Where will district dollars have most impact on student mental health in Palo Alto?

School board weighs proposed district-level wellness coordinators, direct services

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.

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25 people like this
Posted by Marc Vincenti
a resident of Barron Park
on Feb 23, 2016 at 5:48 pm

Marc Vincenti is a registered user.

Hi, Onliners,

What our poor, tired, sleep deprived, overworked high-schoolers need is not more "learning," whether "social-emotional" or any other kind.

They don't even need any more "wellness" plugged into them.

School officials should stop trying to fix our kids, and should instead fix our schools.

In a world where the titles of books on raising teens are simultaneously flashing red—“over-scheduled,” “over-stressed,” “overloaded,” “over-parented---our district is piling on “social-emotional” curriculum, lessons and lectures and handouts on coping and mental health and depression.

We're pioneering helicopter schooling.

If we would leave our teenagers in peace, and especially leave them some time to be with friends, then the natural consolations and healing of friendship--sought and chosen by the kids, free of cost, in need of no "coordinators" or bureaucratic oversight--would accomplish what all of these therapists and programs and wellness centers will never in a million years do.

For REAL relief for our kids, and to safeguard their lives, I invite you to visit the website of Save the 2,008, the local grassroots coalition to change our schools, not perfect our kids.


Marc Vincenti
Gunn English Dept. (1995-2010)
Campaign Coordinator

P.S. Check us out on last week's ABC News "Nightline."

5 people like this
Posted by Cat
a resident of Downtown North
on Feb 23, 2016 at 6:49 pm

I think having an elementary coordinator for wellness and socio-emotional learning is an excellent and much needed idea in coordinating efforts and identifying gaps across the school district.

I think there is a need to prepare fifth-graders at the end of their school year to better transition them into middle school.

Perhaps, we could hire an elementary school nurse who could do wellness and socio-emotional education in addition to his or her normal duties. Just a thought.

21 people like this
Posted by Fix the teachers
a resident of Crescent Park
on Feb 23, 2016 at 7:51 pm

Spend it on finding a way to let go of the bad teachers and rehire teachers without the teacher's union.

Spend it on teacher evaluations so there is some accountability and teacher consistency.

Spend it on someone who can analyze proper teaching methods and report to the superintendent and principals.

Pay students to secretly write daily logs for one semester of the questionable teachers covering teaching methods, access to the teacher, email replies, homework load, tests, etc. This is the ONLY way for administration to gain truthful feedback on teachers.

Spend it on hiring a real chef who will create good, healthy food for our students instead of the junk food at the snack bars.

Spend it on soap/paper towels in the bathrooms of the schools.

Spend it on housecleaners who actually keep the classrooms and lunch tables clean.

21 people like this
Posted by dedicated school therapists
a resident of Barron Park
on Feb 23, 2016 at 9:25 pm

I think it would be very helpful for PAUSD to hire dedicated, experienced, full-time therapists for the MSs and HSs. The ACS interns do not suffice. Many district families cannot afford $150/hr + for the local therapists, almost none of whom accept insurance.

1 person likes this
Posted by PAUSD
a resident of Greater Miranda
on Feb 23, 2016 at 11:04 pm

[Post removed.]

11 people like this
Posted by agree that schools are the problem
a resident of Crescent Park
on Feb 24, 2016 at 9:29 am

@Marc VIncenti and @fix the teachers -I totally agree with you both. While having access to counselors is a good thing for students, the counselors can't fix the underlying problem of school stress.

@fix the teachers - I really like the idea of a way to provide true feedback on teachers to the administration. AND finding a way to get rid of them! As an example, one of the Jordan Middle School team leaders refused to attend IEP meetings for our son and now is in charge of a team?

12 people like this
Posted by cvvhrn
a resident of Midtown
on Feb 24, 2016 at 9:37 am

Perhaps the money would be better spent on re-educating and redirecting the expectations of parents. The 'Stanford" or bust mentality is really the root cause no? While its easy to point the finger and blame the school district, when you distill the problems being faced by our children it comes back squarely to us the parents.

You can have 1:1 counseling, you have have district wide coordination, heck you can have some sort of 'secret" evaluation system, Google cafeteria(esq) food, but those are mere band-aids made to make people feel better and do NOTHING to address the issues at home

12 people like this
Posted by Collusion Illusion
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 24, 2016 at 11:48 am

A previous poster focused on elementary, which seems like a logical place to start, because mental health issues don't suddenly spring up in the higher grades but can be building over time. One problem with school counseling, and more counseling, is that the counselors seem bound by the legalistic mindset of the district. To a certain extent, their hands and/or tongues seem tied, and there is only so much (or very little) they can do to help kids with actual mental health issues.

As things stand, sending a kid to see a counselor can become counter-productive. A kid might be viewed, if not labeled, as having some sort of problem and begin to mis-label himself/herself as being a problem. But some, or many, kids might not have a mental-health problem at all. Their "problem" is situational.

A kid might be "advised" to see a counselor because a teacher has suggested it as a kind of band-aid to cover up the poor classroom management skills of the teacher under the influence of the defensively legalistic mindset of the district. For instance, some kids normally don't exhibit symptoms of anxiety in any situation other than school. Even more so, they don't exhibit any symptoms of clinical anxiety except when in a particular classroom, or classroom set up, at school. Let's say their classroom situation does not feel safe, because they are forced to sit next to a kid who bullies them. Let's say you have a teacher who decides they will not move the kid for fear of legal action by the bully's parents (though the teacher will not tell you this). In other words, this teacher cares more about preventing potential litigation than the well-being of the child who is situationally anxious.

That "anxious" child is then suggested, by the teacher, to go and see the school counselor about their "problem." What happens when the child sees the counselor, supposedly to be "fixed"? Nothing, really, because the child never needed fixing to begin with, and the counselors cannot act outside the fixed legalistic mindset of the district anyway. What needed to be fixed was the classroom situation, which was poorly managed by the teacher. To paraphrase Marc Vicenti, the district and some of the teachers need to be "fixed," because the system is broken here. But the child will be labeled as "anxious," and perhaps this will go on their school record, and the anxiety issues might almost seem real until school gets out in summer, and during school breaks, or until the child lucks out and ends up with a better teacher the next year and life for the child at school and everywhere else becomes smooth sailing again.

A more common scenario, in the higher grades, is the sleep-deprived student who appears to have an anxiety disorder or depression because they cannot keep up with the mountains of homework facing them all the time. And, to make matters worse, they feel like they did not learn from their teacher(s) at school how to work the problems. Lessen that load and/or provide better teaching and you just might see a far less anxious kid.

Unless something is done about it, parents in this district should be wary of teachers and counselors who might be suggesting or using counseling as a smoke screen to cover up dysfunctional classroom dynamics for which the teacher and other adults are responsible. In certain situations, children are being made to feel responsible for problems that are not inherent to them or of their own making. These problems would be better solved by increased teacher responsibility and transparency by all employees of the district. There needs to be an end to the unseen legal choices some teachers, and others, are making that are not in the best interests of students.

This is not to discredit counselors, or to implicate all the teachers and other employees in PAUSD, or to minimize the realities of clinical mental health disorders, but parents and students need to take a very close look at whether a seeming "mental health" issue is chronically present or situational and dependent on a context that they can, perhaps, do something to change.

10 people like this
Posted by Shaking Head
a resident of Community Center
on Feb 24, 2016 at 11:51 am

@cvvhrn: You must not have experienced middle or high school yet or you'd realize that that bubble gets burst somewhere in those years. There is way too much competition and workload to shoot for Ivy League or elite universities when the entire community consists of parents who have college degrees and some 75 percent have advanced college degrees. It's the gene pool, and too many teachers know our students are smart so they expect more from them. These kids are competing with kids who get perfect or near perfect scores on SATs, SAT subject tests, ACTs, AP tests. There is no room for the normal, above average intelligence kid to get to the elite colleges being in our school district. Yes, perhaps the parents who wear blinders and still push their kids in that direction should be enlightened. Move to the Midwest or another state or school district and it can be accomplished.

Like this comment
Posted by neighbor
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Feb 24, 2016 at 1:14 pm

Local nonprofit organizations offer sliding fee scale services as a more accessible option for families seeking counseling services. Two examples are Family & Children Services of Silicon Valley, located on Cambridge Avenue in Palo Alto (, where I work, and the Gronowski Center, affiliated with Palo Alto University and located in Los Altos (

15 people like this
Posted by Top heavy CYA
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 26, 2016 at 9:35 am

@Shaking head,
There is also no room for really creative, gifted kids who may be asynchronous learners and need extra support. The district rewards developmentally academically advanced, compliant students.

I generally think more of the teachers than the administrators, though. It's pretty obvious why creativity is a buzz word with no meaning here.

1 person likes this
Posted by Legal Due
a resident of Jordan Middle School
on Feb 26, 2016 at 1:36 pm

@Collusion Illinois - Your legal comments are very similar to what we see in the District. Today 2/26/2016 is the due date for law firms to submit Proposals to provide legal services to Special Education and Student Services. The Request for Proposal was not posted on line, so is not accessible. Firms were only given 1-2 weeks to submit proposals. If you didn't see the ad in the hard copy of Palo Alto Weekly, you wouldn't even know the District is doing this. It is surprising the District handled this so surreptitiously after the controversy in May and June about attorneys providing special education legal services and problems with high costs and poor community relations.

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