Palo Alto school district shifts, again, on counseling work

Staff proposes development of preK-12 social-emotional learning curriculum

Palo Alto school district staff have pivoted on an idea for a committee that would have identified a new, unified counseling model for both high schools to a new group that will recommend a social-emotional curriculum for pre-kindergarten through 12th grade.

What started as the "Student Support Systems" in February has since shifted to the "Distributed Counseling Committee" and, now, to the "Social Emotional Learning Curriculum Committee." The school board will discuss the latest iteration at its meeting Tuesday night.

The first committee proposal, which grew out of conversations around the efficacy of counseling models at Palo Alto and Gunn high schools, charged the group with investigating, analyzing and recommending "a comprehensive, effective, and innovative system of high school student support" by December 2016, according to a staff report.

One of the group's recommendations could have been to roll out a single student-support model at Paly and Gunn, which currently operate different systems. (Paly has long had in place a teacher-advisory model, which connects students with a teacher-advisor throughout their four years, whereas Gunn's traditional model has a group of staff members providing guidance counseling, college and career advice and social-emotional support.)

Members of both the district and high-school leadership teams collaborated to write the charge for this new committee.

The board discussed staff's proposal at its Feb. 9 meeting, with most asking for a more refined focus. Not all supported the idea of recommending a unified counseling model for both high schools.

Staff digested the board's feedback and came back with a proposal for the "Distributed Counseling Committee," a reference to a model through which teachers and counselors work together as a team to support students' academic and social-emotional health.

"A distributed counseling model is based in the belief that it is the responsibility of all of the adults in a school to provide a caring, safe, and supportive environment for students," Associate Superintendent for Educational Services Markus Autrey wrote in a Feb. 26 update to the board. "The principle envisions a counselor working with a cohort of students and supporting their teachers to share responsibilities for both the academic and social-emotional development of the students."

Among other criteria, the new group's recommendation would have included "an aligned distributed counseling model to be implemented on both high school campuses," Autrey wrote.

But now, staff is proposing that the district form a committee dedicated to choosing a new preK-12 social-emotional curriculum rather than counseling models for the high schools.

While "staff strongly endorses the concepts and plan presented, as it would ideally lead to identical, or at least closely similar, models at each school," doing this without "first clarifying the social-emotional competencies needed to fully implement" a new model "may be putting the proverbial cart before the horse," Superintendent Max McGee wrote in his executive summary for Tuesday's board meeting.

"Social-emotional learning (SEL) provides the foundation for maintaining a healthy balance between the many physical and psychological pursuits a person will encounter over the course of their life," he continued. "Therefore, a unified approach to addressing the social-emotional learning needs of students to ensure the development of a common language, learning targets, and grade level competencies is proposed."

There is no "coherent curriculum" for social-emotional learning K-12 in Palo Alto, McGee wrote, and the district should develop a model "to assure the curriculum is taught using a unified approach."

McGee told the Weekly Monday that with several overlapping, mental health related efforts currently being considered — the counseling committee, a proposal to hire a district-level mental health and wellness coordinator, new funding requests to support counseling services, a staff proposal to consider a consolidated wellness center model — it was time to "step back and take a systems approach."

"Let's start with the foundation, which is social-emotional health and well-being curriculum and what we want our students to know and be able to do to experience, to learn and then from that, create a counseling model to deliver that," he said.

The goal is to identify a curriculum between now and Nov. 1 and then, next, look to put a counseling model in place by the 2017-18 school year, McGee said.

Some social-emotional skills are best taught through classes like Living Skills (a required class at Paly and Gunn that covers topics like drugs and alcohol, sex education and some mental health), McGee said, some through the teacher-advisory system and others, through guidance counselors.

In other business Tuesday, the board will discuss a $1 million proposal to repaint Gunn High School this summer; vote on a $1.33 million anonymous donation to fund significant facilities improvements at Addison Elementary School; discuss a new gifts, grants and bequests policy that would require the superintendent seek board direction on donations anticipated to be in excess of $1 million; and vote to approve the district's second interim financial report, among other items.

McGee will also provide an update on the application process for a new committee charged with reviewing all school names in the district and the district's work with the city to develop a master plan for Cubberley Community Center.

The board meeting begins at 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday, March 8, at the district office, 25 Churchill Ave. View the full agenda here.

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16 people like this
Posted by Very Frustrated Gunn Parent
a resident of Gunn High School
on Mar 8, 2016 at 12:54 pm

Wow. After waiting for more than 4 years for some concrete change in the Gunn counseling model, the district offers this even more wishy washy answer? TA isn't perfect, but it would give the students an adult to check in with and answer basic questions on a regular basis. Don't get me wrong, I am VERY, VERY grateful for the new block schedule (huge improvement) and the addition of a few more guidance counselors. However, many students and parents continue to raise the issue that the counselors are still too busy to meet with students when needed.

The students and parents of high school aged children have expressed serious dissatisfaction with this issue for so many years. While there may well be a necessity for a k-12 SEL, I expect that this will take years to develop and implement. The district should not wait any longer to further address the support of high school students.

One final thought. Where is the accountability for the changes (policy and other) that have been made? How is the homework policy actually being practiced? What is the feedback on the block schedule at Gunn? What effects have been experienced by the very important addition of new guidance counselors and other SEL practices at Gunn?

13 people like this
Posted by outsider
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Mar 8, 2016 at 2:25 pm

wow. well with full week turnaround for response from palynet with funding for that program,. If they paid the person they hired more, would he answer emails in under a week? I can see that kids will really appreciate committees and such and their careful thinking and schedules with input from many different experts. OR. just do the right thing , treat kids well and follow state curriculum standards and best practices set out by the CA dept of education. Totally free, but the smartypants time wasters will get no attention so this is probably not an option at PALY. What an embarrassment to this district. How many projects and committees will they set up to avoid following standards and common sense practices with kids.

10 people like this
Posted by Legal
a resident of Jordan Middle School
on Mar 8, 2016 at 2:35 pm

Buried in Superintendent's Executive Summary for Board Meeting tonight: Web Link
statement that he will give an update on RESPONSES to Request for Proposal for Special Education Legal. Apparantly, it was already done and sent out, without Board of Ed or public input or notification.

"In addition, I will update the community on the Cubberley planning process and responses to our Request for Proposals (RFPs) for both Special Education legal services and financial advisory services."

17 people like this
Posted by Wow is right
a resident of Crescent Park
on Mar 8, 2016 at 3:16 pm

Chew gum and walk much? My frustration runneth over... I would not normally begin a post with a snide comment, but seriously folks, professionals should be able to do both - at the same time. And if they can't? There are professionals who can. Let's go find them.

The stakes are too high to continue to kick this can down the road any further or expect us to believe that this continual pattern of renaming committees and drifting goals is actual progress. It's not.

Examining and choosing a PreK-12 SEL curriculum and deciding upon a common counseling structure at the 2 high schools are not the same thing. And one does not preclude the other. Not a horse and cart issue. Do both. Start now.

Safe to say that even among the District's historic defenders, patience is very very thin.

13 people like this
Posted by good grief, not again
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Mar 8, 2016 at 7:03 pm

Again? How many times do they need to do this?

Paly counseling has been suffering now for decades. Survey after survey shows how bad is and they still haven't done ANYTHING about it. The situation is appalling the situation is at Paly. The kids have been telling us time after time how advisory isn't working. It's a waste of time.

How much longer do we need to wait for something to be done about? Instead we get yet ANOTHER committee "to look into it".

6 people like this
Posted by Please no
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Mar 8, 2016 at 10:38 pm

Could the school district be changing horses midstream, because of this new question added into high stakes testing on emotional health? Heard about this on NPR this morning. If so, it appears Max is addressing our stressed out students with more curriculum, one with the potential to do damage for those who may struggle with mental health issues.

Please tell me we are not once again teaching to the test.

Web Link

12 people like this
Posted by Business as Usual
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 9, 2016 at 9:10 pm

Just another case of too little, too late.

3 people like this
Posted by Marc
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 10, 2016 at 8:42 am

Time for Max to go?

Is it time to start looking for a replacement? We've been here since 1990 and each time it has been the same thing.

The previous superintendent leaves under a cloud of problems. There is a search. A "wonderful" candidate is found. They are hired and everyone says how wonderful they are. How great they were in their previous district. Then a year goes by and problems start appearing. Information is found that they weren't so great at their previous district.

Then after a couple of years there is a parting of the ways. After, of course we have paid big bucks and suffered.

And we repeat the cycle again. And again. And Again.

6 people like this
Posted by It's a good cycle
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 10, 2016 at 3:20 pm

Gleen McGee should go. It's that simple. He is not good enough. PAUSD should not settle for mediocre performance, and that, in my humble informed opinion, is exactly what he has delivered for almost three years. He is essentially the rookie Kevin Skelly, but with over a good decade of experience, but still the same lack of transparency and ability to lead beyond the symbolic or superficial. That said, you have Ken Dauber, who has set himself apart by asking basic questions about relationships with families, legal bills, and health, and then you have Heidi Emberling who represents the utter lack of leadership on the school board. I have read these forums for over a decade, and I read them regularly now, and I have dared posters to list any accomplishment of Heidi Emberling, and it has always come up empty. What I don't understand is why this question sometimes gets deleted. It is a fair question. The board, led by Heidi, is way too scared to accept the responsibility of getting another superintendent. They had Skelly for seven years, the last four of them utterly rudderless. In fact, it was Dauber in January, 2011 calling for a change of leadership. He should do that again, actually, they should all do that again, but they appear, by their behavior, to value multi-million dollar donations, paint, and cheerleading more than achievement in social-emotional health. There is a reason why savethe2008 has not gone away: the school district is still sick.

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