"Hi, my name's Gary. I love seafood; I've clogged a toilet on a cross-country flight; and my favorite composer is Beethoven."
Freshmen at Gunn High School in Palo Alto recently shared such random facts about themselves in the ice-breaking game, "Two Truths and a Lie."
The session was part of "Titan 101," an orientation program offered for Gunn freshman even as the school is under pressure to revamp its school-wide guidance and college-counseling program.
With more than 500 students -- believed to be a record number -- in Gunn's freshman class this fall, administrators are looking for ways to make the school seem smaller, friendlier and easier to navigate for a kid just out of middle school.
"Gunn has so much available to students, and there used to be no explanation of how to find it, where to go, what to do," Assistant Principal Trinity Klein said.
In Gary's case, the "loves seafood" was the lie -- he actually hates it. But his favorite composer is Beethoven, and he did once clog an airplane toilet. In the process of guessing, the 20 Gunn freshmen in his Titan 101 group got to know him well enough to find some common ground.
The Gunn freshman program divides students into groups of 20 to 25 students, who gather 10 times from August to April with "teacher coaches" and guidance counselors to cover topics like "freshman survival skills," "homecoming boot camp," "time management" and "how Gunn does diversity."
Freshman Maya Mahony said her first Titan 101 meeting "calmed us down about starting high school by answering our questions and also just by being there."
Her twin sister, Zoe Mahony, said Titan 101 "helps us freshmen get used to Gunn."
Presence of upperclassmen at all meetings so far "made us realize that it was possible to survive the first day, and year, of high school," Maya Mahony said.
Titan 101's inaugural year, 2011-12, garnered poor reviews, and officials this year reworked the program based on feedback.
"We've reduced the number of sessions and are paying attention to what students found useful," Klein said.
A session on "breathing and relaxation" was dumped after getting panned by students. "While we value that for students, they didn't feel that was the best use of their time," Klein said.
Many freshman in a recent session on "introduction to guidance services" indicated they have multiple extracurricular time demands -- sports, jobs or other commitments -- as many as seven days a week and feel pressed to leave school when classes break early Thursdays for teacher collaboration time, when Titan 101 sessions are often scheduled.
But Maya Mahony said the program doesn't take too much time -- "just enough to make us feel welcomed and get all of our questions answered.
"Also, they give us maps. Always a good thing," she said.
The future of Titan 101 is up in the air pending review of Gunn's overall guidance and college-counseling program this year.
High school principals are scheduled to report to the Board of Education Oct. 9 on the status of their efforts to improve counseling programs.
Gunn, which has a traditional counseling program in which students meet one-to-one with counselors, has been under pressure from school board members to shift to a model that would offer students more "touch points" with adults on campus.
A parent group, We Can Do Better Palo Alto, has tenaciously lobbied the board to order Gunn to adopt Paly's "teacher-advisory" counseling model, which augments its small professional counseling staff with 40 "teacher advisers," who meet regularly with small groups of students through their four years of high school.
An internal working group is expected to make recommendations early next year on ways to improve Gunn's counseling program.
"There's a connection between Titan 101 and guidance review, but the overall guidance review process is obviously much bigger," Klein said.
Titan 101 is among the programs supported by Partners in Education, an independent, parent-led foundation that raises money for Palo Alto public schools.