Palo Alto students and their families are consistently warned against taking on too many advanced placement classes, counselors from Palo Alto's two high schools told the school board Tuesday night.
Parents must sign off on all AP classes their children choose, and homework levels are discussed in detail, Gunn Vice Principal Kim Cowell and Paly Vice Principal Kim Diorio said.
Students' taking on of excessive course work is "of great concern," Cowell said in a wide-ranging discussion of counseling in Palo Alto schools.
"We have students and families from out of the country who don't view high school in the same way.
"We help all our families understand what it's like to be in a U.S. high school and also that you don't want to 'overcook' your child."
Conversely, Cowell and Diorio said counselors also nudge students who "underselect" -- that is, do not challenge themselves enough -- to ramp up their schedules.
Next fall, Gunn High School plans to issue "balance" T-shirts to all teachers and administrators, with the lettering "there are 3,000 colleges and universities in the United States."
Cowell said too many AP classes lead not just to mental and physical health problems for a student, but to college admission problems.
"If students are overcooked, (colleges) are not going to take them because their mental health bills will go through the roof," she said.
In a lengthy discussion of counseling at Gunn and Paly, school officials said counseling ratios in Palo Alto are far better than those in most California schools -- but still fall short of the ideal of 250 to 1.
For the past 15 years, Paly has augmented its meager counseling staff through a "teacher advisory" system, in which more than 40 teachers provide academic counseling in weekly meetings with students.
Gunn uses a more traditional system, with six full-time counselors who meet one-to-one with students about once a year and also hold group sessions, as well as being available for appointments.
Comparing the two schools' counseling programs is like comparing apples to oranges, but both schools are successful in helping students get into college, counselors said.
A group of parents questioned why two high schools in the same community should have such different counseling structures, citing poll data indicating Gunn students and parents are more dissatisfied with counseling than those at Paly.
Gunn parent Kathy Sharp said although she has been "very satisfied" with the particular counselors at the school, the district should consider switching Gunn's counseling structure to look more like Paly's.
Gunn parent Ken Dauber, who has launched a group called We Can Do Better Palo Alto, questioned the district's policy of "site-based decision-making," which can lead to considerable apparent differences from campus to campus.
"The district doesn't have a process for systematically evaluating what works and what doesn't across schools in the district...." Dauber said.
"The ideology of site-based practices puts the presumption in the wrong place, by assuming that schools should be different rather than similar even on core educational practices like counseling."
Gunn parent Jennifer Jones Schroeder praised the support offered by counselors after her daughter, a competitive skater, transferred in from a private middle school and found the workload more intense than she had expected.
"There's something deeper and richer that Gunn is doing for the whole student body," Schroeder said.
Board Vice-President Camille Townsend suggested the board take up the schools' "structural differences" at its two-day retreat this summer.
"I've heard (about the different counseling systems) for too long, for too many years," Townsend said. "I would like to tee this up very specifically."
Board President Melissa Baten Caswell said, "Since joining the board I've felt we really need to take a look at alignment on a lot of things.
"We want to have comparable opportunities for students," Caswell said. "That doesn't mean it's going to be exactly the same, but we need to make sure we understand what comparable opportunity means."