Palo Alto school board to discuss funding, models for student mental health

District looks to create new committee to recommend unified student-support system

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.

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4 people like this
Posted by kinder parent
a resident of Midtown
on Feb 9, 2016 at 10:16 am

What is happening with the District's idea to implement full day kinder? Is that going forward?

13 people like this
Posted by Committee
a resident of Jordan Middle School
on Feb 9, 2016 at 2:15 pm

Counseling and Mental Health S3 - Another committee?

It won't start until March 9.

The people whose work is being evaluated are leading it, after they were already promoted. Shouldn't that have been done before they were promoted?

"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."

To gather more data?
What have they been doing all this time? Is the District waiting to act to make sure it does what the CDC says, so it won't be criticized for doing something wrong if it acts now?

Staff Wellness?
A Student Services Officer should not be involved with staff wellness. That puts one person controlling all mental health, counseling, nursing, medical, special education, attendance, placements, and the legal suits against children. Now one person will not only control access for all students, but also for teachers and staff. What if a teacher disagrees with the Student Services Officer that a student does need help? If the Student Services Officer makes life hard for teachers or aides and they need a counselor, will the same person control their access to counselors?District Counselors testify against students in court. Will teachers be expected to do that also?

27 people like this
Posted by Again?
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Feb 9, 2016 at 2:26 pm

Instead of spending more money on committees, staff wellness, studies, etc, why doesn't the district simply limit homework loads and then ENFORCE them. As it stands, teachers ratchet the homework way back up into the stratosphere right after being told to back off-- and no one does anything about complaints. Also enforce the limits on the number of AP classes a student can take, no matter what parents say or demand. Daily exercise or PE or "recess", like Finland has for high schoolers, will help.

18 people like this
Posted by Ken Horowitz
a resident of University South
on Feb 9, 2016 at 3:52 pm

We already have Project Safety Net.That is a joint effort of the City and PAUSD.
The Palo Alto City Council has spent $2M to address some of these mental health issues. We don't need another committee.
It is time for the PAUSD to "step up to the plate".$250K has not been enough.
The School District has plenty of money.
We just need the School Board members to commit more financial resources to made sure those students needing mental health services get them.The school nurses are also key!Give them more support financially as well.

10 people like this
Posted by Marc Vincenti
a resident of Gunn High School
on Feb 9, 2016 at 6:33 pm

Dear Fellow Onliners,

I'm afraid that these proposals, though backed by good intentions and planning, will fail for the same reason that all such proposals have so far failed.

We must stop trying to fix our kids, and instead fix our schools.

More support programs, more counselors and therapists, more "social emotional" curriculum, more wellness centers, more lessons or lectures or assemblies on mental health or depression or suicide--we're giving our kids more gas masks to wear instead of getting rid of our schools' toxic fumes.

What are those fumes?

Palo Alto’s high-school classrooms are overcrowded to the point where working relationships between kids and teachers—let alone the kinds of connections that can become lifelines—have become stunted. Last semester our two schools had 705 classes with 26 or more students. Of those classes, 407 had 30 kids or more.

Second, our schools are drenched in fatigue. Though our District recommends no more than two AP courses per student, this caution has been too weak to deter 680 high-schoolers, this year, from taking three, four, five or more APs—college-level courses burn the midnight oil.

For families contemplating such loads, a timely half hour of guidance counseling could preserve hours and hours of sleep-time (not to mention family time, free time, friendship time) but our officials decline this fix.

Overloaded with APs (and with homework amounts in which they’re given no nightly, expeditious, online voice), our high-schoolers are averaging 6.5 hours of sleep per night when they should be getting nine, say Palo Alto’s pediatricians—who cite the danger for cognitive retention, concentration, depression. Multiply the nightly deficit, and our average high-schooler, in the course of one full school year, is losing SEVENTY full nights of sleep.

Why don't we act?!

Our schools send grade reports home twelve times per year; it used to be four. If you’re a normal adolescent—perhaps enduring a break-up, a parental divorce, a humiliations on social media, loss of a grandparent—how are you supposed to heal, recover, bounce back when you’re under a continual G.P.A. gun?

And how can you feel any peace of mind when cheating is rampant—when six of ten kids copy others’ homework, five of ten steal test answers or questions, four of ten plagiarize, and a three-year cheating conspiracy of twenty students lifted some into prestigious colleges?

Squeezed by the pressures mentioned above, abandoned by the adults who ought to be “upstanders,” our kids are left to drift in moral queasiness, strains on friendship, the erosion of self-esteem, and cynicism about the whole system.

To this toxic environment, this year, has come some relief: a less stressful bell schedule at one of our schools, and the elimination of early-bird, sleep-depriving classes in which 10% of kids were enrolled.

But the relief is being cancelled out.

In a world where the titles of books on raising teenagers are flashing simultaneously red—“over-scheduled,” “over-stressed,” “overloaded,” “over-parented,” “over-tested,” “overwhelmed”—our district is giving high-schoolers MORE to do.

Anxious to increase their resilience, we’ve added “social-emotional” curriculum, a new, required “support” course, a required tutorial, lessons on coping, handouts on depression, etc., etc.

We’ve invented helicopter schooling.

Let's take action. If you'd like to stop passing out gas masks, and instead get rid of the fumes--the toxic conditions listed above--please join 424 other community member in the grassroots coalition Save the 2,008.

Everyone is welcome; all you need to do is sign our Open Letter. We're a commonsense plan to bring hope to Palo Alto's highschoolers.

We're at and will be a story on ABC News "Nightline" next Monday night.


Marc Vincenti
Gunn English Dept. (1995-2010)
Campaign Coordinator
Save the 2,008

P.S. Copy this comment and email a friend! Thank you!

18 people like this
Posted by Teacher
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Feb 14, 2016 at 3:43 pm

Instead of dumping more money into yet another committee, why don't we ask the School Board to listen to the teachers and:
1. Stop requiring us to send grades home every 6 weeks;
2. Stop requiring us to enter something into the gradebook every 3 weeks;
3. Disable the Schoology feature that allows students to receive a text alert every time any teacher enters anything into the gradebook;
4. Stop requiring students to report to a teacher they have NO relationship with for Tutorial, and instead go back to the previous model of assigning students to a teacher they already know;
5. Stop filling classes to 35 students so that teachers are too overloaded and the room too crowded to actually give any student any real individual attention or form connections;
6. Stop allowing the MAC to be open to students until Midnight on school nights so that they can work on their Journalism projects instead of going to sleep at a reasonable hour -- why are we enabling and encouraging them to be working at school all night long?
7. Consider limits to student cell phone use on campus during class hours (see Mountain View high schools)

Why don't we start with these 7 simple (and FREE) steps instead? WHY NOT????????

6 people like this
Posted by I hear you
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Feb 14, 2016 at 4:06 pm

To "Again?"

Most teachers do follow appropriate homework guidelines. Part of the reason some kids have too much homework is that they sign up for too many demanding classes at once or enroll in classes that are beyond their skill level. A few teachers do regularly assign too much. If a student is spending too much time on homework for a particular class, I would encourage the student or parent to politely, respectfully, gently reach out to the teacher and let them know Don't be afraid to speak up, just be nice about it.

For example, this weekend is supposed to be a homework free weekend in ALL CLASSES -- nothing should be due Tuesday or Wednesday. This is significant progress for our school climate -- we ARE committed to giving kids a break once in a while. If your student has homework this weekend that is due on Tuesday or Wednesday, I encourage you to politely ask the teacher not to penalize your student in any way for not completing it, and to allow your student NOT to complete it. I have found teachers to be receptive when the approach is gentle and polite. Some will dig their heels in if attacked or approached with rudeness, as some PA parents are known for. If the teacher refuses to exempt your student from the "illegally" assigned work, contact the teacher's Instructional Supervisor. And, again, BE NICE. You will prevail with this approach.

1 person likes this
Posted by Diplomat
a resident of Gunn High School
on Feb 14, 2016 at 6:11 pm

@I hear,
My experience in this district is that people talk a big game about how you will prevail if only you are nice, but my experience is that the more patient and nice you are, the more likely you are to be ignored or even retaliated against if you persist in an important matter (nicely). It's like they equate nice with stupidity. The treament doesn't happen to everyone, just people who don't "rate" for other reasons out of the gate.

Did you ever stop to think that parents might have a reason for being upset? Try working in a district where an uncomfortable number of parents use profanity and have no respect at all for teachers, including that you never know which ones are on parole, while you have to buy school supplies for their kids because no ones throws money at you like here.

Teachers who are so unprofessional that they would apply favoritism to circumstances based on personal pettiness should be fired. Everyone else in such positions could learn how you easily diffuse situations when you do your job and try to understand where the parents are coming from. A little practice at being bigger than someone else and learning empathy, and everything changes. A public school deals with the public. That's a given. This district pays well and provides lots of support, if tat's not enough for someone to learn how to deal with the public and be fair to everyone, this is the wrong profession. On the other hand, learning some diplomacy could set a great example. It's amazing how those rude people you thought were so awful turn out to be your best advocates when you treat them the way you would want to be treated.

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