After more than a year of public divisiveness over Gunn High School's guidance-counseling system, 18 people representing divergent views sat down this week in search of common ground.
With help from a professional facilitator, the Gunn Guidance Advisory Committee met for most of the day Tuesday, Oct. 2, and will gather at least six more times to meet a February 2013 deadline for recommending reforms to the Board of Education.
Formation of the advisory committee -- which includes Gunn parents, teachers, students, counselors and administrators -- follows sharp criticism of Gunn's current counseling system from the parent group We Can Do Better Palo Alto.
Citing polls showing higher satisfaction levels with counseling at Palo Alto High School than at Gunn, the group has lobbied the school board for more than a year to instruct Gunn to switch by this fall from its traditional counseling model to Palo Alto High School's "teacher-advisory" model.
Under that model, Paly uses about 46 "teacher-advisers" to augment its small counseling staff, and students meet regularly in advisory groups. By contrast, Gunn employs seven guidance counselors to handle academic advising, college and career counseling and student social-emotional health, generally on an appointment basis.
School board members, who identified shortcomings in both schools' counseling programs in the district's 2008 strategic plan, said they prefer to let Gunn arrive at its own counseling reform so long as it meets certain standards. The standards include more adult "touch points" for students.
Though most public discussion has focused on the need for change at Gunn, Paly Principal Phil Winston said Wednesday he also is implementing a formal plan to address weaknesses in Paly's counseling system.
Winston and Gunn Principal Katya Villalobos are both due to deliver progress reports to the board next Tuesday, Oct. 9.
In this past Tuesday's all-day meeting at the Elk's Club, facilitator Ken Yale, a former high school principal and social studies teacher, guided the group through get-acquainted and consensus-building exercises.
Committee members shared their own memories of high school counseling and later were asked to write down and share what should be true for all students in an ideal counseling system for Gunn, regardless of the method.
Members cited features like support for every child, regardless of whether the student seeks it out; attention to social-emotional health as well as academic and college advising; availability of trusted adults; easy access to adults; a program to help students make the transition from middle school to high school; multiple "touch points"; and the idea that students should feel at home in school.
"When we talk about the outcome -- what we want to be true for students -- I'm not hearing a whole lot of difference," Yale said.
"We might have all kinds of differences about policy, which particular model, which particular approach, but it's important to appreciate the fact that we all want the same things for the kids, by and large."
A binder provided to each committee member included school district materials on guidance review as well as a report from We Can Do Better Palo Alto outlining a "counseling gap" in parent and student satisfaction levels between Paly and Gunn.
"They (Paly and Gunn) are not comparable. There's a huge divergence, and the notion that the board stated is they want comparability," said Gunn parent Amy Balsom, a member of We Can Do Better Palo Alto.
Gunn parent Kathleen Blanchard noted the board's direction for comparable services, not necessarily the same structure.
"I think we should look at what's good for Gunn, not necessarily what's comparable to some other school," Blanchard said.
"The last thing we need is to set up some sort of football-like rivalry. We should focus on what students need."
The group tried to clarify its charge from the board, as well as ground rules for a safe and open discussion of differences.
The next scheduled meeting of the Gunn Guidance Advisory Committee is Oct. 16 at 3:45 p.m. in the Gunn staff lounge. Meetings are open for community members to observe.
Members of the committee are parents Amy Balsom, Kathleen Blanchard, Alexis Green, Lori Krolik, Linda Lingg and Jyoti Sahdev; teachers Kristy Blackburn, Diane Ichikawa, Lynne Navarro and Lettie Weinmann; students Rebecca Alger, Wayland Fung and Julia Qin; counselors Myesha Compton and Jovi Johnston; Gunn Assistant Principal Tom Jacobousky and district Director of Secondary Education Michael Milliken.
Gunn Principal Katya Villalobos and support staff member Olga Celis also participated in the meeting.