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To take action now, or later, on counseling

Palo Alto school board questions how to approach persistent dissatisfaction with high school counseling services

After four surveys that have yielded the same results — that there is a gap between counseling services at Palo Alto and Gunn high schools — and one committee that spent a school year analyzing how to close that gap at Gunn, with its recommendations largely languishing, some board members are wondering whether a proposal to convene yet another counseling committee is the right route to take.

The school board discussed Tuesday night a new high school counseling survey that again showed not only higher student satisfaction with counseling services at Paly, but also relatively low rates of satisfaction across the board at both high schools.

While the majority of surveyed students (64 percent) said they know there is an adult on campus who cares about them, only 32 percent of students said that school counselors are a resource for them in "dealing with the demands at school." Twenty percent of students said counselors are not a resource for them in dealing with school demands.

And while 39 percent of Paly students reported that the school counseling staff has helped them develop problem-solving skills like balancing extracurricular activities and academics and resolving personal conflicts, at Gunn, that number is significantly lower. Only 28 percent of Gunn students said counselors have supported them in learning these skills, and 23 percent of students said that they haven't.

Paly has long had in place a teacher-advisory model, which connects students with a teacher-advisor (TA) throughout their four years (one teacher 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. Students meet regularly with their TA around academic planning and anything else they might need support with. 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. Some community members and parents have for years urged that Gunn move to a teacher-advisor model.

The survey results came with a staff recommendation to create a new counseling committee composed of students, parents, teachers, staff and administrators from both Paly and Gunn, which would be asked to issue recommendations by next December, to be potentially implemented in the fall of 2017.

Superintendent Max McGee said that "the key question before us is not if the Gunn system or Paly system is better," but how to improve counseling services for all students.

Some school board members took issue with this extended timeline, urging McGee to instead identify short-term, "low-hanging fruit" that can be tackled this year.

"The perfect cannot be the enemy of the good," said board member Ken Dauber, "and waiting to address the deficit that has existed at Gunn for these many years cannot wait, in my view, for deciding (on) a more perfect system."

Dauber said many Gunn parents have asked him, "Why is it OK for my students to be receiving less effective services in this area than students at Paly?"

"I have not been able to give them a good and persuasive answer," he said.

Dauber said he would prefer a committee structured like Gunn's recent creative bell schedule committee, which delivered concrete, actionable recommendations (that are now in place at the school) within a timeframe of a few months.

Board President Melissa Baten Caswell, too, asked for more immediate action. She said in her eight years on the board and two years of attending board meetings as a parent leader, she has witnessed a cyclical approach in the district of "going back to see where we are."

"Although that's noble — and it's not just on counseling ... it seems like what happens is we just recount the chairs on the deck of the boat and we don't come up with new ideas to go forward. I think the intent is always to count those chairs and then figure out where to build more boats and decks ... but it's frustrating for me for 10 years seeing us redo this and redo this," she said.

Baten Caswell suggested staff start by looking to the previous Gunn Guidance Advisory Committee (GAC) report and recommendations.

"We have a list of things that the GAC committee said they'd like to see happen. Let's do some of those things," she said. "If some of those things are good for Paly, let's do them there, too."

McGee stood by staff's initial proposal and timeline, but said he could convene a smaller group to address more immediate changes, or identify both short- and long-term goals for the joint committee. He was wary of taking on too much at once, particularly for Gunn, which just this year implemented a new bell schedule. He said that "jumping to an advisory system at Gunn would be a mistake."

"If we try to do too much at once we are going to sink the Titanic," he said. "We can't afford to do that. We have to do these important things and spread them out over time."

Philippe Rey, executive director of Adolescent Counseling Services (ACS), a nonprofit organization that provides on-site counseling for the district's middle and high schools, told the board during public comment that his organization has seen a steady increase in demand for its on-campus services in recent years.

Last year, ACS saw a 6 percent increase over the year before; the year before that, the organization saw a 17 percent increase in demand, he said. The top reason students seek counseling support is academic stress, Ray said, followed by communication with parents, peer relationships, anxiety and self-esteem issues.

During the last school year, Paly and Gunn students and administrators frequently spoke about long waitlists to get in to see an ACS counselor — as well as external providers — because of a spike in demand during last year's suicide cluster.

In response, the district approved the hiring last year of two new mental health therapists, one for each high school, who started this school year.

Rey said that his organization is "trying to find ways to either reduce or completely eliminate a waitlist at the sites that we serve so when a student is in need of seeing us, then they can actually access the services."

Brenda Carrillo, the district's director of student services, said the waitlists are also driven by a shift in the way the district delivers counseling services. The system at the high schools has evolved in recent years away from a school-based model toward a clinical one where counselors provide longer-term support to students, she said, so counselors who might be seeing students for an entire year are less available to others.

The district is working with ACS to shift back toward a school model, under which counselors meet with students for several weeks and then if necessary, connect them with external resources to continue their care.

Palo Alto Unified still offers what it calls a "3-6-9" referral model through which students can access three, six or nine sessions with a local mental health provider, and the cost is underwritten by the district.

Palo Alto Medical Foundation also started offering last year four free counseling sessions to local teens.

Paly student board representative Emma Cole attributed the increase in demand for counseling services to a decrease in stigma around seeking mental health support. But waitlists can throw a wrench in that, she said.

"It sort of goes against everything we're saying if a student seeks help and then they say, 'we'll help you, but not for however many months when this waitlist clears up,'" said Cole, a senior at Paly.

The district is also planning on gathering new kinds of data around counseling that goes beyond student perceptions, such as tracking when and for what reasons students seek services, and how they're addressed.

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.

Comments

1 person likes this
Posted by shorter version of story
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Oct 28, 2015 at 10:28 am

[Post removed.]


3 people like this
Posted by Trust needs to be earned
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 28, 2015 at 11:08 am

This all sounds good. But given the untrustworthy treatment from the district office over the past few years, my teen would never do this out of fear (with good reason) that it would be twisted into a bludgeon to cause more harm.

Also, the last thing students who are the most stressed need is to take more time to go see an adult they have no relationship with.


9 people like this
Posted by Obvious
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Oct 28, 2015 at 12:07 pm

Why don't they just hire more counselors? The Paly TA system is deficient because they are teachers, not trained in counseling so they spread misinformation or lack the skills of trained counselors. Most don't go to their Advisors for help. Counselors try to direct students Advisors to offload their work due to lack of time. Therefore just hire more counselors and skip the worthless TA system! Hire more college counselors too because twould isn't enough - they only have time for juniors and seniors.

Can't we use the millions of PiE money on counselors? What is more important that affects all students? New gym, media center, and theatre only affects some of the students, not all. We need more counselors.


7 people like this
Posted by Max Skelly
a resident of Gunn High School
on Oct 28, 2015 at 1:16 pm

Dauber said many Gunn parents have asked him, "Why is it OK for my students to be receiving less effective services in this area than students at Paly?"

"I have not been able to give them a good and persuasive answer," he said.

Max, what is your answer? You and Skelly sound the same. Have you been cowed by the union teachers at Gunn who successfully resisted this for the last 5 years?


11 people like this
Posted by please correct the facts in the article
a resident of Crescent Park
on Oct 28, 2015 at 2:33 pm

Elana - please correct the following:

Corrections to some of the info

"Paly has long had a teacher-advisory model, which connects each student with one teacher-adviser (TA) for all four years. "
Students actually have one TA freshman year and one for 10-12th grade if the teacher stays at Paly

Students meet weekly with their TA around academic planning" (while the TA's meet with students weekly, its not the same students each week)
The number of meetings vary, TA's have 10th, 11th and 12th grade advisory classes so they only meet with one grade level per week

FREQUENCY OF TA MEETINGS
9th grade 3-4 times a month
10th grade 1-2 times a month
11th grade 2-3 times a month
12th grade 5 time TOTAL throughout the year

10th-12th advisory schedule:
Web Link

"and anything else they might need support with." Most TA time is geared towards career planning, choosing courses, etc. Very few students go to their TA for social or emotional support. Since the TA's write the Paly student's college recommendation letters, so many are reluctant to share their emotional issues.


8 people like this
Posted by Max Skelly
a resident of Gunn High School
on Oct 28, 2015 at 3:20 pm

Gunn parents,

Take a look at the TA schedule above, and then ask yourself, "Is my child getting anything like this level of contact from his or her counselor?" 9th grade: 3-4 times A MONTH.

And that doesn't include guidance or college and career counselors.

Superintendent Max McGee said that "the key question before us is not if the Gunn system or Paly system is better... He said that "jumping to an advisory system at Gunn would be a mistake."

He went on to say, "We do want to have those (counseling) services improve. It's an area that's important to our community. But I would not change the Gunn model without doing great investigation into how it would affect the overall school quality, and making sure you had the buy-in of that staff at Gunn High School."

Oops, that last quote wasn't Max, it was Kevin Skelly from May 2014: Web Link

How did that sneak in there without me noticing? Maybe there is a drawer in the superintendent's desk marked "Quotable quotes on Gunn counseling".


1 person likes this
Posted by shorter version of story
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Oct 28, 2015 at 3:37 pm

LOL


7 people like this
Posted by shorter version of story
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Oct 28, 2015 at 3:43 pm

The story quotes Ken Dauber saying: "Why is it OK for my students to be receiving less effective services in this area than students at Paly?"

"I have not been able to give them a good and persuasive answer," he said.

Actually this is only part of Dauber's quote. He then said, "Superintendent McGee what is your answer to those families?"

[Portion removed.] He said "well we are doing a lot of things." He said "we can't do it all at once." He said "I don't know, I feel we need to do other things first." [Portion removed.] That's missing from the story but it is the most important and most telling interaction on this subject.

[Portion removed.]


5 people like this
Posted by Deja vu
a resident of Greendell/Walnut Grove
on Oct 28, 2015 at 4:39 pm

"[Dr.McGee] was wary of taking on too much at once, particularly for Gunn, which just this year implemented a new bell schedule. He said that "jumping to an advisory system at Gunn would be a mistake."

I wonder if staff told Dr. McGee that in March 2013 Gunn administrators told the superintendent and the board that they just needed to update the bell schedule and then they could implement small group advisory meetings per the GAC plan.

See PA Weekly March 20, 2013 Web Link


"Gunn High School's daily "bell schedule" may have to change in 2014-2015 to make time in the school week for full delivery of a prospective new guidance-counseling curriculum.

Gunn administrators told the Palo Alto Board of Education Tuesday night they've begun work on counseling reforms, including emailing weekly counseling-department updates to parents and improving the school's counseling website, and plan more significant steps next year.

But there's no time in Gunn's school day to deliver aspects of counseling -- including regular, small-group meetings with adults -- that are at the heart of reforms recommended this month by Gunn's Guidance Advisory Committee, made up of parents, staff members and students.

A possible change to the school's bell schedule will take at least a year to hammer out, administrators said."

Instead of one year, two and a half years have passed. We have the bell schedule. There is nothing more to study. Let's do it!


7 people like this
Posted by Max Skelly
a resident of Gunn High School
on Oct 28, 2015 at 7:21 pm

Kevin Skelly: Gunn students can't have better counseling because they don't have a block schedule.

Max McGee: Gunn students can't have better counseling because they just got a block schedule.

Do they teach this stuff in superintendents' school?


1 person likes this
Posted by read the surveys
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Oct 28, 2015 at 7:26 pm

Well, Max Skelly, you could get it right. McGee stated that counseling at Gunn is nothing to be proud of and was, in fact, an embarrassment as backed up in survey after survey.

Why on earth would he want to foist it on Gunn.


1 person likes this
Posted by read the surveys
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Oct 28, 2015 at 7:28 pm

Then max took aim at Paly and stated that the same thing.

Hopefully their now going to take a look at counseling at both schools and get is sorted out.


8 people like this
Posted by Obvious
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Oct 28, 2015 at 7:42 pm

Is it possible that the Gunn teachers don't want to be Advisors? After all, if they were fighting for it, wouldn't it be easier for the BoE to approve it?

Again, the Advisors help with schedule planning but no one goes to them for emotional help. The TA system is overrated - it's okay as a homeroom, but don't expect it to be helpful for social-emotional issues. Just hire more counselors for those concerns.

Here is the 10th-12th grade Advisory schedule: Web Link

Here's the 9th grade Advisory schedule: Web Link


6 people like this
Posted by Max Skelly
a resident of Barron Park
on Oct 28, 2015 at 8:00 pm

Max said at the board meeting last night that he had been chatting with Gunn counselors just that morning. I'll bet he was! Gunn union members, the same happy crowd that brought us the grievance against Denise Herrmann for asking them to use Schoology, are probably putting the screws to him like they did Skelly.

The Gunn teachers union is protecting their power, and counseling quality is collateral damage. Max Skelly or Kevin McGee? Doesn't matter, they will both throw the kids overboard, just like Max did when he forced Denise to apologize to the bully teachers.


5 people like this
Posted by Marc Vincenti
a resident of Gunn High School
on Oct 28, 2015 at 8:20 pm

Hello, Fellow Onliners,

Our District permits school conditions that are the equivalent of toxic gases--then tries to solve the problem by passing out gas masks.

While it's a valuable service, counseling, too, is becoming one such gas mask--to help kids cope with "the demands of school."

Wouldn't we do better to just get rid of the toxic gases?--flush away the stress, angst, distrust, alienation, meaninglessness of school?

That's the approach of Save the 2,008, the community coalition (now 400 strong) to bring a more hopeful, safer life to Palo Alto's high-schoolers.

But in BREAKING NEWS: Save the 2,008 has been denied further District discussion, per a decision by Superintendent McGee.

Join us, won't you?--in abandoning our town's long, fruitless struggle over gas masks, whether equal or better or short term or recommended by committee! Instead, let's just flush out the poisons!

You can add you voice to ours at: savethe2008.com

Sincerely,

Marc Vincenti
Gunn English Dept. (1995-2010)
Campaign Coordinator
Save the 2,008 -- creating hope for Palo Alto's high-schoolers


Like this comment
Posted by Shangri la
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Oct 28, 2015 at 8:35 pm

[Post removed.]


2 people like this
Posted by quotes
a resident of Crescent Park
on Oct 28, 2015 at 8:45 pm

Previous comments by Max:

"[Max] said, regarding Paly students satisfaction levels, "I think we need to look at how to improve counseling at both places."

Previous comments by Paly Students:

"Most students think TA is a waste of time"

What's your solution? "FORCE TA ON GUNN AND IT WILL SOLVE EVERYTHING".

Too bad the data doesn't back you up.


6 people like this
Posted by Anonymous
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 28, 2015 at 8:56 pm

"The survey results came with a staff recommendation to create a new counseling committee composed of students, parents, teachers, staff and administrators from both Paly and Gunn, which would be asked to issue recommendations by next December, to be potentially implemented in the fall of 2017."

We've heard this song and dance before. H@ll will freeze over before there's any change in counseling.


9 people like this
Posted by Red
a resident of Downtown North
on Oct 28, 2015 at 9:31 pm

Red is a registered user.

Less talk and more action BADLY needed ! GUNN'S STUDENTS DESERVE TO HAVE their COUNSELING SERVICES UPGRADED TO LEVEL COMPARABLE TO 'PALY' IMMEDIATELY. PLEASE NO MORE EXCUSES.


16 people like this
Posted by Parent
a resident of Gunn High School
on Oct 28, 2015 at 9:36 pm

In a very short time, Gunn implemented new block schedule. It was lightning fast. So now, why does it take multiple years, multiple committees to fix counseling? Students are giving the same feedback year after year, survey after survey.


8 people like this
Posted by Max Skelly
a resident of Barron Park
on Oct 29, 2015 at 7:14 am

Max is great at talking about listening to students. Listening to students, not so much.

[Portion removed.]


Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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