A yearslong discussion over the comparable quality of Gunn and Palo Alto high schools' distinct counseling models returned to the school board Tuesday night, with survey results again showing a gap in satisfaction between students at the two schools.
In the district's 2015 Strategic Plan survey, Paly students reported significantly higher rates of satisfaction than Gunn in non-academic counseling and guidance, career counseling, their social-emotional experience during the last school year and school counselors during the last school year.
Forty-five percent of Paly students feel positively (which encapsulates those who marked strongly agree and agree on the survey itself) about their non-academic counseling and guidance services, compared to 29 percent of Gunn students. And 24 percent of Gunn students indicated they feel negatively (those who marked strongly disagree and disagree) about these services.
Just over half of Paly students felt positively about their social-emotional experience last year, compared to 39 percent of Gunn students. The highest rates of satisfaction for students from both schools was for their experience with school counselors last year: 60 percent of Paly students and 44 percent of Gunn students felt positively.
Paly parents also felt more positive about the school's counseling system (60 percent positive and only 8 percent negative) than Gunn parents (46 percent positive and 18 percent negative).
Though the latest Strategic Plan survey had significantly lower rates of student participation than previous years only 715 students voluntarily took the survey several school board members said Tuesday that the results are consistent with past surveys, and must be addressed this year.
"This has been a conversation that has come up again and again and again and each time the administrators have said, 'OK, we want to try this or we want to try that,' ... It's frustrating over time to just see the same data over and over again and not adopt a different model," said board Vice President Heidi Emberling. "I'm hoping that ... looking at this data will prompt those conversations again and that we will see some new proposals on how to address them this year."
The district has for many years sought to do just that. The very first year the Strategic Plan survey was given, in 2008, students and parents at both schools reported low rates of satisfaction with guidance services, and the board adopted a strategic goal to improve that. During the 2011-12 school year, the district brought in an independent contractor to review the guidance programs at Gunn and Paly.
In the fall of 2012, the district convened the Gunn Guidance Advisory Committee (GAC) to evaluate and recommend reforms for the school's counseling system.
Paly has long had in place a teacher-advisory model, which connects students with a teacher-advisor (TA) throughout their four years (one their freshman year, and then another for the next three years). Students meet regularly with their TA around academic planning and anything else they might need support with, though freshmen meet more frequently than the other grade levels (weekly rather than monthly). Guidance counselors work with TAs to identify students who might need extra academic or social-emotional support, and college and career counselors provide juniors and seniors with post-graduation guidance.
Gunn, by contrast, has a traditional counseling model, with a group of staff members providing guidance counseling, college and career advice and social-emotional support. Members of the community particularly the group We Can Do Better Palo Alto, which was co-founded by school board member Ken Dauber before he was elected have advocated for Gunn to adopt the teacher-advisory model.
Dauber noted Tuesday night that years of surveys from the first Strategic Plan survey administered in 2008 to past Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC) accreditation surveys and counseling-specific surveys have yielded the same results.
"We've been looking at these gaps for many, many years," Dauber said. "I think it's time that we stop taking note of the gap and start figuring out how to actually address it in a serious way. I hope that we're actually going to do that. I think we have to do that."
Dauber attributed the gap in satisfaction levels to Paly's teacher-advisory model, which he said produces higher levels of connectedness, higher levels of service and puts multiple adults on campus in guidance roles with students.
About half of all students reported in this year's Strategic Plan survey that they feel connected and engaged in school. A higher percentage, 61 percent, said there is a caring adult at their school who they could go to with a problem.
However, board member Terry Godfrey pointed to students' relatively low perceptions of their schools' "culture of trust." Only 36 percent of Paly students and 47 percent of Gunn students said they feel their school has a culture of trust.
"That's another one that I would love to get my arms around and fix because we can't do our jobs if they don't feel trust for the adults that are around them," Godfrey said.
The district plans to conduct focus groups with students to better understand the Strategic Plan survey results such as what a student who doesn't feel his or her school has a culture of trust means by that, or what his or her perception of "culture of trust" is.
During the last school year, the school district administered yet another counseling survey to 2,400 high school students, director of Research and Assessment Chris Kolar said Tuesday. The results of this survey will be presented at the board's next meeting on Oct. 27.
At a budget study session on Nov. 3, Superintendent Max McGee said he and staff will present proposals (and their costs) for two potential counseling models for Gunn one like Paly's teacher-advisory system and another "more robust" one in place at New Trier High School in Illinois. At New Trier, counselors work with sophomores, juniors and seniors in group guidance settings through an advisor system, while individualized post-secondary planning and guidance begin during the second semester of the junior year and continues through graduation, according to the school's website.
McGee also said that he hopes the district will address counseling satisfaction at not only Gunn, but also Paly.
"I don't want perfect to be the enemy of the good, but that's far from perfect," he said regarding Paly students satisfaction levels. "I think we need to look at how to improve counseling at both places."
Board President Melissa Baten Caswell noted that any discussion about the high schools' counseling services must include the students themselves.
Editor's note: This story was updated to correct inaccurate information about Palo Alto High School's counseling system, which stated that Paly had a weekly teacher-advisor (TA) model through which students were connected with one TA for all four years. Students have a different TA their freshman year compared to the higher grade levels and meet regularly with their TAs, but not weekly.