault. I would love to see your leading to some changes.

To "wake up call", you asked if we knew what kind of trash our kids post about each other?" I am quite certain that most parents do know to a good extent. However, bullies are not born. They are raised to become one. Until the bullies and some cases the parents are punished for their action, you can stop all forms of communication, bullying and trashing will find its way. I agree with you that many kids do not and cannot talk to their parents once they are in high school. That is because we stop listening. Some parents cannot get over the fact that their kids are not going to just accept everything they say.

To "Curb service expectation", just because our kids see more hours of their teachers than their parents, that does not make the teachers more important in the kids' eyes. Parents will always be parents. Kids expect their parents to love them and accept them. They do not expect the same from their teachers. Similarly, just because we adults go to work for 40-50 or 60 hours a week, that does not make our co-workers more important than our parents, spouses or our kids. From the minute the kids step into their homes, they want to be loved even though they may act rotten. It is when they do not feel that, they check out.

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Posted by This is a Fight We Cannot Lose
a resident of Gunn High School
on Mar 18, 2011 at 11:58 pm

Thank you for sharing your story. It broke my heart. I understand what you are saying and why. My own children felt very alienated at Gunn and I know that they also had a hard time feeling that they could talk about it -- even putting the feeling into words was very hard. What you wrote here was very brave and also very accurate. As you so correctly say, Kevin Skelly was not drafted into his job, he volunteered. Although he did not know that there would be a crisis like this one, he must either rise to the occasion, or move aside and let others take the lead.
The same goes for this school board. What feckless, self-congratulatory dilettantes these people are. Their meetings are infuriating. They have no sense of crisis or emergency. They are like the crew of the Titanic telling the band to keep playing. We have no time or margin for this dithering crew of idiots. Listen to what this student is saying. She is saying that she considered killing herself. She was thinking of ending her life. How can we possibly let this shame continue? It has been nearly 2 years now since we lost JP. Not much has been done although much has been promised. Please for the love of God Palo Alto wake up and meet the challenge.

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Posted by Misha
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 19, 2011 at 12:56 am

I am very glad to see the many comments questioning the reading lists.

I reviewed the list for high school English class and was very troubled by the books with themes of hopelessness, desparation, violence, and suicide.

I voiced my concern to then Principal Noreen Likins who put me in touch with the instructional supervisor. He seemed to listen politely and sympathetically. He tried to explain the nuanced meaning of each of the books, which nuances are debated at college level and not likely to be understood and appreciated by high school kids reading such heavy work for the first time.

I asked, there are SO many good books today, are these necessarily the ones to use? I did not ask him to ban any particular book. I asked him to consider providing more balance.

Alas, nothing has changed...

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Posted by daniel
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Mar 19, 2011 at 6:37 am

If some parents tone down the insufferable pressure on their kids to excel academically beyond anything that's reasonable and sensible, the school district will feel less pressure to put the kids through the kind of academic grind they have subjected them for far too long. The pressure should be on the parents who created the madhouse. Palo Alto kids would still be intelligent and as successful, they'll just get an opportunity to have a childhood.

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Posted by Martina
a resident of Gunn High School
on Mar 19, 2011 at 7:22 am

There is a great deal of blame to share for the mental state of PAUSD students - from Skelly & school board to parents to teachers to peer pressure. Recently I was told that AP tests do NOT cause stress. THe pressure from parents, teachers, and peers to enroll in as many AP classes as possible creates a stressful environment on Gunn's campus. Recently we were informed that teachers at Gunn were advising students to sign up for AP and Honors classes with little regard to the students' overall educational plan. I polled parents & students to find out who these teachers were. The major culprits are Math, Science, and English Depts. at Gunn. Shameful? But the problem starts at 25 Churchill and the buck stops on the railroad tracks.

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Posted by Mike
a resident of Gunn High School
on Mar 19, 2011 at 7:50 am

Skelly's decision to allow Newsweek to rank our high schools just adds fuel to the fire.

Parents - wake up and smell the stress. Forcing your kids into 4-5 AP classes per year is sad. Shame on you! Did you know that more and more colleges are NOT accepting the AP test results? If you are strapped for cash for college due to this depression, don't sacrifice your kid's metal health. There is no shame in attending a community college except maybe in the eyes of your so-called "friends."

Teachers: Math & Science geeks and English Dept. "gods", wake up! You are not trained to do guidance counseling and you do NOT have all the information to help this child make an informed decision. Don't let either your ego nor your "good intentions" create a bigger problem for the students seeking your counsel.

Finally, kids - there is no glory in piling on the AP classes. THe kids who think that they are "super human" or a genius for taking 5 APs a year are only fooling themselves. You should pity them for having such a low self-esteem that their self-worth comes from external sources such as AP classes.

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Posted by Me Too
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 19, 2011 at 8:40 am

So the main point seems to be this one - "Palo Alto's results generally mirror those of Santa Clara County and the nation as a whole, Ehresman said." Now, we would like to be the town where all the children are above average - why not? But this point, which seems to me to be the main one in the survey, underscores that we are more like other communities, in good ways and bad, than we are different. Not in crisis, not in bliss - pretty much the same as others. I would love to see the comparisons, especially by town demographic - does anyone know if they are available?

I guess some people are looking for crisis and condemnation, and will find it in whatever data is served up. This seems like confirmation that we are pretty much like others, though we can certainly work to improve.

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Posted by not just reading
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 19, 2011 at 8:57 am

In addition to the literature that is required for students to read, movies that are used in the curriculum are equally as depressing and have very dark content. What messages about living a healthy and happy life are we giving to young people? Really sad. But we, as parents, signed permission slips at the beginning of the school year. Please be sure to read what you sign (and don't sign if you don't agree) in the back to school packets each year.

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Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 19, 2011 at 8:59 am

Had a discussion about the survey results with my own teens. First, I am not sure if they really remembered understanding the questions when they were surveyed. Secondly, they were not sure how they felt "appreciated" anyway. Lastly, they said they answered the questions expecting it to be like a school test - giving the answers they expected were wanted.

Nice try, but certainly remembering what I was like at that age, I don't think I would have made much sense either. These are kids. They want to be valued but have no real idea of how that can be shown to them. They are still of the age where "he who dies with the most toys, wins" and associate gifts of "stuff" rather than time, fun, support and hugs as signs of affection. Sometimes saying "no" to your teen makes them upset but often that "no" is the best thing for them.

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Posted by member
a resident of Downtown North
on Mar 19, 2011 at 9:14 am

Resident, Interesting. I asked my middle schooler the same. She said that she couldn't really remember how she responded either, and that she completed the survey as quickly as she could because she was allowed to get a jump start on homework after she finished. She answered the same when I asked about the "Success" exercise at Jordan -- that kids rushed through it so that they could work on their homework. Hmm...

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Posted by pamom
a resident of Barron Park
on Mar 19, 2011 at 10:03 am

There are some important points made here. But the more I read these discussions, the more convinced I am that there's a major influence on what our students strive for that is not part of this discussion and should be: the universities' admission process.

It's not just the privates but also the UC's admission process that drives students to take as many AP's as they can, rack up as many community service hours as possible, excel in sports and/or be a leader/officer in a activity/club. When do they have down time? No wonder they are stressed.

There are important suggestions being made here: parents don't push your kids, schools don't overload homework, teachers don't make it so hard to get good grades when it would be so much easier in another high school, look at the reading curriculum, etc. But somehow this message also needs to get to the universities admission officers to change the process.

If the admissions process stays the same, we are talking to the wind.

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Posted by curbing service expectations
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 19, 2011 at 10:44 am


"just because we adults go to work for 40-50 or 60 hours a week, that does not make our co-workers more important than our parents, spouses or our kids"

your analogy to work was good. it all boils down to respect

you expect from a job to not be overworked, and a positive atmosphere where your efforts are being duly compensated and recognized

work may not change the devotion to family (though some co-workers like your boss can be important, certainly in aggregate), but as adults we can manage those 50-60 hours better.

it all boils down to time management, and I think too much is pressed on to kids in High School,

being valued will follow when kids are respected by both parents and teachers, coaches, and extended community when making demands on them

the time management issue and stress is something that parents have a role in controlling, but it should not offend or surprise anyone that there is also an expectation that the schools will make respectful decisions of kids' time, and environment(includes reading choices)

the Skelly Newsweek ranking decision is the kind of decisions that make you cringe, a better one could be to cut the community service requirement

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Posted by Charter school
a resident of Professorville
on Mar 19, 2011 at 12:19 pm

Clearly there is a set of parent maybe even a majority that would like a smaller third high school run along the lines suggested by challenge success. Less stress and a curriculum that is less testing and AP focused and more focused on actual learning and critical thinking such some of the elite privates in NYC like ethical culture and dalton school for example. With a strong but not mechanistic math and science curriculum. With both excellence and love. with small classes and a small overall body and an advisory system. Where every student thrives and there is no race to the bottom. We need a charter school that will offer this alternative. The board of Ed is hopeless and Kevin is hopeless because he has not experienced this as a parent. We who have lived through this disaster must take matters into our own hands. This is what charter schools are for.

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Posted by Zeev Wurman
a resident of Palo Verde
on Mar 19, 2011 at 1:50 pm

I don't want to speak to the issues as much as I want to speak to the instrument. Reading that the survey consists of 160(!) items makes me question the value of it. I find it hard to believe that anyone, let alone thousands of students, would give meaningful answers to such a bloated survey -- I know that I wouldn't. After perhaps 20-30 items I would start providing snippy answers to quickly finish the interminable instrument rather than provide any meaningful information.

So unless this was done in some smart and representative matrix sampling, I would doubt *anything* that comes out of this humongous waste of time. I would argue that the onus is on the survey makers to first provide us with a very convincing evidence that the survey is valid. For example, were there control items sprinkled throughout the survey that would allow to verify the robustness of the results? If not, I suspect this is no more than a pile of costly rubbish.

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Posted by daniel
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Mar 19, 2011 at 2:34 pm

We shouldn't beat around the bush. Let's not blame the college admission boards for the curriculum and relentless stress our schools are generating. We pretty much know the type of parents who influenced the district into turning our schools into pressure cookers, denied tens of thousands of kids their childhood, and in some cases, pushed kids over the edge.

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Posted by curbing service expectations
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 19, 2011 at 5:32 pm


"pile of costly rubbish"?

it's not the parents that came up with this survey,

but the kids are so used to it, I doubt they were surprised

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Posted by Paly Mom
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 19, 2011 at 6:26 pm

I'm not familiar with Gunn's English texts and don't know how much the list differs from Paly's. What has surprised me about the books my daughter has had to read is that it seems like little thought has been given to the inclusion of modern novelists. I didn't notice the depressing nature of the books, which others have commented on, but it seems like a very traditional reading list that someone came up with 30 years ago that no one has bothered to revise. This is not to say that Anna Karenina and The Death of a Salesman aren't worth reading; our children need to be familiar with a range of literature. How about adding a few more recent authors though, novelists like Jung Chang, Geraldine Brooks, Khaled Hosseini, Dave Eggers and Edwidge Danticat?

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Posted by palyGrad
a resident of Crescent Park
on Mar 19, 2011 at 6:57 pm

I just recently graduated from paly, and I must say the school pressure there was almost unbearable. I can't even remember how many times I stayed up late into the night working on one class's homework assignment, or how many times I cried when I was overwhelmed by the school work.

Both my junior and senior year I took APs, and I hated every second of it. I only took them because of peer pressure (I'm very fortunate to have supporting, but not pressuring, parents).

When it came to colleges, I applied to several universities, as well as the top ten art schools. I ended up going to a top art school. Here, though I have a ton of work, it's a different type of work. It's similar to Charter school's idea. It's critical thinking, discussion, reading things that are relevant. I've learnt more here in a semester than I did in my whole high school career.

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Posted by Sanford Forte
a resident of another community
on Mar 19, 2011 at 7:35 pm

Here is something that might help. There is good work from the Cognitive Neurosciences showing what is required for "happiness". Might I submit that most Americans need to review this research, or at least become aware of basic principles. Why? Because the primary values in American culture largely mitigate against what we know makes for happy, optimized persons/lives. We now have an opportunity to think about what science is telling us, and go forward to implement the changes necessary to help children (and others) realize their full human potential, in ways that makes common individual sense. These ideas are not the be-all-and-end-all, but they are good starting points for some. Here are a few TED lectures, for starters. First, Martin Seligman Web Link, and next, Dan Gilbert Web Link

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Posted by Questioning Authority
a resident of Barron Park
on Mar 19, 2011 at 10:46 pm

I'll second the call for the survey makers to show their numbers have any meaning. Many of the items are things that are hard to know about others, even harder to know about oneself, and not at all measurable with questionnaires.

One can ask "35. Can you resist your peers?" (_) yes (_) no
Then you can waste your time tabulating the results.

Or you can give someone the opportunity to resist and see if they do.
Then wisely spend your time tabulating the results.

This list of 41 is a nice list. Who would disagree with any of them? But to think very many of them can be measured with a questionnaire is wishful thinking. I wonder that so many educated people have spent time even reading the results.

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Posted by Paul Losch
a resident of Palo Alto
on Mar 20, 2011 at 7:53 am

Paul Losch is a registered user.

I am blessed with two terrific children, who now are in the early years of their adult lives, and went through the PAUSD system, K-12.

Project Safety Net, which is a community program, is working to address many of the issues that have been discussed in above postings. It involves more than just the school district, and to cite the school district as an irresponsible culprit is, to my way of thinking, displaying a lack of understanding of what the district is doing, and a lack of understanding of what numerous other organizations are doing to deal with these matters.

But I want to get to the matter of parenting. I grew up in a pretty normal middle class family. My ex-wife grew up in a family with many dysfunctional traits. Somehow, we raised a couple kids who are doing well in life.

I got no training from my parents on how to be a dad, and my ex-wife did not either on how to be a mother.

I am of the opinion that part of the problem here in Palo Alto is that understanding and practicing being a parent is a mis-understood and under-educated skill. Too many people who are focused on their high powered adult lives professionaly, and applying such values to children who still are developing.

We need more of us to learn how to be parents that have an outcome of well adjusted kids who find their place in life, not just college.

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Posted by Toady
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Mar 20, 2011 at 10:30 am

"Many Palo Alto kids don't believe the adults in their lives value them"

"And the older they are, the less valued they feel."

I think this is called "being a teenager." There's nothing you can do about it.

What's more hilarious is all the angst this survey is causing.

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Posted by palo alto mom
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Mar 20, 2011 at 11:06 am

Palo Alto parents are ridiculously focussed on college, even the parents who do not overly pressure their kids. The past two weekends we went out to dinner with adults who have kids about the same age as our kids (13-22). The parents who were not from Palo Alto (Atherton, Mountain View and Menlo Park) talked about a variety of subjects, work, the war(s), March Madness, gardening, etc. The Palo Alto parents spent almost the entire time talking about where they went to college, where their kids are (or hope to) go to college, who applied where, who got in where, the tutors they were using, the classes their kids were taking, etc. This included parents with kids who are only in middle school. Ridiculous.

As PA parents, we need to get a life outside of college, whether it was our own (hey, were adults now!) or our kids. Focus on something else. Perhaps our kids can then realize that there is more to life than where you attend school, as important as that is.

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Posted by pa parent
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 20, 2011 at 12:54 pm

My son told me he felt raped while reading Toni Morrison's Beloved which was required reading for AP English, and he didn't think high school students should be reading it. (Otherwise he liked the teacher a lot and enjoyed the class.)

I was surprised by his comments so I started reading it myself and couldn't get past page 80. I'm not a critic -- but I really think it should be read in college and not in high school. This is a highly regarded book which is also on the College Board list of books for high school students, and that includes 9th through 12th graders. But I think it is not age appropriate for under 18.

I do think there is a problem with the reading materials in our English classes. Bring in some good works that are not so depressing -- there's just too many that are currently.

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Posted by For goodness sake
a resident of College Terrace
on Mar 20, 2011 at 3:02 pm

I agree that the assigned readings are outdated and cover heavy topics. But that is not why the kids don't read for pleasure. They don't have time and they spend so much of their lives grinding away reading for school that the last thing they want to when they have a bit of free time is read more. Who can blame them? The work load these kids have is staggering. Is it any wonder that only 10% are thriving? They need us to step in and protect them from his obvious health hazard.

I can't stand to read any more of this parent blaming. Ok parent blamers let's assume you are right and the teachers and the principals and the administrators have nothing to do with the homework or the curriculum or the bell schedule. It's all being secretly dictated by some shadowy group of all powerful parents who are like the wizard of oz pulling the levers. The school is just a conduit for their demands and desires. There mitt as well not be a school because it is ASIC those horrible other parents are home schooling your child so little influence do the teachers and administrators actually have. Isn't this an argument for the district retaking the reins? If the insanity emanates from outside the school then that s an argument for greater professional control of the schools not less.

You make no sense. You just love to post things about how bad th other parents in palo alto are and that is your excuse for doing nothing. Your negativity and apathy is astonishing. No wonder our kids are bullies. Look at their parents. Maybe you stay at home moms need to get out more and quit sitting around critiquing everyone else. Sheesh. My daughter used to call this the palo alto "moms network" and those moms used to talk more crap about her than anyone kids ever did. This is exactly why the district has to intervene to protect the kids. The parents are all busy gossiping about how their kids are great and it's those other kids tsk tsk and it's of course the parents fault and the mom wOrks tsk tsk. This town is really troubled.

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Posted by Mike
a resident of Professorville
on Mar 21, 2011 at 6:09 pm

@ For goodness sake:
Did you really just post that you "can't stand any more of this parent blaming," and then go on to trash parents ("No wonder our kids are bullies. Look at their parents.") in your next paragraph?

For everyone else: Chill out. As someone above said, these are kids moving from grade school age to and through teenage angst (not much differently than kids elsewhere), and they'll move out of it as they age further -- and maybe gain some resilience along the way, which is an undervalued asset in moving through life.

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Posted by gunn parent
a resident of Barron Park
on Mar 21, 2011 at 7:19 pm

It is my understanding that Gunn English teachers are looking at new books to replace some of the current literature selections. There is at least one new book in pilot mode this year.

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Posted by JordanDad
a resident of Midtown
on Apr 6, 2011 at 8:11 am

Posted by palo alto mom, a resident of the Duveneck/St. Francis neighborhood, on Mar 20, 2011 at 11:06 am

Palo Alto parents are ridiculously focussed on college, even the parents who do not overly pressure their kids. The past two weekends we went out to dinner with adults who have kids about the same age as our kids (13-22). The parents who were not from Palo Alto (Atherton, Mountain View and Menlo Park) talked about a variety of subjects, work, the war(s), March Madness, gardening, etc. The Palo Alto parents spent almost the entire time talking about where they went to college, where their kids are (or hope to) go to college, who applied where, who got in where, the tutors they were using, the classes their kids were taking, etc. This included parents with kids who are only in middle school. Ridiculous.

As PA parents, we need to get a life outside of college, whether it was our own (hey, were adults now!) or our kids. Focus on something else. Perhaps our kids can then realize that there is more to life than where you attend school, as important as that is.
Yes. I've seen this many times. And when parents of PA students talk about their kids' activities outside of school, how this relates to college acceptance seems to be the overriding focus of the conversation, as opposed to how much the kids are developing skills they can use in 'real life' and how much they are enjoying these other activities. "Suzie is practicing FOUR musical instruments now..." "Jimmy's moving up to the varsity level in track..." How about "Suzie seems to really enjoy playing piano and she asked if she could take up the flute as well" or "Jimmy mentioned yesterday that his soccer team is really doing well now because they are all learning to pass the ball around better and this makes the game more enjoyable AND earns them more points"? How many of these conversations are taking place with the kids? Or is it just "Suzie: How much time did you practice today?" "Jimmy: You don't get into Stanford for just being mediocre."? Let's talk with our kids, help guide them on their journey through life, and help them become better people. We should use our own wisdom that SHOULD tell us that college is not NEARLY the most important thing in life and not worth sacrificing the rest of your life for.

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Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 6, 2011 at 8:51 am

Jordan Dad,

I'm with you on this. I was talking to a friend recently who had a family with teenagers visiting over winter break and introduced them to neighbors and friends. These teens were embarrassed by all the questions posed at them about how they were doing in school, what were their plans for college and similar school related questions. It seems no one asked them about their likes or dislikes to do with music or sport, etc., just their academic potential. This family left with a very poor image of what Palo Altans are like, and I fear it was quite accurate.

It seems that we have lost the ability to look at teenagers as people and individuals and don't even know how to get to know them.

I hope that we can get beyond this judging and comparing, and find out who these young people really are. If we as adults can't manage to do it then how can we teach our kids to do it?

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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