Palo Alto parents who have pushed schools to pay more attention to student social-emotional health said they are pleased with progress reported by school principals.
In a presentation on "student connectedness" to the Board of Education Tuesday night, five principals described an array of practices they use -- for example, striking up conversations with students eating lunch alone -- to foster tighter bonds at school.
"We make it a point to talk to students," Palo Alto High School Principal Phil Winston told the board.
"There's nothing more beautiful than asking someone how they're doing."
Superintendent Kevin Skelly said the efforts for better "connectedness" -- which became a priority following a string of student suicides two years ago -- represents "complicated and enduring work" for the district.
For example, 89 percent of Gunn High School students rated themselves "connected" or "strongly connected" at school in a 2008 survey.
But that leaves 11 percent potentially falling through the cracks -- a worry for parents and administrators, particularly after the suicides.
Nonetheless, parents Tuesday thanked the district for their efforts so far.
"It's wonderful hearing these principals sharing real-life examples of connectedness," said the Rev. Matt McDermott, rector of St. Mark's Episcopal Church.
"If it's true that 11 percent are not perceiving themselves as connected in schools, let's continue and keep striving.
"Even with all the complications of mental health issues and backgrounds, just knowing that we can connect is huge."
Tuesday's discussion was a far cry from a meeting on the topic in February, in which parents expressed impatience at what they said had been slow progress in addressing student emotional health.
Following that tense session, which had been convened by 11 local religious congregations, school officials have made a greater effort to showcase their mental health efforts, making "connectedness" an agenda item at nearly every school board meeting.
Officials also hinted a possible priority for the district next year could be implementing a clause calling for a "supportive school environment" in a report by Project Safety Net, a broad community coalition on teen wellness that was organized following the suicides.
While "connectedness" was on the district's priority list for this year, some parents complained that the "supportive school environment" clause, known as P-8, had not been explicitly prioritized.
Board members will discuss possible "focus goals" for 2011-12 in their annual two-day retreat, open to the public, scheduled for June 27 and 28.
Principals from both of Palo Alto's high schools and all three middle schools Tuesday explained a variety of policies in place to promote students' emotional connections at school.
High schools have tried to create "safe zones" in their libraries, where students are encouraged to hang out informally, with the ability to check out iPads and laptops.
Gunn Principal Katya Villalobos said the school will expand the ROCK ("Reach Out, Care, Know"), a peer counseling program launched by students following the suicides.
The school's Student Activities Center features three ping-pong tables and hot chocolate on Wednesdays and Thursdays, Villalobos said.
Both high schools have shifted to a later morning start time in a bow to student sleep needs.
Middle school principals described their orientation and character education programs.
Jordan Principal Michael Milliken -- who leaves the school this month to become district-wide director for secondary education -- said he convened a "school climate committee" 18 months ago, with representation from parents, staff and students.
While parents generally applauded the changes, they said more should be done.
Several members of the group We Can Do Better Palo Alto called for Gunn to adopt the "teacher advisory" counseling system in place at Paly.
"Please implement a standard guidance system through both high schools," Gunn parent Amy Balsam asked the board.
"It's only fair."