Parents happy with report on emotional health

Officials say 'supportive school climate' may be a priority for 2011-12

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."

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Posted by Sue
a resident of Barron Park
on Jun 15, 2011 at 12:50 pm

89% (of the students) feel connected or strongly connected at Gunn but parents want schools to do more? 100% would be great but it'll never happen. Some kids will never "connect" with school. Attentive parents know, long before teachers do, when kids tune out. Kids who aren't "connected" in high school have started that disengagement process earlier & the family adults have a responsibility here too.

I've listened to & read about all the things parents expect teachers & staff to do to monitor each kid's emotional well-being. That requires 24 hour attention in a ratio not possible in any public school. Remember that teachers have lives outside the classroom & their off-campus essay reading, correcting, exam scoring, grading, staff meetings & professional training. Some of them even have spouses & kids of their own who deserve some care & attention. Their job is to teach a curriculum to all their students.

Parents whose children do well in & at school are generally satisfied with this system, which is public. Parents who expect a public school system to address the individual frustrations of every teenager will never be satisfied. For those folks, go private.

It's easier for some people to blame schools, teachers, & administrators for the problems their kids have than it is to look back a few years & see where emergent problems were overlooked at home. The hours some people spend on the phone, writing letters, & going to meetings might be better spent doing some 1:1 face time with their own children, building better bondings & helping the kids diffuse stresses & frustrations. For those children in deep need of help, there are many licensed professionals in this town who will, for fees, meet individually with kids to assist them. Do not expect this level of attention from your public school employees & don't blame them because parents didn't perceive the need for private therapy or take action on that perception.

The parents whose kids do well are generally happy with what the schools do.

Like this comment
Posted by Distressed
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 15, 2011 at 1:01 pm

Yet in California, a state with over 39 million people, our state senate passed a bill yesterday, without discussion, allowing 12-year old children to consent to having vaccines and other medication to prevent sexually transmitted diseases, without parent's knowledge.

Unbelievably only three people spoke up for our children yesterday. That these Palo Alto kids will have a peer advisory group is great. But are fellow children the best advisors for other children? Where are the adults to advocate for them? Asleep on the job?

Parents are really *that apathetic* about their children making descions about getting vaccines? Many of these are the kids that think there's plenty of time to cross a railroad track because they're invincible and they'll never get hit. These are the same kids that believed Santa Claus dropped off toys for every child throughout the world in one night, just a few years earlier. So parents are happy. Gee, comforting. Not.

Like this comment
Posted by parent
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 15, 2011 at 6:06 pm

Right you are Sue. Even kids who are not doing well in some aspects of school work may be doing well emotionally and psychologically. We are expecting our public employees to work miracles. It's time we looked in the mirror as parents. What is more important, our next promotion, our next NSF grant, our next personal acquisition or our family?

Like this comment
Posted by parent
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 15, 2011 at 6:14 pm

Amy, We wish Paly kids could have the individual attention that our Gunn students get from our caring, professional counselors. Paly should switch to the Gunn system.

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Posted by gunns ok
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 15, 2011 at 6:29 pm

I agree with "parent" that my Gunn students feel very connected and have had individual attention from their counselor. I am impressed and felt their counselors have gone above and beyond in several instances. I have to say that they have felt supported by many of their teachers as well and have had no problem discussing good and difficult times that they are having in their classes. They have been encouraged, in most instances, to advocate for themselves which will help them manage their time at their universities.

Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 15, 2011 at 6:46 pm

Generally speaking, I am pleased with the ways the schools look after our kids. There are of course some teachers better than others, but on the whole the schools are paying attention to the problems that our youth experience.

However, there seem to be some parents who expect the schools to take over parental roles, become mentors and role models, and take full responsibility for the wellfare of all the students who attend the schools.

It is time that we all look at our own kids, take responsibility for their emotional health and welfare, and start putting family values back in families. Families must be a priority to anyone who is a parent. The excuse of being 2 working parent families/single parents/divorced families/blended families/ or any other label must stop parents from looking for excuses from parenting their own children and expecting the schools to take on parenting roles. I know it takes a village to raise a child is a fashionable idea, but when it comes down to the bottom line, it is a parent's responsibility to make the difficult job of raising a successful child.

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Posted by gunn parents
a resident of Gunn High School
on Jun 16, 2011 at 10:37 pm

From a parent with a less than "perfect " gunn student: I was very happy with the counselors at Gunn. My role as a parent was to tell my student to ask for help. I explained that the counselors where there for the difficult times and not to be afraid to seek assistance.The counselor always followed through with the best advise and guidance. My student learned it was OK to ask for guidance and was usually surprised there was a solution to the problems. Some kids don't need the help, a parent can lead the way to the counselor if needed.

Like this comment
Posted by Ken Dauber
a resident of Barron Park
on Jun 16, 2011 at 11:12 pm

The statement in the story that "89 percent of Gunn High School students rated themselves 'connected' or 'strongly connected' at school in a 2008 survey," which was drawn from the district's presentation to the school board, is unfortunately misleading. The 89 percent figure comes from this question: "How connected to Gunn High School do you feel?" (see Web Link for all of the questions from the 2008 WASC survey). Connectedness, however, according to the Centers for Disease Control, is defined as follows: "the belief held by students that adults and peers in the school care about their learning as well as about them as individuals" (see Web Link). This isn't addressed by simply asking students how connected they are to their school, because we have no idea whether students regard that connection positively or negatively, or what content the connection has at all.

There was, however, a set of questions on the Gunn 2008 WASC survey that were related to "connectedness" as it is correctly defined, unmentioned by the district and hence missing from this story. Based on these questions, the actual situation at Gunn is not so positive.

For example, the question directly following the one cited by the district's report to the school board asked students "Is there an adult on the Gunn staff with whom you feel you could talk if you needed help or had a problem?" One-third of students said no.

In response to another item, 45% of Gunn students stated that they do not “know who to talk to to access support services.” (personal counseling, health issues).

In yet another item, 22% of Gunn students disagree or strongly disagree that “if I have a personal problem I have a person I can talk to (counselor/staff member) about it.” Only 45% agreed with the statement.

The 2008 and 2010 strategic plan survey data is consistent with the WASC data, save for the fact that on similar questions students were even more negative. While Paly students on the whole feel more than twice as connected to their Teacher Advisors than Gunn students do to their counselors, there was plenty of room for improvement there too.

Cherrypicking positive numbers -- such as the 89% number -- that are not really about connectedness at all while failing to mention other actually relevant data in the same survey is not an effective strategy for solving the problem, although it may make for some positive press and avoid hard questions at school board meetings. It's particularly odd to be pointing to data that predates the focused goal on connectedness and the suicides to argue that we were already doing fine. Let's at least face reality squarely.

The district has yet to develop specific, measurable goals for increasing connectedness together with a plan for meeting those goals, despite having had connectedness as a focused goal for the past school year. That fact was obvious at the St. Mark's meeting referred to in the story, and it is still clear now. The school board should insist that next year's focused goal on connectedness include identifying metrics consistent with the CDC definition, clear plans addressed at changing those metrics, and pre- and post- studies of what works and what doesn't.

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Posted by Me Too
a resident of Midtown
on Jun 16, 2011 at 11:16 pm

Good going Gunn. My Gunn student, though certainly stressed and strained by the workload, is connected and supported by her friends, teachers, coaches, and counselors at the school. We don't look for the school to do and be everything for our kids, but we appreciate and value what they do for us. There will always be angst among teenagers, but Gunn does a good job as a learning community.

Like this comment
Posted by gunns ok
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 19, 2011 at 10:46 pm

For those of you that have students that feel disconnected in any of the following ways:
"Is there an adult on the Gunn staff with whom you feel you could talk if you needed help or had a problem?" One-third of students said no.

In response to another item, 45% of Gunn students stated that they do not “know who to talk to to access support services.” (personal counseling, health issues).

In yet another item, 22% of Gunn students disagree or strongly disagree that “if I have a personal problem I have a person I can talk to (counselor/staff member) about it.” Only 45% agreed with the statement.

Please have your parent explain to you who you should go to or have them help you learn how to connect with adults so that you can find your mentor at Gunn. There are plenty at Gunn. I just had twenty five students that graduated in the last two years at my house and I asked them if they felt connected. They had plenty of connections and one of the first thing that many of them did when they returned home from college was to go to Gunn to visit staff members! I understand that some kids may feel disconnected but parents should work with them to learn how to talk to other adults. If they do not learn how to make connections while at Gunn, they will not be able to do it at the college or trade level. This is a skill to be learned not something that should be made available to them. Passive living will not work in any environment. Learning to be your own advocate will take you much farther in your future life. Part of parenting is teaching your child how to navigate society and when and who to ask for help along the way.

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

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