Special report: Nurturing happier, healthier youth

Small things go a long way in boosting emotional health for teens

As a child of divorced parents growing up in the '60s, Becky Beacom lived for years with no father in her life.

But she never missed a father-daughter dance, because the dads of her friends -- or other fathers in her neighborhood -- made a point of including her.

As Palo Alto pursues a citywide push to bolster teen mental health in the aftermath of a devastating teen "suicide cluster" in 2009 and 2010, Beacom, the health education manager for the Palo Alto Medical Foundation, reflects on the significance of the understated actions by those in her community.

"It .... gave me daily examples of how fathers and daughters adored each other -- and it transferred to me.

"Who knew how important that would be for my development?" said the Palo Alto resident and long-married mother of two grown children.

In the months of grieving and searching dialogue that followed Palo Alto's teen suicides, a wide range of community groups, including the school district, settled on a statistical strategy, among others, to assess and address the emotional wellness of the city's youth: "developmental assets."

More than 4,000 kids -- nearly all Gunn and Palo Alto high school students as well as seventh-graders and fifth-graders -- took a detailed developmental-assets survey on their habits and attitudes last fall.

The recently released data present a mixed picture of youth well-being in Palo Alto: While kids possess many strengths, the majority said they do not feel valued by their community. And the older they get, the less valued they feel.

Ironically, for an intellectual community that insists on research-based policies, the survey results point to deceptively simple cures -- intuitive to most people, but sometimes overlooked in the crush of life in a high-achieving town:

Know the names of the kids on your block. Make eye contact with -- maybe even smile at -- young people on University Avenue. Take time to care about the opinions of kids -- yours and others'.

"If you wanted a book to tell you what the high school students in Palo Alto have to say about us adults -- what they want from us -- you have it right here," said Beacom, fingering the voluminous results of the so-called "developmental-assets survey."

"People say, 'I'd love to be a fly on the wall and know what my kids are really thinking.' Well, it's in here.

"This survey asks beautiful questions, like, 'How important is it to you to help other people, help reduce hunger and poverty, help make sure people are treated fairly, get to know people of different races and ethnic groups?" Beacom said.

"What we find is that a huge number of kids -- not all of them, but a large number, in my estimation -- hold these values very dearly.

"The perception in Palo Alto is that parents don't let their kids make mistakes, but 75 percent of kids agreed that taking their lumps, taking responsibility for their mistakes, was quite important or extremely important," she said.

"If you never ask these questions, you would never know."


The Developmental Assets Survey, produced by the Minneapolis-based Search Institute and given to millions of young people nationwide over decades, measures 40 defined "assets" a kid needs to thrive -- things like "family support," "integrity," "reading for pleasure" and "adult role models," to name just a few. They cover resources both external and internal to youth.

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

According to Palo Alto's results, 18 percent of fifth-graders are "vulnerable or at risk." That number jumps to 32 percent of middle school students and 47 percent of high school students. A student is considered "vulnerable and at risk" if his or her survey answers reflect fewer than 20 of the 40 assets.

On the upside, students possessing 30 or more assets are counted in the "optimal, thriving" zone.

In Palo Alto, the "thriving" category comprises 43 percent of fifth-graders, 23 percent of seventh-graders and 10 percent of high school students.

Armed with baseline data on the emotional health of its youth, people in any community can become "asset builders" by being more "intentional" and engaging in their interactions with kids, the Search Institute says.

The town of Los Gatos -- led by a middle school principal and former mayor Mike Wasserman -- tried it, and a repeat survey found that the "asset levels" of teens there measurably increased from 2007 to 2010.

"It's paying attention to small things," said Chris Miller, a board member of the Los Gatos Union School District, where the community made a concerted effort to put the assets into action -- saying hello to kids, striking up conversations, taking some time to listen to what they have to say.

Lisa Fraser, principal of Los Gatos' Fisher Middle School, introduced the "assets" approach to her campus in 2005. In 2009, then-Mayor Wasserman (now a Santa Clara County Supervisor) announced a full-on campaign to spread the assets model throughout the community. Wasserman spoke before 68 different organizations in town about the assets and the importance of interacting with young people.

The city's Youth Commission also teamed up with its Chamber of Commerce to identify and highlight businesses considered "youth friendly" -- those that treat young customers with respect, hire youth and support community and school activities.

Surveys of some 2,000 Los Gatos students in 2007 and again in 2010 showed increased assets in almost every category, including an 18 percentage point gain in "school engagement" and a 13 percentage point boost in "positive peer influence."


Asset-building is more than just nostalgia for a rosy past that never existed, Beacom said.

It is particular to every time and place.

From her own childhood, Beacom remembers the reliably warm greeting she used to get from Fran Hinson, the late owner of the old Fran's newsstand on Lytton Avenue.

Hinson and his sister Ruth welcomed kids into their shop to read comics, inviting them behind the counter to pick out penny candy.

"We never bought the comics, but they were nice to us," she said. "Who knew how important those adults would be in our lives?

"Forever in my mind will be the smell of red licorice, tobacco and newsprint together and the independence of being able to walk to Fran's."

Another feature of those pre-Proposition 13 days, Beacom recalls, were the drop-in summer recreation programs and arts and crafts at neighborhood schools, open to all.

Raising her own kids in Palo Alto, Beacom looks back on the annual Addison School Carnival at the end of the May Fete Parade as a significant asset-builder.

"It was a requirement for every Addison parent to be involved, and it became this institution, this ritual, an identity," she said.

"Maybe we didn't recognize how important those kinds of things were. The Search Institute gives us scientific backing for why those things really matter for children's health and development.

"Too often we feel like everything has to be academic or taught, instead of embedded in our way of life."

Beacom stays alert for ideas from kids about what might work for them today.

Students recently told her of their admiration for a Gunn High School teacher who stands at the classroom door on the first day of school every year, shaking hands and personally greeting each student. That got Beacom's attention.

With assets in mind, school Superintendent Kevin Skelly, a basketball player, has taken to opening certain school gyms on Sundays to play informally and mingle with any kids who sign up.

Local shops like Pizza My Heart, Spot Pizza, Douce France and Rojoz are popular because "these are places that have welcomed young people, and teens appreciate that," she said.

A few simple changes could go a long way, Beacom said.

She cited recent measurable improvements in a longstanding bullying problem at Jordan Middle School after administrators there changed lunchtime and hallway policies. "Overnight, the (bullying) data improved, and continues to improve," she said.

Polling subsequent to the changes suggested that parents had noticed the difference.

"We (adults) don't generally have a good track record in following through, and some of this is really low-hanging fruit," Beacom said, citing longtime requests from high school students for "test calendars" so they don't end up with multiple exams on the same day from different teachers.

"They're not asking for reduced tests or reduced rigor -- just a better system, a healthier system."

At Sequoia High School in Redwood City, where Beacom's husband has taught chemistry and human biology for 22 years, the union contract mandates that teachers participate at some level in the extracurricular life of the school -- chaperoning, keeping time at games, or other chores.

That alone leads to teachers having greater connection with students, she said.

"My husband would do it anyway, and a lot of teachers (in Palo Alto) do things on their own, but that (contract requirement) is a structure that makes something happen.

"The whole school climate thing doesn't have to mean a complete overhaul. The kids have given us some suggestions -- let's just start with those."

==I Palo Alto's survey results have been posted on the school district's website. They are also linked to the website of Palo Alto Project Safety Net, the multi-agency task force on teen mental health that was organized in response to the suicides.

Related stories:

'Speed-friending' and a sympathetic ear

Start with 'assets', not 'deficits,' youth directors say

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Posted by Ken Dauber
a resident of Barron Park
on Apr 22, 2011 at 9:45 am

Thanks to the Palo Alto Weekly for publishing this article about the Developmental Assets survey. I'd like to highlight a few points that might not leap out on quick reading:
* 47% of high school students are classified as vulnerable or at risk by the survey, while only 10% are thriving.
* Since doing more than 1 hour a week of homework counts as an "asset" in the survey, almost all Palo Alto high school students get credit for an asset, even though the homework load is actually consistently cited as a source of stress for many students. This means that the above percentages are actually rosier than they probably ought to be.
* Project Safety Net has put together a comprehensive plan in reaction to the student suicides that addresses many of the issues raised in the article. For example, the point that Becky Beacom makes about coordinated test and project schedules appears in Section P-8 of the Project Safety Net plan (entitled "Supportive School Environments"), and the first point in Next Steps. See Web Link for section P-8.
Unfortunately, despite a commitment to do so PAUSD hasn't implemented P-8, which calls for the district to "[s]tudy, discuss and implement additional environmental strategies that create a more supportive school and learning environment, such as finals prior to winter break, revised test and project calendars, revised homework policies addressing purpose and volume, academic integrity concerns, tutorials and advisories, and social and emotional skill development." I hope that the Developmental Assets survey results underline for the school board and the Superintendent the necessity of getting to work on the issues that Beacom highlights here.

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Posted by forit
a resident of JLS Middle School
on Apr 22, 2011 at 9:58 am

We need to allow schools to do things step by step,and monitor it carefully and improve it accordingly,not doing everything at once at the same time.That is pretty disruptive for our students if one thing is not working then we need to change everything that depends on it.

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Posted by Concern Parent
a resident of Palo Verde
on Apr 22, 2011 at 10:07 am

I admire Beacom, she often stand up for our kids and it seems like the district listens to her because she is a professional. I hope more professionals follow her. I agree with her, kids need people in their lives they can talk to, other than parents. I am from another country, and I like her, had neighbors who I could talk to if something was bothering me. In this country it is a lot harder for my kids to find someone they can talk to. Also my teachers were a lot more understandable when I had bad grades, they tried to find our the reason and when i told them that I had a full time job and that's why I got late to school, and sometimes did not have time to study of finish the test. After that my teacher's were my best friends and make sure that I did not missed something important because i was late. Here the teacher's expect you the be perfect and make the teachers and the schools proud of their job, but not everyone learns the same way, and those who do not make the district proud become a shadow and are not complemented which builds the assets, so little by little they start hating school and no longer feel happy of who they are. Some teacher's in fact do not want the difficult child in their classroom, but they can do nothing about it, so they work hard trying to kick him out, instead of trying to find out what is going on on their lives, and help him.
Hope this changes. Hope all teachers watch the "Race to Nowhere" movie. It help me a lot to understand what is like for a child when they are not the number one at every thing, or how hard they have to work in order to get good grades. We need to change the way we are education our students. In this country my children who attended public schools found nothing but stress, mean teachers, unnecessary criticism from mean and careless teachers, coaches who know about soccer, but know nothing about kids and how to treat them. In fact they feel very powerful every time they tell a student that he is does not have what it takes to be in their team. Yes all this little things add up, and leaves a child with less assets than they had when they first started school. No wonder 47% of our students are vulnerable and are some of them took their lives at the tracks and other used other means. How long are we going to allow this to happen. Probably until our child is next. Sad.

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Posted by Concern Parent
a resident of Palo Verde
on Apr 22, 2011 at 10:19 am

I forgot to mention that if the district does not start to take Project Safety Net P-8 seriously things are not going to improve for our kids, so far all I hear are promises, and promises, they are thinking, they might, they are looking into, but I do not hear any change that they are going to do for sure, like for sure changing the starting bell, changing the awful counseling service at Gunn, and so on. There is so much they can do because they have our kids for at least 7 hours a day and sometimes more with the extracurricular activities. If the district in fact want to help our students they need to implement the P-8 now, not later. This plan was put long time ago by the city, concern parents and the district, but it was not put into action. It reminds me of the Indian treaties, where so many things were promised to them, but nothing was done (they were just taken). Mrs. Skelly please implement P-8 Now.

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Posted by a neighbor and parent
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 22, 2011 at 10:23 am

These assets can't be lumped together

a parent, friend, neighbor's or city's responsibility to build assets are entirely different than a school's responsibility because kids spend such a huge amount of their time doing school

There is only so much a neighbor and passer by can do to smile and be nice f you never see the kids, I don't see teens outside unless they are in transit to school

thanks Dauber for bringing up that homework is an asset, I imagine so is community service all very good, but isn't everything here being done in extreme measures for college applications, and as a way to measure kids?

that would defeat the purpose of an asset.

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Posted by Alarmed
a resident of Gunn High School
on Apr 22, 2011 at 10:46 am

That 47% of our high schoolers are "at risk" is quite alarming!

Thanks, Chris, for your continued excellent coverage the issue.

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Posted by Are you kidding me?
a resident of Stanford
on Apr 22, 2011 at 10:49 am

What a bunch of mush! Reading, writing, and 'rithmetic folks. We don't need or want the schools raising our kids!

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Posted by Michele Dauber
a resident of Barron Park
on Apr 22, 2011 at 10:56 am

If we take the Developmental Assests survey seriously, then there are action implications that flow from the information here.

One such action that can and should be taken immediately is tto implement the Paly Teacher Advisor program at Gunn for the 2011-12 school year start. This is a successful program that has been in use at Paly for 20 years. There is no good reason it cannot be implemented at Gunn immediately. Preparations and training could be implemented over the summer. There are many experts who are standing by and have offered to help Gunn get this off the ground. Yet the district has thus far refused to implement a known local "best practice" with reams of data to support its superiority.

Parent and student dissatisfaction with Gunn's guidance and counseling programs is literally TWICE AS HIGH as that at Paly. That is, around 20% of Paly parents and students are dissatisfied with counseling while an astounding 40% of Gunn parents and students are dissatisfied. These numbers are from the district's own strategic plan surveys and are available online from We Can Do Better Palo Alto's Guidance Counseling Fact Sheet at Web Link

I believe that Gunn doesn't have a TA program because the district has failed to lead on this important question. Board Member Camille Townsend said as much when asked to comment on this at the last Board Meeting. She stated that she has been hearing about the superiority of the TA model over Gunn's guidance program for years. She stated that her own children thrived under the TA system at Paly. The Gunn 2008-09 WASC self-study focus group report on School Climate recommended implementing Teacher Advisors at Gunn. Yet no changes have been made at Gunn.

Lamentably, the Board of Education does not appear to read or use its own collected data, and there is a deep and problematic disconnect between the data the district collects and the fact that implications from that data do not seem to impact policy formation or implementation, nor to provide benchmarks against which progress is measured. Thus, we collect reams of data that do not seem to be read, utilized, or make any difference. No wonder Palo Alto parents suffer from "survey fatigue." The BOE does not seem to be listening anyway -- why bother to fill out the survey if you know it won't matter?

This is my concern about the Developmental Assets survey. Will it be just one more ignored set of data on the PAUSD scrap heap of data that has been collected and then catalogued and ignored?

The reason this matters is that PAUSD had a 2010-11 focused goal of "Connectedness." The reason for this goal is that there is a full-blown suicide epidemic and contagion centered on Gunn High School. We must NEVER forget this. This for us must be the central and most important fact of our lives in this community and school district until the problems that have led us to this point are addressed and every PAUSD child can thrive socially, emotionally, and academically.

The number one most effective bang for the buck for increasing connectedness at Gunn would be the implementation of the Teacher Advisor system. There is no good reason why this cannot be done. PAUSD: please stop making excuses and implement this excellent system at Gunn for 2011-12.

PAUSD schools are great. Our kids are wonderful kids. But We Can Do Better, and we must do better as a district and as a community. To be more involved in promoting issues of student thriving, please visit We Can Do Better Palo Alto at:

Web Link

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Posted by paly parent
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Apr 22, 2011 at 12:19 pm

Michele - The Paly Advisory system is MUCH better on paper than in practice. It's great if you have an Advisor you click with who actually advises. Not all of them do. My son is a senior, has never had a one-on-one conversation with his advisor, never had a discussion on what classes to take (aside from what was presented to the whole advisory class) and his advisor does not even remember which students are in his advisory class. If all the Advisors were like Ms. Paugh (retired) it would be a great system.

The MOST important things the District could do would be making sure that teachers:
actually instruct their students
teach what they plan on testing on (not just what they find interesting)
providing homework that is meaningful and not busy work,
have a consistent, department wide grading policy for each class
have a consistent curriculum at BOTH high schools (for example, Gunn has Bio 1, 1A and 1 AC, Paly has Bio 1A and 1 AC and a lower level Integrated Science that basically starts students off a year behind their peers in science instead of offering the regular Bio which would keep them on track).

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Posted by Michele Dauber
a resident of Barron Park
on Apr 22, 2011 at 2:00 pm

Hi paly parent:

I'm sure that TA has its shortcomings -- after all, each TA has 30 or 40 kids to whom she is assigned and has to meet with on a weekly basis. That alone makes an advisory system challenging (though not impossible) to do in a high quality way. I am mindful, however, that what I am suggesting is not that PAUSD do something perfect but only that it implement what it has found to be the best local practice. That is, I am not asking for Kevin Skelly to turn Paly or Gunn into Phillips Andover. This is a large public school and I am entirely realistic about what can be done with the resources available. No one in We Can Do Better Palo Alto expects Kevin to hand us the moon made of green cheese on a plate.

That said, this is common sense. We have two counseling systems in Palo Alto. Around 15-20% of parents and students at Paly are either not satisfied or very dissatisfied with the counseling at Paly. But double that number -- an astounding, unacceptable, really and truly terrible 40% -- of parents and students at Gunn are either unsatisfied or very unsatisfied with the counseling services Gunn provides. Does that mean that TA is perfect? No. Does it mean it is a lot better than what Gunn is doing? Absolutely.

So why are the students and parents at Gunn paying the same tax bill but getting worse service for their dollars? I can tell you that fact alone makes a lot of the parents I have talked to about this very angry, and rightfully so.

Why has the Gunn counseling staff resisted what should be an obvious change that would benefit the students and parents, create connectedness with teachers and reduce stress? I told you my theory: leadership. Perhaps parents have other theories they would like to post here as I am very curious about this.

When our kids were at Gunn, they and their friends did not feel that they were close to their teachers in general. The TA system ensures that every student makes contact with at least one teacher every week in a mandatory advisory system. Maybe its not always a perfect fit and maybe there are improvements than can and should be made. But it is twice as good as what is happening at Gunn.

Given the events at Gunn and the terrible losses we have sustained there in the last two years, it makes no sense to leave this stone unturned. Let's start using those surveys that parents have been filling out for the last five years and making some changes consistent with the data that PAUSD is collecting. PAUSD should show that is not wasting the community's time by having these surveys and then disregarding them.

For more information, please visit:

Web Link

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Posted by Abby
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Apr 22, 2011 at 2:20 pm

It seems the Weekly and the Safety Net volunteers don't understand the most basic issue involved in these suicides -- more than 90% of suicide victims are suffering from mental illness. Nurturing isn't going to stop them from killing themselves. Nurturing might be soothing to youngsters who are uncomfortable with the competitive academic environment in some schools, but it doesn't have anything to do with suicide.

I'm also disturbed that school leaders and mental health professionals didn't follow the CDC's guidelines for dealing with suicide clusters. I'm not even sure they were aware of the guidelines. Instead, after the first and second deaths in 2009, I got this impression that Supt. Skelly, ACES and others involved in Safety Net were throwing things together, cutting-and-pasting different strategies. I heard a lot of misinformation. It was a shame because suicides can be prevented, but Palo Alto wasn't in a position to do anything useful other than coddle kids who weren't likely to kill themselves. This article, unfortunately, seems to promote more of that coddling but doesn't get at the real issues.

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Posted by Parent2
a resident of Community Center
on Apr 22, 2011 at 2:36 pm

Becky makes an interesting point - every year a child spends in PAUSD, their Assets decline.

That really must change; we cannot be destroying their interest, motivation and well being every year.

This should not be counter to good academics either - stressed out students cannot possibly perform better academically than motivated, interested, thriving students.

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Posted by One Gunn Mom
a resident of Gunn High School
on Apr 22, 2011 at 3:03 pm

@ Abby,
" more than 90% of suicide victims are suffering from mental illness"

I just did some checking on the National Alliance on Mental Health website:
"One in four adults—approximately 57.7 million Americans—
experience a mental health disorder in a given year. One in 17 lives
with a serious mental illness such as schizophrenia, major
depression or bipolar disorder1 and about one in 10 children live
with a serious mental or emotional disorder."
web link: Web Link
"About 20 percent of children are estimated to have mental disorders with at least mild functional impairment" web link
Web Link

Of the 1880 kids at Gunn, this says that between 10 and 20 % have some form of mental illness (most probably untreated), so that would be 180-360 kids. This is not the other kid problem this is OUR problem. Depression is the largest clinic at Stanford Child Psychiatry with a waiting list of about 2 months. Who among us does not get depressed? What kid does not get depressed? How you deal with depression and what support system can be put inplace to help a kid deal with depression can mean the difference between life and death (suicide is mainly impulsive). It is not about nuturing, it is about supporting the kid--providing an environment where they feel they can talk to someone, anyone. That is what connectedness is about. If a kid feels connected to an adult at school, they are more likely to talk about issues at school/home, to let someone know they are hurting. That adult could of course be a parent of a close friend but they need some one adult who is safe to them. Since the kids spend most of waking hours with the same adults at school, school is the likely place to try to make that connection.

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Posted by Tryn Rose
a resident of Stanford
on Apr 22, 2011 at 3:19 pm

I grew up in Palo Alto as a youngster while my dad attended Stanford's doctoral program in the 70's. I am heartened to see this study, to appreciate the appreciating of our young people, and to join in the energy that adds to their success. Our elder population will be grateful for the enthusiasm of youth around them; both will benefit, of course. * Thank you, and keep up the good work! Tryn Rose Smith, author of "Extraordinary Days: A Handbook for the Caregiver's Heart"

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Posted by Concern Parent
a resident of Palo Verde
on Apr 22, 2011 at 4:13 pm

Greg From Saint Marks posted the questions and answers from the St. Marks meeting back in February, people are posting there as well.
Web Link

Like this comment
Posted by Just saying
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Apr 22, 2011 at 6:16 pm

What everybody needs to keep in mind is that the results of the Developmental Assets survey in Palo Alto mirror the results the same survey yielded around the country.

In other words, Palo Alto kids are similar to average other kids in the US. I would not call this a local issue...

Plus, in my mind, teenagers will always be teenagers and have more negative views of things then younger children wherever you survey them, at least in developed countries. There is no need to wring our hands over the fact that the results are worse for high school students. It is to be expected of teenagers.

I think some people are reading way too much into the results of the survey

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Posted by forit
a resident of JLS Middle School
on Apr 22, 2011 at 6:49 pm

I think this connection program is a good choice. Kids talk to kids about everything, even though their friend do not tell the school, it is still good ,because it release their angry anxiety and negative emotions when they know other kids have same issue or just simply let it out of their chests. i am for it 100%.

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Posted by Ken Dauber
a resident of Barron Park
on Apr 23, 2011 at 8:10 am

@Just saying

Responding to this comment of yours: "What everybody needs to keep in mind is that the results of the Developmental Assets survey in Palo Alto mirror the results the same survey yielded around the country.
In other words, Palo Alto kids are similar to average other kids in the US. I would not call this a local issue..."
The first part of this statement, that Palo Alto's results on the survey are in line with those nationally, could well true, although apparently impossible to verify. At least I haven't actually been able to find any documentation about national results.
The second part, that Palo Alto kids are similar to all other kids in the US, doesn't follow, because the Developmental Assets survey isn't administered to a representative sample of kids in the US. It is typically used by communities facing particular challenges (in our case, a suicide cluster). It would be more accurate to say our results may be similar to those of other communities in crisis.
I commented on this exact question to the school board, and I used this analogy: If your doctor tells you that you are solidly in the middle of all the patients she has seen today, that doesn't mean you're healthy.

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Posted by Becky Sanders
a resident of Ventura
on Apr 25, 2011 at 12:09 pm

Thanks again Chris for keeping the dialog going. Have you noticed how the comments just explode when we talk about our kids?

If every adult in this community, in addition to their constructive criticism, would pick one thing to do to help our kids - an hour a week, the whole city would transform and we could share the honor of helping all kids thrive and not place the entire burden on the schools.

You can start by getting involved with Project Safety Net ( There are so many volunteer opportunities there and with the agencies and organizations partnering with PSN. If you are a business owner, check in with the Chamber of Commerce about registering as a kid friendly business where kids are welcome to visit. Maybe you could start an internship program where a teen could learn about your business. If you have summer work, post it at the high school job banks. If you're an Elk, Kiwanis, Rotarian, you already know they have kid related stuff going on. Or if you are strapped for time, but not cash, money is needed at all levels at PSN. That would be HUGE!

Everyone has time for the basic courtesy of knowing the names of the kids in the neighborhood and checking in with their parents. Building a loving, inclusive and broader community right on your own block is the place to start.

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Posted by paly parent
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Apr 25, 2011 at 6:07 pm

Michelle - just so you are clear on the Paly Advisory schedule, the kids meet with their advisors at most once a month, not weekly. There is Advisory every week, but usually only for one grade level. (The other 3 weeks the kids just have free time.) So a student would meet with their Advisory class (not one-on-one) maybe 10 times during the school year. The topics are usually college or registration related. I think one session includes Mental Health issues. This years schedule:

Web Link

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Posted by Michele Dauber
a resident of Barron Park
on Apr 25, 2011 at 8:14 pm

@paly parent

Yes, I know that but thanks for the clarification. It can be confusing to talk about "weekly advisory" because not every grade meets every week. Advisors hold weekly advisory on Wednesdays that are mandatory for students. Freshman have more frequent meetings, generally between 2-4 times per month (some meetings are larger and some are smaller). 10-12 Teacher Advisors have 75 students they advise, approximately 25 from each grade. Advisory is every Weds, and most meetings are split up by grade level so that students have smaller groups to meet in and material is tailored to their grade. In the calendar, as paly parent points out, each grade-level advisory group meets around 1-2 times per month or more during crunch months where it is needed.

These meetings give students a chance to meet with the same teacher more than 30 times over the course of their 3 years from 10-12. This teacher gets to know them, and can advise them effectively on colleges as well as write very knowledgable letters about them. Obviously those relationships between TAs and students do not begin and end first period on Wednesdays. Students can and do contact their TAs for assistance and advice at other times as well and that is the point of the model.

Furthermore, the teacher is tasked with being available to communicate with the parents, and with ensuring that if the student shows signs of emotional problems that the proper referrals are made. So by design this system ensures at least some degree of connectedness over the three year period.

Is it perfect? No. Private prep schools have smaller class sizes and utilize an advisory system that is a lot more intimate with groups of 7-8 advisees who meet frequently and may even take trips or eat meals together. But this is a large public school and given the resources we have this is pretty good. What is most important is that parents and students at Paly are far more satisfied with the TA system than Gunn parents and students are with the Gunn guidance system.

This "satisfaction gap" between Paly and Gunn on the guidance model utilized has potentially serious implications. All PAUSD teachers have just taken suicide prevention training (QPR). Teacher-Advisors at Paly are unquestionably in the best position of any school official in the PAUSD system to make the best use of this training and to notice any serious problems. They have known the student longer and probably better than any other teacher. There is no analogous individual with that level of knowledge of your child at Gunn. Students at Gunn do not systematically have any relationships that rise to anything like that level.

I wish my kids had gone to Paly and had teacher-advisors and I hope we can have this in place by the time my fourth grader gets to Gunn.

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Posted by paly parent
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Apr 25, 2011 at 8:55 pm

Michelle -

Advisory at Paly is Tuesday mornings, not Wednesday, typically once a month for most students. Advisory will be at the end of the day on Thursday next year. As a parent of a senior, I have never been invited to contact my son's advisor, nor have I felt like he would welcome the contact. In addition, my senior says that typically less than a third of his Advisory class shows up on a meeting day (no consequences for the BTW). On the other hand, the guidance counselors at Paly have been wonderful, supportive, flexible and available.

Any system is only as good as the people involved. Teacher/Advisors theoretically would be in a good position to identify kids with problems, but as I have said before, my son's advisor did not even remember that he was his advisor (after 3 years and writing his college recs, wonder what he said?) Some teachers apply to be Advisors because they really care and they do a great job. Some only apply because they then have one less class to teach.

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Posted by paly parent
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Apr 25, 2011 at 8:59 pm

Just as an additional FYI - my son has had his advisor as a teacher (which is typical and a smart idea). He is nowhere near the teacher who "knows him the best and the longest". There are, happily, several other wonderful Paly teachers who make an effort to get to know their students, learn their names, their interests, etc. and who make the kids feel welcome.

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Posted by Michele Dauber
a resident of Barron Park
on Apr 25, 2011 at 10:17 pm

@paly parent
This is all very good information. Obviously not every TA and every kid are going to have an amazing connection. As I have said repeatedly I am not saying and no one is saying that the TA system is perfect. What I am saying is that whatever its shortcomings it is demonstrably better than the Gunn system. I think the disconnect in some of these conversations is that Paly parents do not really understand how bad the experience of the Gunn parents is. Your son's experience, disappointing though it was, was a lot better than that of the average Gunn student.

As I said in the other thread, fewer than half of Gunn parents agreed with the statement that "counselor is available to help my child select classes and provide guidance in planning for the future," and a third strongly disagreed. I don't want to exaggerate how bad it is -- but I don't need to. The statistics are grim.

As a Gunn parent, past and future, I would rather have what you had because the statistical evidence is that people are a lot happier with it than they are with what I had. This is not a "grass is greener" issue. It is actually a lot better.

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Posted by TimH
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Apr 26, 2011 at 2:29 pm

I think nearly all postings agree that this is an important topic and valuable study data. Palo Alto is a great city but as a K-12 student and teacher alum, PA has been a mixture of pressure and reward for decades. During K-12, I recall nearly every teacher I had and most were quite good. I did not need any of them to be more than teachers, but did pay attention to their own deportment and communication skills. Some were not interested beyond the curriculum while others sought out greater levels of rapport with the students. The main value I looked for was respect, and valued the teachers who did not abuse their role and perceived scope of power, which I later adopted in my own classrooms.

I suggest that students feel "important" if their parents and peers find them to be this way, with teachers in a supporting role. From the simple amount of time spent during the weekdays with their students, teachers can be watchful of changes in their students but any actions from this observation must be formal, with consistent, repeatable and measurable results. Palo Alto should not need huge surveys now to keep this pulse. The city is fortunate to have an involved parent base, but also needs to be open for the feedback from these parents – however difficult we can become.

Beyond the teacher focus, I am concerned when "nurture" is used in this context, as this term was overused in the "raising" of "Generation Y" with the results, a rather "ignore those over 25" tunnel vision (a moving window as the Y’s age), affecting the mainstream today. I would prefer this forum to pursue understanding over nurturing, so that current students continue to learn that rewards follow suitable effort and results, and are not an entitlement. I mention this here, as a solid basis in reality can reduce frustrations and disillusionment. I am always surprised to hear questions from new college graduates who seek guidance about how many years they should plan on before they land an executive role – most who ask this question are seriously guessing “one to three years of waiting” for the jump. We all need to work with young people to understand that most people do not create Facebook, play in the NBA, or become actor/authors, etc. However, they DO work in rewarding careers across decades of years (key point) that also provide for a lifetime of family, friends and good health. Yes, and they will work with people who are older – and younger – than themselves.

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Posted by Elephant in the Room
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jun 7, 2011 at 9:59 am

While I think this survey gives us a bit of an insight into how kids are feeling, I believe it has many flaws. There is a lack of ability to measure how a kid's history affects his current risk-taking behavior. It also does not weigh some assets more than others in trying to determine what causes children to feel unvalued, alone, sad, depressed, etc.

Beyond this survey, here are items I think we need to look at:

- Kids are often left out of groups of friends because of their socio-economic status.

- Kids who are not popular (because they are different in any way) are left out. I see parents unintentionally supporting their kids in excluding the unpopular kids.

_ I see parents wanting their kids to be friends with kids from other "good families" - which usually means families with a big house, lots of money, parents who went to Ivy Leagues, etc.

- Kids who are trying to climb the social status ladder can be very mean (bullies) in order to rise to the position they aspire to. These kids can appear very sweet during one-on-one play dates, but watch them in a group and you will see how they act in very hurtful ways.

- In some other countries, adults talk to kids they don't know. They genuinely value kids and the kids learn to value other kids this way. In other countries this comes in the form of a passing pat on the head or simply some extra attention to a child just for being a child.

- The kids in other countries get attention and respect every day from a number of people they know and don't know. In our community, kids get things like iPhones, or huge, overdone parties, or parents who spend a lot of time making sure they get into an Ivy League. Mom's who stay at home, spend a lot of time behind the scenes making sure our schools are better and our kids get the best education they can. This is a wonderful thing for the community, but I don't think kids see this as valuing them.

- We further the lack of a community feeling by doing things like giving our kids cell phones to call home if they, for example, fall off of their bike. Why not have them knock on someone's door for help? We are unintentionally creating barriers for our kids so that they do not feel connected to the greater community.

- We need to teach our kids that they can rely on adults in the community and I believe we are failing to do this.

- We need to teach our kids to be more inclusive, less social climbing animals.

- How many parents that live in Palo Alto include Tinsley transfer kids in play dates, birthday parties, etc?? I can tell you that in the schools my kids have attended it is very rare for those kids to be included. From this example, you see that kids who simply aren't like others risk being left out, left alone and made to feel bad about themselves.

- I have witnessed many teachers and some administrators acting as if they do not value kids... especially kids who don't get A's, who act out, or who have learning differences. There is a big push to make kids more independent without regard to their developmental ability. All kids must conform at the same time.

- I have seen kids shamed in class rooms, in school play grounds, in school halls... I see administrators turning a blind eye to this because California makes it difficult to discipline a teacher.

- In schools, kids who do one bad thing are continually scrutinized and looked upon as "bad kids". The more this happens, the more those kids feel alienated and the more they act out. Often times, those kids are blamed for things they did not do because the teachers and administrators assume that it must be those kids that did wrong in a situation. There is almost no way for those kids to turn things around and, I have seen things get really bad for these kids. The less connected they feel the worse they do in school. By the time these kids are in high school, they are the "delinquents" who no one cares about and who are the first to be yelled at or left out. These kids then are excluded from sports and other extra curricular activities. If these kids do not have much parental support, it is even worse.

- At the high school level, I have experienced kids being treated in a very business-like manner. Questions, such as what classes they have taken, what grades do they have, what extracurricular things are they involved in, etc., etc. There is little space for these kids to be kids, to be seen as humans with a range of emotions. There is little space for these kids to say to an adult, "I am unhappy... or my friends have been mean to me... or I don't know what I will do if I can't play on the football team." I think these things need to be something kids feel they can talk about with lots of adults... not just Adolescent Counseling Services.

- As a community of parents, senior citizens, teachers, administrators, college graduates, and others, I believe we can do a much better job of making kids feel valued, adored, loved, included, understood. We are a community of really smart people... I believe it just takes a little less of an academic approach to these problems and more introspection on the part of adults. All kids want to feel loved and included... especially the ones who actively push adults away with bad behavior.

Let's all try harder to make Palo Alto a place all kids (not just our won) feel valued and loved.

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