When it comes to better supporting student wellness and mental health in Palo Alto, is the school district most in need of more direct services, or coordination at a higher level?
School board members were divided on this question at a budget study session Tuesday morning, during which they discussed a staff proposal to hire two district-level "social emotional learning and wellness coordinators" (one for the elementary level and the other for secondary) who would, ideally, bring a level of systematic coordination to districtwide wellness efforts that staff said does not currently exist.
"PAUSD has a plethora of PK-12 programs and services to promote mental health and wellness," a staff report prepared for Tuesday's meeting reads. "While some may be coordinated within school, there is minimal coordination across schools and the quality and reach of services is arguably less than optimal for all students."
To some board members, such coordination is much needed and the $286,000 investment justified. President Heidi Emberling supported the funding proposal, calling it a "needed position" that sends a clear message about the district's priorities. Both she and board member Camille Townsend said a potential health and wellness coordinator should oversee efforts related to not only mental but also physical health.
Townsend, though, said that unlike former president Ronald Reagan's trickle-down theory, she wants positions that bring something tangible to students. She said she was concerned to hear that two mental-health therapists hired during the last school year to serve each high school were doing more coordination and high-level work than providing services directly to students.
"It seems like bureaucracy," she said of the newly proposed coordinator position. "If I can see some direct payoff to students, I would look at it more favorably. That one really needs some work in my opinion."
Board member Ken Dauber called the two coordinators an "over-investment in staff that is not providing direct services." He asked Superintendent Max McGee and staff for more "justification" around this and other funding proposals for positions that interact less directly with students.
A key question in this discussion also remains unanswered: whether or not the district is, in fact, providing a sufficient level of services at the school sites particularly at the high school level, where anecdotal reports from students, parents and service providers over the last year painted a picture of an overloaded system with long waitlists that didn't get any shorter when schools referred students out to health professionals in the community.
Chief Student Services Officer Holly Wade told the board that there are no longer waitlists at Palo Alto and Gunn high schools. Staff said at a previous board meeting that Adolescent Counseling Services (ACS), a Palo Alto nonprofit that provides on-campus counseling services at the district's secondary schools, recently shifted to a shorter term model that has cut down on waitlists. The new model aims to limit students to 12 sessions so the limited number of providers on campus aren't seeing a small set of students for a year or more, which can keep them from taking on new students, staff said.
However, there is a "necessity for coordination around data," Wade said, and question marks apparently remain about how many students are being seen, why they are being seen and what happens to them after they are referred to an external provider.
"I think a fair statement of this, at least from my perspective listening to the data, is that we don't really know yet whether we are adequately meeting the needs that students are presenting," Dauber said. "We have fairly good data about the problem. We don't really have good data about whether we have a solution or not."
The conversation about the new positions comes amidst two other recently initiated and overlapping efforts around student mental health in the district. At its Feb. 9 meeting, the school board discussed the creation of a new comprehensive committee that would be tasked with evaluating the high schools' current counseling models and potentially recommending a new, unified model by the end of this year.
The board will also be voting at its regular meeting Tuesday night on a staff request for $25,000 to explore a more coordinated "wellness center" model. 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 in an earlier staff report.
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.
(UPDATE: The school board approved unanimously Tuesday night an updated staff request for $15,000 to fund ongoing direct services and parent-education classes provided by Asian Americans for Community Involvement (AACI) through the end of this school year. The board also unanimously voted to allocate $50,000 in one-time funds for direct mental health services, to be used at staff's discretion this school year.)
Wade and other staff have been visiting wellness centers at other school districts in the Bay Area and also observing how other districts employ wellness coordinators, she said.
Other budget proposals that won board support at Tuesday's study session included full-day kindergarten, which could cost up to $647,000; and providing breakfast for low-income elementary school students who qualify for free or reduced lunch ($300,000). Several community members and leaders, including Susan Usman, president of the Palo Alto Council of PTAs, and Teri Baldwin, and president of the Palo Alto Educator's Association (PAEA), spoke in support of expanding the breakfast program.
The board also discussed how to best approach world language in the district in light of a request to fund a half-time position to oversee world-language programs K-12. Escondido Elementary School Principal Chuck Merritt, who was named the district's new world-languages administrator last spring, said that he has been overwhelmed by the immediate and strong response to his work so far "to the extent that has exceeded my ability to do it," he said.
Among other efforts, a part-time person could help to visit classrooms, train language teachers, develop professional development, move the Spanish and Mandarin immersion programs' master plans forward, advise administrators on the teacher evaluation process for language courses and work on a farther-off goal of piloting a foreign language program at the elementary schools, Merritt said.
Several board members expressed support for addressing world language at the middle and high schools first, then returning to a longtime discussion about what to do at the elementary level.
McGee said that staff will return with final budget recommendations at the March 23 board meeting. Read all of the requests that the board considered Tuesday here.