The Palo Alto school district is eyeing several new approaches to supporting student mental health and well-being, including spending $25,000 to explore a more coordinated "wellness center" model and creating a committee that could recommend that both high schools implement a single model for student support.
The school board will discuss Tuesday night the charge and timeline for a new Student Support Systems (S3) Committee, which grew out of conversations around the efficacy of counseling models at Palo Alto and Gunn high schools. The group's charge, as proposed by members of both the district and high school leadership teams, is "to investigate, analyze, and recommend a comprehensive, effective, and innovative system of high school student support by December 2016 that ensures students thrive socially, emotionally and academically and are prepared for their futures in the 21st century," according to a staff report.
"Over the past several years both Gunn and Palo Alto High Schools have focused on a variety of strategies and programs and while improvements have been made and results have improved," the report states, "data indicate that additional changes to the whole support system, including counseling and advising, would benefit students and staff."
Criteria for the group's recommendations include connecting every student to a caring adult, including dedicated time within the schools' daily schedules for students to access staff and services on a "consistent and substantial basis," offering culturally sensitive services, being grounded in current research and best practices around learning and social-emotional health, identifying any current school practices that "may require modification in order to effectively implement the recommended student-support system" and recommending a single student-support model to roll out at both Paly and Gunn.
Currently, the high schools operate under different counseling models. 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 TA model.
If the new committee is approved by the board (it will be up for a vote at the Feb. 23 meeting), the district would seek staff, students, parents and community members to serve as members.
"We're looking for demographic diversity, as well as staff from a variety of roles and departments at both high schools, students in varying grades with different talents and interests, parents who are both new and returning, and representatives from athletics, music and clubs, etc.," the staff report states. "We expect that there will be more applicants than is manageable for the committee, so an application process will be used to select a reasonably sized and well-balanced committee."
The district is aiming to begin the application process in late February, with a deadline of March 2. Accepted members would be notified by March 9, and meet throughout the rest of the school year and fall with the goal of presenting a final report to the board in January 2017.
Staff is also proposing that the committee be overseen by a professional facilitator Ken Yale, who facilitated Gunn's Creative Scheduling Committee and the Gunn Advisory Committee (GAC). Yale will attend the next board meeting on Feb. 23 to answer any questions.
Also coming before the board on Tuesday are three new mental-health related funding requests for the current school year. Staff is recommending that the board approve $21,800 to extend the district's contract with Asian Americans for Community Involvement (AACI) for the rest of the school year, so the nonprofit can continue to provide parent-education classes and counseling support to Mandarin- and Korean-speaking families in the district. Staff is also recommending that the board consider bringing in an additional agency to provide more support to Spanish-speaking families with a cost of $10,000.
The largest budget request, $25,000, would support the "exploration" of new wellness model programs for both students and staff at the high schools, Chief Student Services Officer Holly Wade wrote in staff report.
The extra funding would allow district staff to look into how to provide more coordinated wellness support to students and explore data management and evaluation resources in order to maintain and monitor these systems, Wade wrote. There is currently "no infrastructure at this time to coordinate, maintain, and monitor effective direct services to students" at the high schools, she wrote, despite a steady increase in spending on mental-health services, K-12, over the last five years, her report states.
"We are recommending a strategic and comprehensive plan to develop a wellness continuum of integrated supports to coordinate and minimize duplication of services, and increase direct service to students," Wade wrote. "Prioritization is given to the high schools at this time, with the benefit of building a
replicable model to be used as a unified approach across the district over time."
A potential investment could be a wellness center that physically houses and more strategically coordinates the schools' myriad wellness-related services.
Gunn is currently in the process of creating such a center, with the conceptual design for a new two-story building (the wellness center would be on the second floor) set to go to the Division of State Architect (DSA) for approval this month.
"Wellness centers serve ALL students," a slide in Wade's presentation for Tuesday night notes: They can house prevention programs, education and activities for the whole school; serve as safe and welcoming spaces for students, as well as destigmatize services and increase access (a student could go to this one building for a range of services, rather than having to go to a dedicated psychologist's office, for example).
The board did authorize $250,000 last spring to hire two new mental-health coordinators, one for each high school, who have been charged with bringing more strategic coordination each school's wellness services and related efforts.
Wade is recommending that the board now approve $25,000 to hire a contractor to develop a proposal for student and staff wellness models and begin a community needs assessment to gather more data.
In other business Tuesday, the board will vote on the creation of another new committee that could possibly recommend new names for some of the district's schools.
Now dubbed the "Renaming Schools Committee," or RSC, the proposal for this group was sparked by one parent's passionate petition to rename Jordan Middle School in light of its namesake's active role in the eugenics movement. Parents and community members have since also raised concerns about Terman Middle School and Cubberley Community Center (both Lewis Terman and Ellwood Cubberley were also eugenics proponents).
The Renaming Schools Committee would be a citizens advisory committee charged with researching names of all current PAUSD schools and submitting recommendations for renaming one or more of the schools for the board's consideration by Dec. 31. The board discussed the issue at its first meeting of the year on Jan. 12 and expressed support for the creation of such a group.
Following board approval of the committee formation and charge, staff would develop an application process and aim to have members selected on or before March 31.
The school board will also hear an update Tuesday night on a soon-to-begin Centers for Disease Control (CDC) study on youth suicide in Santa Clara County. The CDC is expected to arrive in Palo Alto next week to prepare and analyze data sets and conduct informal meetings with community organizations and stakeholders, according to a staff report. The CDC's work will rely on existing data rather than collecting new information through surveys and focus groups.
The study, which was requested by the school district, will include a final report with recommendations on prevention strategies that can be used at the school, city and county level.
The Tuesday, Feb. 9, board meeting will begin at 6:30 p.m. at the district office, 25 Churchill Ave. Read the full agenda here.