How the school district can best and better support student mental health was front and center at Tuesday's school board meeting, from an update on the Center for Disease Control and Prevention's forthcoming study of youth suicide in the area to a staff proposal for a new wellness model.
While the CDC prepares to visit Palo Alto to conduct epidemiological field work next week on teen suicide risk factors, prevention strategies and more, the district is considering the creation of a committee that would take a comprehensive look at how to best deliver mental-health services to students.
The board provided feedback on the proposed "Student Support Systems" committee, which as proposed Tuesday would include 24 members administrators, staff, students and parents from each high school charged 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.
Members of both the district and high-school leadership teams collaborated to write the charge.
To most of the board, this charge was too broad, and several members asked for a more refined focus when the charge returns for action at the next board meeting. For Board President Heidi Emberling, this started with the name of the committee itself, which she called "jargony." (Others later suggested something like "guidance and counseling" instead.)
"Are we talking about a social-emotional learning plan, curriculum, guidance? Are we talking about academic, social-emotional and college and career counseling like we did in the GAC (Gunn's Guidance Advisory Committee)?" Emberling asked. "I'm a little concerned about that in terms of parameters, different expectations that we all have and the whole community will have. I don't know that we're there yet."
Other board members asked if this committee would consider more academic-focused topics though ones that affect student health and well-being such as laning, class size, Advanced Placemen (AP) classes and small learning communities.
Several board members also asked staff to add more parents and staff to the group's makeup. Associate Superintendent Markus Autrey said the initial proposal was to seek four administrators (including both high school principals), eight staff members (four from each high school), six students and six parents (half and half from each high school).
Board member Melissa Baten Caswell also suggested bringing in community members who might not have children in the district currently as well as recent alumni.
Board member Ken Dauber said parents, as attuned observants to how their children consume and are affected by services, in particular played a critical role in Gunn's advisory committee, which issued recommendations around the school's counseling model in 2013.
"I think it's important for a committee like this to have what I guess I could call a consumer focus," Dauber said. "This topic has had a lot of controversy. There's been a lot of contention around it. It will be more successful the more focused it is on student outcomes and what students are getting from the system."
While Dauber expressed support for one identified "criteria" of the committee recommending a single model for student support to be implemented at both Palo Alto and Gunn high schools board member Camille Townsend pushed back, calling it "autocratic, plastic (and) brittle."
"I want to respect that things have been done differently and some parents really like one kind of thing or the other," she said. "I'm not into breaking what's not broke. I do believe we can go faster than evolution, but there is somewhere in between there."
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). Gunn operates under 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 previously urged that Gunn move to a TA model.
Several board members also stressed the importance of transparency throughout the committee's process. Baten Caswell said she heard members of Gunn's creative bell schedule committee last year were asked by the facilitator, Ken Yale (who will also serve as facilitator for this newly proposed group) to sign a confidentiality agreement. Jorge Quintana, the district's new communications coordinator, confirmed to the Weekly that the members did sign such an agreement.
"This is a public school (district). We don't do that," board member Camille Townsend said Tuesday. "I want people to be able to access the process."
Superintendent Max McGee said he would ask Yale to address these questions at the board's Feb. 23 meeting. Quintana wrote in an email Wednesday morning that a confidentiality agreement would not be part of the proposed student-support committee.
Several board members also urged that the committee host town halls early in their process to solicit feedback and engage with the public before their work is completed.
Despite her comments that the charge was too broad, Emberling argued that the committee should be looking at social-emotional learning and health from K-12, rather than just focused at the high-school level.
Research indicates that "limiting factors" of school-based social-emotional efforts are that "they're focused too narrowly in a piecemeal and unsystematic way on specific variables," Emberling said. "We do bullying prevention. We do substance abuse. We do sex ed. We look at delinquency. We do character development in our elementary schools. We do career prep. We do physical health and then mental health.
"We compartmentalize and we look at very narrow, very specific variables as opposed to a social-emotional learning curriculum that guides our students development over time. For me, this is an opportunity to look at this in a big way across our district."
The very next item the board discussed overlapped with this: A staff proposal to invest in exploring a more coordinated, comprehensive model for providing wellness series to students. While prioritization for such a model is being given to the high schools at this time, the benefit would be "building a replicable model to be used as a unified approach across the district over time," chief Student Services Officer Holly Wade wrote in a staff report. Wade is recommending the board commit $25,000 this year to hire one or two contractors to develop a proposal for student and staff wellness models.
Staff said coordination of services, from direct services for students to even hosting parent-education events, is a "challenge" for the district. Two new mental-health coordinators, one for each high school, hired last spring were charged with bringing more strategic coordination each school's wellness services and related efforts.
The new model would bring everything from counseling and psychological services, health education and employee wellness to family engagement and community involvement under one roof. Staff has visited Tamalpais Union High School District recently to observe their version of the model and plans to also visit San Francisco Unified School District this month, Student Services Coordinator Brenda Carrillo told the board Tuesday night. Tamalapais Union, for example, has a dedicated wellness center, and San Francisco Unified partnered with the San Francisco Department of Children, Youth and Their Families and the San Francisco Department of Public Health to open wellness centers throughout its 19 campuses.
Gunn is currently in the process of creating its own wellness 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.
A coordinated school health model "moves us away from talking about services that are siloed and moving to this idea that services need to be integrated, aligned and coordinated," Carrillo said.
Conversation about the model led to questions about how well the current model is functioning, and whether or not students are still having difficulty accessing services as they have reported at board meetings and in community conversations over the last year.
The director of Adolescent Counseling Services (ACS), a Palo Alto nonprofit that provides on-campus counseling services at Paly and Gunn, told the board in October that his organization was working to reduce waitlists and meet a rising demand at the two schools, particularly in the wake of several teen deaths by suicide during the last school year.
Carrillo said Tuesday that the waitlists at Paly and Gunn have been reduced by shifting to a more short-term, school-based counseling model that limits students to eight to 12 sessions, then refers them to an external provider for more longer-term care. Previously, ACS interns on campus would see students for an entire school year or longer, she said, making it difficult for them to take on new students.
Dauber and Board Vice President Terry Godfrey expressed concern that that simply passes the problem onto another overloaded system.
Many parents, students and mental-health clinicians have said they face the same problem when trying to access external care in the community, with long waitlists to see quality health-care professionals close to home.
"How do we know there's enough capacity in the community to pick up the slack?" Godfrey asked. "Unfortunately, the anecdotal information and stories don't support that there's capacity outside of our walls."
"I, at least, have a fundamental concern that we're not addressing a clear need and in response to that clear need we're cutting services rather than stepping up and meeting them," Dauber echoed. "I would like to see a proposal that evaluates what the actual need is, that doesn't assume that there are resources in the community that I don't think are there and that really steps up to the question about how are we going to address our needs for students."
Carrillo said she would speak with the schools' ACS providers to get further information about how successful the schools' "warm hand-off" to external providers is and if students are able to access services outside of the schools.
One-time funding requests for exploring new wellness models, as well as money to expand services for Mandarin-, Korean- and Spanish-speaking families in the district for this school year, will return for action at the Feb. 23 board meeting.