Students in Palo Alto's two public high schools wish they had more personal attention from their counselors to help them with what they perceive as ever-looming college-admission pressures.
Those sentiments emerge -- sometimes in pleading terms -- from nearly 1,700 anonymous, open-ended comments made in a March survey asking students about their experiences with guidance counseling programs at Gunn and Palo Alto high schools.
Specifically, students were asked: "What can the (counselors) do differently or better to help you and other Gunn/Paly students succeed?"
Fifty-five percent of Gunn students surveyed and 45 percent of Paly students surveyed offered their opinions (excluding those who wrote irrelevant comments).
Survey comments from Paly students were not uniformly positive about counseling there but were significantly more positive than those from Gunn.
"There is an extreme lack of communication between the guidance counselors and the students," one Gunn 12th-grade boy wrote. "I realize that Gunn is a large school with many students, and it is difficult for the counselors to get to know every single student, but there is a small effort in providing an organized way for the students to meet the counselors.
"I remember in my sophomore year, when we were being called up for meetings, some of my classmates never even received a call slip to meet with their counselors, and ended up not meeting them that year," he said, while adding that he was nevertheless grateful for his counselor's help.
The school district had not released the comments with the independent consultant's report on counseling at Palo Alto's two public high schools, which was presented to the Board of Education on March 27.
The student comments were obtained under a California Public Records Act request from a parent-led group, We Can Do Better Palo Alto, which has actively lobbied the school board on counseling and other issues related to student stress.
In a tabulation of the 3,077 student questionnaires from both schools, Michele Dauber of We Can Do Better said she found 45 percent of the Gunn student comments were negative, 8 percent were neutral, 3 percent were positive and 40 percent were blank.
That compares to results at Paly that found 27 percent of the open-ended comments negative, 9 percent neutral, 8 percent positive, 4 percent irrelevant and 51 percent left blank, Dauber said.
Another Gunn student wrote: "At our school, a very academically prominent school and one that has been plagued with suicides and other problems, there are fewer counselors than at almost any other schools.
"I have yet to find a person who can explain to me. Our counselors don't have time for us and cannot/will not help us. Reform would be great."
Gunn currently has a staff of six traditional guidance counselors for its 1,864 students. By contrast, Paly devotes more financial resources in order to augment its four-member guidance-counseling staff with 46 "teacher advisers" and several college counselors.
School board members in the past have said the Gunn and Paly programs need not be identical but should offer roughly equivalent services to all students.
At the March 27 consultant's presentation on counseling, however, several board members expressed a "sense of urgency" for Gunn to explore changes, pointing to survey numbers indicating consistently higher levels of satisfaction with counseling at Paly than at Gunn.
Stressing they were loath to dictate specifics, a majority suggested Gunn shift to a counseling system closer in structure to that at Paly.
In particular, board members said they want to see more built-in "touch points" between students and adult counselors or advisers than the current once-a-year model at Gunn. At Paly, students meet in groups of 22 with their teacher-advisers at least monthly throughout their four years of high school. In junior year, they meet one-to-one with college counselors.
Following the March 27 school board meeting, Gunn Principal Katya Villalobos and Superintendent Kevin Skelly said they would return to the board in June with suggestions on how to proceed.
Meanwhile, Skelly and Villalobos sent an email to Gunn parents on May 5 stating that a specific guidance model would not be "forced" on Gunn. Villalobos told the Weekly in a May 9 interview she expects an informal "working group" currently exploring counseling reforms at Gunn to be formally constituted this fall with a timeline to come up with recommendations by March 2013.
The issue of guidance models has become entangled with a new controversy due to the revelation that Skelly has been sending confidential weekly memos to school board members (see Weekly calls for halt to confidential school board memos).
Asked why he did not release the 1,700 open-ended student comments with the March 27 consultant's report to the board, Skelly said last week it was partly a matter of logistics, since comments were being collected up to the day of the presentation.
"We didn't talk about putting out 500 pages of raw data. That was not the purpose of the report," he said last week.
But Skelly said he did regret the way he managed the March 27 board presentation.
"My view was, 'Let's present the report, and then we'll do more analysis as time goes on.' I plunked the report down and left the board to wallow around in the general findings instead of stating, 'Here are the results, and here's what we're going to do next.'"
Skelly will present his own analysis of the open-ended student comments about counseling at the Board of Education meeting coming up next Tuesday, May 22.
View the Paly comments.
The comments will be highlighted this Wednesday night, May 16, at a public panel discussion focused on Gunn's guidance-counseling program that is sponsored by We Can Do Better.
The event begins at 7 p.m. at St. Mark's Episcopal Church, 600 Colorado Ave., and features Stanford University Senior Lecturer Denise Clark Pope, whose organization, Challenge Success, has advocated for improvement of "student health and engagement with learning."