Palo Alto's high schools are looking to newly assembled teams of teachers on special assignment, or TOSAs, this fall to lead the schools forward on several key issues, with a particular focus on social-emotional learning and educational inclusion.
TOSAs typically apply or are selected for the part-time position, which gives them time to serve as a leader for a particular schoolwide effort, from education technology to school climate. This year both Palo Alto and Gunn high schools created a new social-emotional learning TOSA position as well as hired a full-time co-teaching and inclusion specialist, funded by the district.
The high schools hope that hiring people with particular skills and backgrounds will bring more intention and success to areas regarded as in need of better coordination and communication.
The new TOSA positions were born out of goals and priorities identified in the high schools' recently completed Western Association for Schools and Colleges (WASC) reports -- in-depth self-studies conducted every six years to obtain accreditation (View Gunn's full WASC report here and Paly's, here). A top goal that both schools identified is engendering a more empathetic and creative school culture accepting of multiple definitions of success -- also a familiar battle cry in Palo Alto during the past school year's heightened debate over academic stress and student wellness.
Jeanette Tucker, a Gunn special education teacher with a master's degree in counseling and bachelor's in psychology, will spend the new school year as Gunn's social-emotional learning TOSA. She will tackle one of the school's WASC goals: creating a comprehensive, coordinated and tailored ninth- through 12th-grade social-emotional curriculum. Gunn has for several years had a school-climate TOSA (which continues this year), but that position is focused on bigger-picture events and programs like Not In Our Schools Week, the freshman-orientation program Titan 101, Camp Everytown and assemblies.
"While we have very good pockets of services for our students, they really aren't connected and they're really not coordinated," said Gunn Principal Denise Herrmann. "We don't necessarily assess developmentally. Is 12th grade the right age for this? Is ninth grade the right age for that?"
Herrmann said Gunn staff spent time talking with schools in the area known for their accomplishments in social-emotional learning, like The Nueva School in Hillsborough, which has long espoused "self-science" at all grade levels and also houses a Social-Emotional Learning Institute. Nueva and other schools' staffs told Gunn faculty it is paramount to have a person to coordinate the schoolwide social-emotional learning curriculum, just as any school would for math or other subjects, Herrmann said.
Tucker began her work this summer, assessing Gunn's existing services and resources, researching best practices in the area and compiling quick activities and lesson plans that can be implemented this year. She began her career with the idea of becoming a therapist, but time spent as a special education aide led her to get a master's degree in special education. After that, she spent four years in the classroom working with emotionally fragile teenagers.
Tucker described herself as the "glue" that will meaningfully tie together the current programs, services and even structural elements (like Gunn's new modified block schedule) that support social-emotional well-being in some way.
She'll also train teachers on how to incorporate more social-emotional learning into their classrooms. Much of this teaching will be delivered to students during a new 50-minute period every Tuesday that is dedicated to social-emotional learning or tutorial, an addition in the new bell schedule. Gunn is also piloting this fall new mindfulness curriculum for all incoming freshmen, to be delivered during physical education classes.
Tucker has also been tasked with developing new social-emotional practices, which could range from an hour-long lesson plan to a one-word check-in at the beginning of class (ask the students to take a minute to come up with one word to express how they're feeling and share it with the class).
"There are lots of ways to check in that encourages a student to take note of how they're feeling and provide a space where they can do that -- and you don't need to be a therapist to do that," Tucker said.
She will also be working with Gunn's new mental health coordinator, a position approved for both high schools in the wake of several student deaths by suicide during the previous school year. This new hire will oversee the school's mental health providers and services, conduct parent outreach and education and support high-risk students, such as those transitioning back into school after a psychiatric hospitalization, Herrmann said.
Across town at Paly, Josh Bloom, a science teacher with a passion for mindfulness, will lead the school's wellness efforts as the new social-emotional learning TOSA. He, too, will help teachers implement small- and big-picture social-emotional learning practices in their classrooms, provide parent education on mental health and bring a more "strategic focus" to the school's wellness efforts, said Principal Kim Diorio.
Notably, he will also be working with Paly's new mental health coordinator, Jonathan Frecerri, a mental health therapist who came to the district last year after working for several years at Palo Alto grief-counseling nonprofit Kara, to launch the suicide-prevention program Sources of Strength at Paly.
Sources of Strength, which was initiated at Gunn in 2011, is a national program that uses the power of peer influence to prevent suicide, bullying and substance abuse. The program trains student-leaders on campus, who then spread what they learn to others through their respective social networks.
Bloom is also co-facilitating the school's work with Stanford University research group Challenge Success, which is also working with Gunn this year on its new bell schedule and school culture. Paly last year also created a new school-climate TOSA position, and history and social sciences teacher Eric Bloom (no relation to Josh Bloom) will continue in that role. His focus this year will include the continuation of a student-led climate committee he formed last year and an effort to broaden Not In Our Schools Week to a more regular (perhaps once a month) and inclusive event.
A new authentic-research TOSA at Paly will spend time this year designing a statistical application class to be piloted with the school's first Social Justice Pathway cohort, now in its junior year. The goal is to create a project-oriented class for students in pathway programs like Social Justice or sports careers -- or any students interested in conducting more intensive research and doing project-based learning, Diorio said. This new TOSA will work with a new district administrator hired to oversee a pilot expansion of Paly's longtime Paly's Science Research Project (SRP) program, with the goal of eventually developing an Advanced Authentic Research program that offers research opportunities, mentors and internships in subjects beyond science.
With 27 teachers at Gunn -- and 19 at Paly -- now co-teaching classes, both schools also recognized a need to bring in full-time specialists to support what can be a difficult "marriage" between general and special education teachers.
Ideally, co-teaching means a regular and special education teacher share lesson planning, instruction and assessment in one class with a mixed population of students. The end goal is inclusion, a well-established model that Palo Alto Unified and many school districts have moved toward as segregated special-education classrooms fall by the wayside.
Gunn has hired a new staff member, Lynn Tabuchi, and Paly identified an existing special education teacher, Heather Johanson, to facilitate and support co-teachers full time. They will provide both informal and formal coaching on problem solving, modifying assignments and talking through classroom differentiation. They will also do classroom observations and analyze student data with teacher teams. Johanson and Paly history and social sciences teacher Ben Bolanos, who have co-taught together for several years, will set up their classroom as a space where other teachers can come to observe the practice, Diorio said.
"There is a disparity between (students) in the general ed population (who are) excelling and doing well and then those that are having a difficult time," Tabuchi said. "Following our vision of equal access, equal opportunities (for) all students, engagement for all -- that's what the push is for the entire district. There is so much research shown that co-teaching is an effective model for all students."
Educational equality issues were identified as "critical areas" by WASC accreditation teams who visited Paly and Gunn this spring. The team urged Gunn to increase achievement for all learners, including special education students, and "create a more consistent and systematic method for providing in-school support for all learners." Paly was encouraged to "increase the opportunities for under-represented sub-groups to access the rigorous curriculum and provide academic support to assure success" and develop strategies and programs to "address the academic achievement gap that persists for underrepresented minorities and at-risk students in all classes."
Creating a true co-teaching partnership and collaboration to address these issues can be challenging, Tabuchi said.
"A lot of people think of co-teaching (as), 'OK, we're going to teach together. You teach one day; I'm going to teach the other day, and vice versa.'
"But a true co-teaching model is where you're in there together the whole time and you work with each other and it's difficult to tell who the regular teacher and the special education teacher is," she said.
Whether focused on social-emotional learning or co-teaching, the TOSA model, Dioro said, brings more credibility and impact to the work.
"It's really empowering teachers and teacher leadership and flattening that hierarchical structure of a traditional system, like a school, so that the teachers really have a say and they're making a lot of the decisions and they're really influencing their peers and their colleagues," Diorio said.
"The beauty is that they're still teachers," she added. "How do you influence and change or motivate an organization? It takes time and it takes the right people."
BACK TO SCHOOL CALENDER
First day of school, 9-12: Monday, Aug. 17
First day of school, K-8: Tuesday, Aug. 18
Terman Middle School back-to-school check-in: Monday, Aug. 17, 8 a.m. to noon
Jordan Middle School Jordan 101 for new families: Monday, Aug. 17, 3:30-4:30 p.m.
JLS Middle School Parent First Day Coffee: Tuesday, Aug. 18, 8:15-9:15 a.m.
Jaguar Journey at Jordan: Aug. 18 and 19
Panther Camp at JLS: Aug. 20 and 21
Tiger Camp at Terman: first week of school
Palo Alto High: Thursday, Sept. 3, 6:30-9 p.m.
Gunn High: Thursday, Aug. 27, 6-9 p.m.
Terman: Wednesday, Aug. 26, 5-8:30 p.m.
JLS: Wednesday, Aug. 26, 7-9 p.m.
Jordan: Wednesday, Aug. 26, 7-8:30 p.m.
Addison: Tuesday, Sept. 1, 6-8 p.m.
Barron Park: Tuesday, Sept. 1, 6-7 p.m.
Duveneck: Tuesday, Sept. 1, 6-8 p.m.
El Carmelo: Tuesday, Sept. 1, 5:30-7 p.m.
Escondido: Thursday, Aug. 20, 5:30 p.m.
Fairmeadow: Tuesday, Sept. 1; K-2 at 6 p.m., 3-5 at 7 p.m.
Herbert Hoover: Tuesday, Sept. 1, 6-8 p.m.
Juana Briones: Monday, Aug. 24, 6-8 p.m.
Lucille M. Nixon: Tuesday, Sept. 1, 6 p.m.
Ohlone: Tuesday, Sept. 1, 5:30-9 p.m.
Palo Verde: Tuesday, Sept. 1, 5:45-8 p.m. (5:45-6:45 p.m. for grades 3-5 in students' classrooms; 6:45-7 p.m. meeting for all parents in MP room; 7-8 p.m. grades K-2)
Walter Hays: Monday, Aug. 18, 8:45-11 a.m. (back-to-school coffee)