The Palo Alto school board will consider tonight the allocation of $250,000 to hire two full-time licensed mental health therapists, one for each high school, according to an updated agenda released Tuesday afternoon.
The therapists will be contracted employees and not necessarily associated with organizations like Adolescent Counseling Services that already provide on-campus services, Superintendent Max McGee said. ACS and other school-based counseling programs as well as local private practices are reportedly in high demand this year. The therapists would "provide essential Tier One Intervention support for students who are having social, emotional, and/or behavioral challenges and "design appropriate interventions for the teachers of these students to differentiate instruction, to incorporate social-emotional and behavioral classroom plans, and to support and monitor student progress and mental health," a staff report reads.
McGee told the Weekly Tuesday afternoon that this additional mental health support was prioritized after recent conversations with both Palo Alto and Gunn high schools' principals, school counselors students, parents and community members. The principals "requested these positions as the best way to provide the most needed services for the largest number of students," a staff report reads.
"Something needs to be done," McGee said Tuesday. "We're in a crisis situation."
The hiring proposal is being made as part of $2 million in funding requests for the 2015-16 school year, primarily in staffing throughout the district, to be considered by the board at a special meeting Tuesday night.
Meg Durbin, a Palo Alto Medical Foundation pediatrician and co-founder of the HEARD Alliance, a coalition of health professionals dedicated to youth mental health, lauded the district Tuesday for taking a step toward increasing access to mental health services in a community where therapists who have immediate openings are scarce.
"It's difficult to find therapists in networks for the patients' insurance and to find network people who have prompt openings," Durbin said. "When people are going to pay out of pocket, even then it's hard to get good access to quality people."
"It's not all up to the schools (to fill that gap), but it's really profoundly important they're going to commit to that," she added.
Durbin said Palo Alto Medial Foundation would welcome the opportunity to work with these two new hires to better integrate school-based services with primary care and ongoing mental-health support provided outside of the schools. She said it will be important for the therapists to have established connections with psychiatrists or physicians to which students can be referred.
Staff are suggesting three options for funding the two new mental health hires, one of which means modifying some of the other staffing requests: hiring two instead of three full-time Teachers on Special Assignments for the secondary level; hiring one high-school clerical support person instead of two; assuming the schools will cover all graduation costs instead of contributing $15,000 in district funds to each school; and cover additional items like a professional development day, art supplies and music instrument repair through existing professional development and materials and supplies budgets.
A second option is to fund the new therapists from the current 2014-15 budget "because our property tax revenues exceeded earlier projections and funds are available," the report reads.
A third option would be to dip into the district's reserves. McGee said assuming the reserves will be above the 10-percent required by district policy, he will recommend at least $500,000 be earmarked for student health and wellness supports. He noted that he also plans to recommend that some reserve money be set aside to fund the opening of a new school, though that will not be discussed at tonight's meeting.
"The schools are a part of the larger environment," McGee said. "We will try to do our part and know that others are working to do theirs as well."
Staff is recommending the district set aside the largest chunk of the $2 million proposal, $600,000, to fund an additional full-time Teacher on Special Assignment (TOSA) who would provide math and literacy support for all of Palo Alto's 13 elementary schools. In addition, each elementary site would receive a part-time staff member to "to support their schools as determined by site needs," a staff report reads.
"Increasing school site allocations allow school sites' flexibility in fulfilling their unique student needs," the report continues. "Most of the sites plan to use the funds to increase certificated staffing, specifically 1 Reading Specialist and Math Specialist support positions. Reading and math are consistently identified as gateway skills for learning throughout a student's journey through our schools."
At the secondary level, staff originally proposed the district allocate $358,864 to pay for three additional TOSAs to support staff during the transition to new state standards such as the Common Core State Standards and Next Generation Science Standards. An additional $363,156 would fund additional middle school administrative support needed to address increasing enrollment and other administrative responsibilities, according to the report.
With $157,905, staff is proposing the district reclassify the two high schools' half-time dean position to a full-time assistant principal who would "perform administrative support duties to address the increase of enrollment, additional administrative responsibilities and support comprehensive programs," the report reads.
This addition would allow each high school to have four assistant principals and would also free up additional staffing to be used to lower class size, according to district staff. An additional $133,253 could support two additional classified staff members at the high schools to perform clerical and secretarial duties due to the increasing amount of work created by the increased of enrollment, according to the staff report.
Palo Alto and Gunn high schools could also have a new student research coordinator who would "design, develop, deliver, and evaluate electives for high school students that provide a framework for students to conduct original investigations on compelling questions of interest; collaborate with other students and on-campus or off-campus professionals such as educators, researchers, and scholars; and to share their investigation results through professional presentations, competitions, and publications," the report reads. Staff is recommending the board allocate $142,862 for this position.
Another new position on the table is a half-time English Language Learner (ELL) and bilingual support TOSA, who would work with ELL students and their families as well as other bilingual students to overcome language barriers, encourage parental involvement and improve these communities' access to information and school resources, staff said. The TOSA could continue current work in this area that is already being executed at a smaller scale, for example, by a Spanish-language tutor who is available to parents and students one day a week for three hours at Walter Hays, Hoover, Addison, and Duveneck elementary schools.
The board will also consider allocating about $100,000 to bring the three middle schools' health technicians on full time. The health technicians "perform a variety of technical duties in support of student health services" from administering basic first aid, dispensing medications and screening ill students to serving as a liaison for student health services and preparing and maintaining student immunization and health information, records and files, according to a job description. Due to a shortage in applications for this position, the district is planning to review the salary for health technicians elsewhere in the county.
The board approved $2.9 million in additional resource allocations for the current school year to pay for additional staff at all levels (the largest dollar amount went to the high schools), technology support and counseling services.
The board is holding a special meeting Tuesday, March 31, after reaching this agenda item at a late hour at last week's board meeting and deciding to postpone it. The board will also hear an update on future revisions for the district's website. The meeting will begin at 5:45 p.m. at district headquarters, 25 Churchill Ave. View the agenda here.