Editorial: Improving high school counseling

Palo Alto school board asks for major changes to Gunn counseling model

An unusually impatient and resolute school board made clear this week that it does not believe students at Gunn High School are receiving comparable counseling services to those at Palo Alto High School and asked administrators to return in June with a reform plan.

The board's direction came after receiving overwhelming data demonstrating that the teacher-adviser counseling system at Palo Alto High School is producing better outcomes than the traditional guidance counseling system used at Gunn.

The school district's evaluation of the two different counseling programs -- both in existence for many years -- has been a long and torturous path, and frustration and tension were obvious during Tuesday night's three-hour-long discussion.

Superintendent Kevin Skelly, who has resisted moving to unify the two high schools under a common counseling model, tried hard to minimize the significance of the results of surveys conducted of Gunn and Paly students by the district's consultant. He argued that the counseling programs were part of a larger "eco-system" at the high schools and that they needed more assessment in that broader context.

The Gunn system, which consists of six guidance counselors each responsible for 325 students, follows the traditional model similar to what most parents in the district experienced when they were in high school. Gunn's counselors are responsible for all academic counseling, college and career guidance and for providing social-emotional counseling. Students are required to see their counselor at least once a year.

By contrast, under the Paly system, each student is assigned a teacher-adviser, a guidance counselor and, in junior year, an adviser in the College and Career Center. More than 40 teachers serve as teacher-advisers, and assigned students (about 25 per year) remain with that adviser during sophomore, junior and senior years. Students are also assigned one of four guidance counselors for their entire four years.

According to Skelly, the district had specifically instructed the consultant not to directly compare the two programs since they were so different. The result, a big mistake in our opinion, was an assessment of each program rather than an analysis of what would constitute a "best practices" system.

The student survey results, a key part of the study, were presented for each school but not in a form that allowed for comparison of the data, a decision that effectively obfuscated important information. One parent group, We Can Do Better Palo Alto, compiled and distributed a spreadsheet directly comparing the survey results -- a comparison that any professional presentation should have included and that provided important context for the board and public.

After a muddled discussion in which board members seemed to want to signal their desire to move toward the Paly teacher-adviser system but unwilling to clearly state it, all but one trustee, Barbara Mitchell, finally coalesced around the position that changes to the counseling system at Gunn were needed and that the pace for making changes needed to quicken. They directed the Gunn staff to work with the Paly staff to learn more about the Paly system so its benefits could be incorporated into the reforms.

The reasons for Skelly's reluctance to support moving to a single counseling system at both high schools and for the board's hesitancy in simply making a clear decision seem rooted in the concept of site-based decision-making, a district philosophy that tries to push all possible decisions out to the individual schools.

This vague philosophy, which is not clearly articulated anywhere, creates immense inefficiencies, confusion and parent angst, and it makes school board and superintendent accountability to the community virtually impossible. Its effect is to put the interests of individual site stakeholders above the benefits of arriving at a district consensus on best practices.

And it has particularly failed the community with respect to high school counseling.

To the extent that parents and students have voiced opinions about the two different counseling systems there is strong consensus that the Paly system allows for more "touch-points" between student and counselors and that it successfully distributes the counseling function among more people.

The strength of the teacher-adviser system is the opportunity for more adults to become familiar with each student, for the students to have more options for help and guidance on both academic and social-emotional issues, and the increased collaboration among faculty. It's not perfect, but it reflects the needs of today's students far better than the traditional counseling model.

Institutional defensiveness over current practices notwithstanding, there is simply no evidence to suggest that Gunn families would not be much better served by adopting the teacher-advisory system used at Paly and other innovative high schools.

Transitioning to the teacher-advisory system at Gunn won't be easy. It involves training some 40 teachers and reorganizing the current counseling staff. But it's long overdue and in the end, will ensure that Gunn and Paly families receive the same high-quality services.

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Posted by Kathy Sharp
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Mar 30, 2012 at 12:34 pm

As presented in the study, the Gunn Guidance model is not as effective as the Guidance model at Paly.

* Financial. Paly has a lower per FTE cost ($74, 204 per FTE at Paly vs. $87,030 at Gunn). Paly has over 6 additional FTEs providing guidance services. The stipend afforded to the Teacher Advisors is a very cost effective way of providing high touch Guidance services.

* Leverage. The Paly Teacher Advisory program provides a level of redundancy that is a positive feature of any service delivery system. Full time counseling staff get sick, get married, retire so the value proposition of continuity of service is not as high a value as creating redundancy in the system to allow students the opportunity to build a relationship with more than one trained adult on campus.

* Specialization. The Paly program includes two FT College Advisors which, according to the report (pg 33) "invest a significant time, often several hours per student, reviewing and learning about individual student backgrounds before one-on-one advising sessions." "College advisors often meet with students repeatedly throughout the college application season." This level of specialization at Paly is simply not possible at Gunn. As reported in the Board meeting by Tom Jacoubowsky, Gunn students meet with their counselors once in the Junior year and twice in their Senior year. The College and Career Advisor Specialist at Gunn provides clerical and event support, meeting with students on a drop-in basis (pg 11). In addition, the specialization at Paly allows TA's to refer students to the Guidance counselors to receive counseling for social and emotional issues.

For members of the Gunn community these basic business measures are not as important as the day-to-day impact on our children. The study (and the annotation provided by We Can Do Better Palo Alto) included additional sad facts about the Gunn student experience:

Select the things that your Guidance Counselor CAN help you with during your time at Gunn/Paly (Appendix, tables 2 and 5)

Supporting me if I am struggling emotionally 44% Gunn/80% Paly
Supporting me if I am in a difficult family situation 40% Gunn/78% Paly
Supporting me if I am struggling with friends and peers 42% Gunn/78% Paly
Supporting me if I am feeling generally stressed 50% Gunn/75% Paly
Supporting me if I am struggling with health issues 31% Gunn/76% Paly

It is very clear that Gunn students feel that they do not have an adult resource on campus to support them with the difficult issues which they are dealing with as teens in this high pressure community.

Please send your emails of support to the Board so that they may direct Dr. Skelly and the District to put a plan in place to implement Teacher Advisory at Gunn for the 2012-13 school year.

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Posted by Michele Dauber
a resident of Barron Park
on Mar 30, 2012 at 12:37 pm

See the data and other documentation of the inequity in counseling services between Paly and Gunn here: Web Link

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Posted by parent
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 30, 2012 at 2:14 pm

The editorial comments on site-based decisions:

"This vague philosophy, which is not clearly articulated anywhere, creates immense inefficiencies, confusion and parent angst, and it makes school board and superintendent accountability to the community virtually impossible. Its effect is to put the interests of individual site stakeholders above the benefits of arriving at a district consensus on best practices. "

Given the outstanding work done by Gunn parents, and the fact they had to take this battle to the school board (over many years) shows very clearly that the site-base philosophy does NOT work for the community at each site. The only beneficiaries are the site-based stakeholders within the district; not the community.

I hope this obvious problem exposes the muddled thinking behind site-based un-accountability, insular administration of our schools and the problems left uncovered. The community needs more change for the better for our students. The sites are simply unresponsive.

Well done to the parents and school board.

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Posted by parent
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 30, 2012 at 3:32 pm

The article states:
"[i]t makes school board and superintendent accountability to the community virtually impossible."

In my experience with the way the board works, that's a fill-in-the-blank statement:
"_________makes school board and superintendent accountability to the community virtually impossible..." the school construction, in spending Measure A funs, in strategic planning...

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Posted by Ken Dauber
a resident of Barron Park School
on Mar 30, 2012 at 8:21 pm

Thanks for a great, honest editorial. My only quibble is with this line, about the ideology of site-based decision-making: "Its effect is to put the interests of individual site stakeholders above the benefits of arriving at a district consensus on best practices." My experience with PAUSD is that this district is as hierarchical as any other. Just as in other districts, some decisions are made at the site level, and some are made at the district level. Decisions that district leadership care about are made at the district level, because they have the authority to do so (remember that "site-based decision-making" doesn't mean that principals don't report to district officials, or that turning teachers into principals and principals into district functionaries isn't controlled from the district).
So what is the purpose of "site-based decision-making"? It's partly to encourage principals and school to be innovative and to feel empowered to make some decisions. But a major function, and the reason it is a cliche at the district office, is that it provides a rhetorical resource for fuzzing out responsibility and accountability at the district level, by giving district officials a way to avoid taking ownership and responsibility for the decisions they are making.
If we ultimately don't get teacher advisory at Gunn, it's going to be because Kevin Skelly decided not to do it and the Board decided not to insist on it, not because the Gunn administration decided against it. Katya Villalobos, the Gunn principal, looked positively giddy at the prospect of teacher advisory at Tuesday's board meeting, doubtless because she ran the TA system at Paly when she was there and she doesn't like running a system that doesn't work as well as it should. She rattled off the outlines of a phased implementation plan while she was sitting at the meeting. But she's not going to be allowed to implement a basic change at Gunn against her boss's wishes.
This is all actually as it should be. We shouldn't want a district where each school gets to decide that it can run whatever counseling system it wants, no matter what quality of service. But we shouldn't buy the argument that that is our situation, because it isn't.
Kevin Skelly is the man that we hired to run the district, he has all the tools he needs to actually get this job done, and he should be held accountable by the Board for how well and how expeditiously he does it. In turn, we should hold the Board accountable for how well and how expeditiously it manages Kevin Skelly, including making sure he actually follows the Board's direction.
The most worrisome part of this whole business is that so far he hasn't: the entire point of this year's Board-adopted focused goal to assess our counseling models was to ensure that two high schools were delivering comparable services, yet Skelly directly contradicted that goal by instructing the consultant not to compare the two schools. I hope that the Board remains "unusually impatient and resolute" -- I think they're going to need to.

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Posted by palo alto mom
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Mar 31, 2012 at 9:46 am

Ken - while I agree that "site based" decision making has its good points, it has also resulted in one high school that teaches regular lanes of math and science (Gunn) and one that teaches only advanced lanes (Paly). It has also resulted in a school with an Engineering program (Gunn) and one without (Paly). At the Middle School level, there are totally different approaches to transitioning, from the acclaimed Panter camp at Terman to the few hours of group playtime at Jordan.

All of our schools are great, but they don't share their best practices often enough.

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Posted by Michele Dauber
a resident of Barron Park
on Mar 31, 2012 at 10:16 am

@pa mom

Ken would agree completely with you. For example, We Can Do Better is very concerned about the fact that Gunn has a biology class that is truly basic lane and is passed by 97% of its freshmen while Paly's supposedly basic lane biology class inexplicably (and unexplained by the district despite questioning from the school board) has Algebra 1A as a prerequisite and is not only hard for freshmen to gain proficiency (as measured by the CST test) in, sophomores who take it don't do all that well on the CST either.

Meanwhile Paly now has a basic lane A-G conceptual physics class that Gunn does not. These differences were brought out by We Can Do Better, and then reviewed at the March 13 study session that was purposely scheduled by the Board and the Superintendent at at time when parents and students could not attend (see the video from the March 27 board meeting at which the superintendent admitted this fact and apologized for it here at 2 minutes for Ken and 14 minutes for Kevin's apology: Web Link

(as a side note if anyone knows how to get these videos on Youtube, please email us at because I think the community deserves to have a more accessible way to see the crazy inefficiency and ludicrious time-wastage of the school board meetings - this one dragged on until 1:45 am -- how is that publicly accessible?)

So we are in total agreement. This idea that we have "site-based control" should not ever be a justification for having different services or opportunities for students distributed by residence area.

All Ken is saying here is that let's not be fooled. Site-based control is just an excuse the district uses when it doesn't want to do something. If Gunn wanted to implement TA, it would not be allowed to do it unless the district agreed. If the district wanted it implemented it could figure out how to ensure that a principal who agreed was appointed, and how to win over teachers to the idea. If Kevin Skelly wanted to replace Radu Toma as the Math IS at Paly (not fire him, just appoint a different IS) because the Paly math letter and Mercury News interview he has given opposing A-G for all make him an unlikely candidate to carry out district policy on the achievement gap, it could make that happen. Site-based control is just another way of saying "we don't care about that."

Having spent more than a year chasing my tail, hearing that the reason we don't have TA at Gunn is that the school has control from the district and then running over to Gunn to hear from the staff and the site council that it is a district decision, I can tell you that all important decisions are made by the district. When they tell you it is site based, they are really saying "you have no where to go but the school board and good luck to you."

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Posted by Michele Dauber
a resident of Barron Park
on Mar 31, 2012 at 10:32 am

For the video, click on "consent calendar", then 2 minutes for Ken and 14 for Kevin's apology for scheduling the meeting purposely to limit public access.

As you can see we really need that Youtube advice.

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Posted by palo alto mom
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Mar 31, 2012 at 11:11 am

Michele - I wonder if one of the issues with changing the guidance system at Gunn is that if they change to the Paly model, the would only need 4 guidance counselors and I believe they currently have 6 (one for each grade). BTW, the reason Paly has 4 and not 3 is because they use PiE dollars to make sure the counselor can "loop" with the class. An example of a best-practice expanding!

I think that every level of school should be able to offer the exact same core classes. Even the elementary schools have totally different science offerings, from using the Junior Museum, to hiring a science specialist, etc. I can understand offering different electives based on the interests of the students and the availability of staff (for example, the glass blowing program at Paly).

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Posted by Michele Dauber
a resident of Barron Park
on Mar 31, 2012 at 2:43 pm

Hi pa mom

I don't think that Paly actually has fewer counselors than Gunn. According to page 15 of the district's report by the consultant (table 6) Paly has 4 counselors and 2.5 college and career counselors (6.5) while Gunn has 6 counselors plus 1.3 college and career, which is less than one person difference. The math in this report is all voodoo so it has hard to know, but bottom line, there are at least 6 actual counselors over at Paly -- 4 doing exclusively social emotional counseling and 2 doing college counseling. This 1 social emotional counselor dedicated to each class (who stays with that class for all 4 years and really gets to know them) and 1 college counselor for each of the junior and senior classes. (All that PLUS a Teacher Advisor at 75:1 ratio.)

Over at Gunn, they have less than 1 person more. So I don't think fear of attrition can explain it. Once they reorganize into a TA model, some of the guidance counselors will probably go with what they like more -- social emotional or college and career, and specialize. Meanwhile, the board had a lot of enthusiasm for adding a College Pathways counselor at Paly to provide additional support for closing the achievement gap, and we still need that service at Gunn as well. That means that we would be at no attrition between the two schools with all the people we currently have and would still need to add a bit here and there.

We also have guidance professionals at each middle school, so within the district there would be plenty of opportunities for all these folks.

The resistance is mysterious to me. Why wouldn't you want to implement best practices? Paly has been using a program for over 20 years that it was a pioneer in and that now is recognized as a best practice nationally. Yet we cannot get it duplicated for our own kids down the street.

This is just speculation, but I think it has to do with the Lake Woebegon culture in Palo Alto of insisting that everything is great, everyone is above average, all our schools are just spectacular and nothing can be improved because we're just that good. That mindset is a real impediment to addressing the very real problems that we do have, such as mental health issues, suicide, and low minority achievement. There does not seem to be a commitment on the part of the board to face our troubles squarely and address them sensibly using sound public administration practices. But that is changing, and we can do better.

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Posted by my thoughts
a resident of Barron Park
on Mar 31, 2012 at 5:04 pm

I'm a gunn parent and I like the current Gunn model. it works for my children. My neighbors like it too. I do not want the Paly system at Gunn. We are happy with Gunn.

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Posted by Gunn parent
a resident of Gunn High School
on Apr 1, 2012 at 10:02 am

Couldn't agree more with the poster who pointed out that Gunn has produced a science curriculum which is more accessible than the one at Paly. If we make our two schools identical, we know that Gunn will become a clone of Paly. An excellent reason to oppose any changes to Gunn that come from Paly. We do not need the Conceptual Physics course because we have a good biology course already and a good approachable Physics 1 course.

If we adopt the TA model, we will lose the opportunity for our students to meet individually with a caring person to chose their classes at Gunn. The "I need to take the higher lane to be with my friends" decision will become more rampant than it already is. Kids will be too embarassed to admit they are not going for the higher lanes. It is a serious drawback of the TA system, putting kids in a class to receive advise they should be receiving as individuals.

Then there is the diversion of academic instruction as students are requested to attend another "class" which looks suspiciously like Living Skills.

I don't understand why we revere the job Paly is doing when their underrepresented students do not even know that they need to take A-G to get into state colleges. Why did that message not come across in their TA classes? Are those TA classes laned in some way?

I think Paly might be looking towards Gunn to find ways to improve their delivery of information.

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Posted by palo alto mom
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Apr 1, 2012 at 10:18 am

As a Paly parent - there are a couple advantages to the TA system. Students typically have the teacher as a classroom teacher in addition to as a TA, so the teacher has an opportunity to get to know the student. The TA/student relationship lasts for 3 years. Students can ask to meet with their TA alone if they would like to discuss classes. They can meet with a Guidance Counselor for advice.

Its not perfect, the TA's themselves vary widely, but there is a lot more contact between student/TA.

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Posted by Michele Dauber
a resident of Barron Park
on Apr 1, 2012 at 10:22 am

Gunn parent is misinformed. Students at Paly have far more "opportunity for our students to meet individually with a caring person to chose their classes at Gunn." Indeed, students at Paly have more adults and more opportunities that students at Gunn on virtually every measure ever surveyed, for all grade levels and for all forms of service provided:

Web Link

n gross terms, there are 125 measures on which Gunn and Paly can be directly compared. For 95 of these measures (76%), Paly students are 5 or more percentage points more satisfied than Gunn students. For 6 of these measures (5%), Gunn students are 5 or more percentage points more satisfied than Paly students. This is an overwhelming difference, though it is completely consistent with the history of student and parent surveys for various WASC and strategic plan surveys.

67% of Paly students report that “my guidance counselor is an important resource for me,” a sentiment expressed by only 49% of Gunn students. Similarly, 65% of Paly students are “satisfied with the level of support I get from my guidance counselor, “ compared to 53% of Gunn students. Of the 41 measures for which Paly and Gunn students were both asked about guidance counselors specifically, Paly satisfaction exceeds Gunn satisfaction by 5 or more percentage points for 35 (86%), while the reverse is true in 2 cases (5%).

On nearly every item on which Paly students were asked the same question about their teacher advisor that Gunn students were asked about their guidance counselor, Paly students expressed more satisfaction with their teacher advisor. Of the 57 such measures, Paly students’ satisfaction exceeded Gunn students by more than 5 percentage points in 50 cases (88%), while the reverse is true in 1 case (2%).

To learn more about the Counseling Gap between Gunn and Paly, see: Web Link

There is only one member of the School Board whose children attended Gunn, and only one from the Gunn district: Barbara Klausner, and she unequivocally supports bringing TA to Gunn. The rest of the board sent their children to Paly years ago, or currently, or to a private school that has advisory. They have no idea what the services at Gunn are like. They should defer to Ms. Klausner as a Gunn parent, and think about the fairness of providing better services to one school than another.

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Posted by Gunn parent
a resident of Gunn High School
on Apr 1, 2012 at 7:07 pm

Then why did those Paly students, and one school board member (a Paly mom), claim that they had no knowledge of A-G requirements, if the Paly system is so good? That is pretty basic information.

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Posted by Michele Dauber
a resident of Barron Park
on Apr 1, 2012 at 7:48 pm

The board member who had no idea what A-G was is Camille Townsend, hardly a bellwether. First, her kids were really high achieving -- one went to Princeton, so I doubt very strongly that A-G graduation was an issue for them. But Camille still had no idea what A-G was after she had been on the board for several years, so I wouldn't benchmark by that one. That sounds more like an issue on the receiving end more than the sending end of the communication chain.

Paly and Gunn both have a great need to improve their A-G graduation rates for minority students. I do not think this is really a communication issue. I think that this is a problem with poor mentoring, antiquated teaching methods, and low expectations for minority kids, coupled with a lack of basic lane core courses that meet but do not exceed the state A-G standards. Some of the supposedly basic lane courses have advanced math prerequisites and the CST proficiency rates for those courses are really low.

That is the reason that We Can Do Better endorses Kevin Skelly's proposal to raise the graduation requirements and also urges an outside independent audit of our basic lane courses to ensure we are offering a stepping stone and not a stumbling block for all students.

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Posted by Gunn parent
a resident of Gunn High School
on Apr 2, 2012 at 11:47 am

Well then I still don't understand how those kids did not know about A-G - and that is what came out of the subsequent interviews done by the district - the kids still claimed they did not know. They must have been sitting in the same TA class as the other kids. The only thing I can think of is that were cutting TA class or that the TA classes were laned at Paly. I'm trying to picture a TA class where advice is given to all 30 students. All of the students must be discussing their personal information with each other or with the teacher in order for good advice to be given.

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Posted by Michele Dauber
a resident of Barron Park
on Apr 2, 2012 at 11:59 am

This should be a longer conversation that could be had offline. My number is 650-521-6005 if you want to talk about it. But my assessment would be the following:

1. align graduation requirements to A-G with a process for a student to opt-out after giving informed consent so that the presumption is that every student will be A-G college ready unless a conversation is had, one on one, with student (and parent if possible) to ensure that everyone knows what is being foregone. This moves what has been a private decision into public in order to create accountability around communication;

2. implement TA at Gunn and some form of College Pathways at Paly. This means that both schools would share their best practices with each other and all students in the district receive equal services.

Your comment in the thread above that you believe we should "oppose any changes to Gunn that come from Paly" makes it very hard for me to take you seriously since this comment reflects real resistance to the idea of emulating best practices. If you seriously believe that we should oppose anything from Paly no matter how good or how beneficial just one some kind of isolationist general principle then there is no reason to continue a dialogue.

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

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