Palo Alto school board backs focus on new social-emotional curriculum

Some members concerned about losing focus on counseling models

The Palo Alto school board endorsed Tuesday night a staff proposal to convene a district committee to evaluate current social-emotional learning curriculum being used in the district and recommend a unified approach from pre-kindergarten through 12th grade.

Two board members did, however, express some reservations about putting aside a previous intent to create a committee that would address actual service models for counseling, particularly at the district's two high schools.

Board Vice President Terry Godfrey said she was "surprised" to see the social-emotional learning focus herself after setting an agenda item to discuss what had been called the "Distributed Counseling Committee," a reference to a model in which teachers and counselors work purposefully as a team to address students' social-emotional and academic needs together.

While she was "thrilled" to see the social-emotional curriculum proposal, something she said has been a long time coming, she said she doesn't "want to lose sight of the counseling work that we want to get finished."

Staff brought forward the "Social Emotional Learning Curriculum Committee" Tuesday after two previous iterations more focused on recommending a direct service model for both high schools. The new committee — made up of students, teachers, staff, administrators and other stakeholders selected through an application process — will "research and evaluate existing curriculum and look at efficacy with regard to outcomes," Chief Student Services Officer Holly Wade told the board.

"Social-emotional learning doesn't take place in one place in short lessons," she said. "It's embedded into a culture."

Wade described the district's current approach to social-emotional learning as uncoordinated, with different schools choosing different curricula and programs that don't have aligned learning targets or frameworks.

Board President Heidi Emberling said she was unclear about the committee's charge. Would it look at everything in the district that touches social-emotional learning, from actual curriculum — like the required Living Skills classes at the high schools and Second Step at the elementary schools — to programs like Gunn High School's freshman-transition program, Titan 101, and Palo Alto High School's freshman cohort program, TEAM, she asked.

Board member Camille Townsend, too, said she didn't understand the purpose of the group. She stressed that any approach to mental health must also take into account physical health, for the two are intertwined, she said.

Board member Melissa Baten Caswell asked: "Are we trying to swallow the ocean here?"

"I'm just worried if we try to swallow the ocean with the committee we'll end up with nothing," she said.

Wade said the committee will be tasked with evaluating current curriculum and vetting other evidence-based approaches not in use in Palo Alto, including from the national Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), then recommending a unified path forward for the entire district.

Emberling shared Godfrey's concern about losing sight of an original commitment to counseling work. She suggested forming a larger committee that could break into two subgroups — one focused on social-emotional learning and the other on counseling models — like the recent Enrollment Management Advisory Committee (EMAC) did (with one subcommittee focused on the elementary schools and the other on secondary schools).

Superintendent Max McGee said that coordinating a curriculum should come first, and then the rollout of a new delivery model. The goal is to identify a curriculum between now and Nov. 1, he said, and put a new model in place in the 2017-18 school year.

"It's really important we take a step backward and not put the cart before the horse and have an integrated system, the foundation of which really needs to be the curriculum," McGee said.

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25 people like this
Posted by Marc Vincenti
a resident of Gunn High School
on Mar 9, 2016 at 1:05 pm

Wednesday, March 9

Hi, Fellow Onliners,

The need for "social-emotional" curriculum in our high schools pales beside the simple need to run our schools in a socially, emotionally healthy way.

There's no point in "talking the talk" if we don't "walk the walk." No wonder our teenagers look askance at us!

Schools full of alienation due to large class-sizes;

...of distrust due to massive cheating;

...of exhaustion because there's no way for kids to give teachers nightly feedback on homework minutes;

...of sleep-deprivation because students and families are not well-counseled about APs;

...of anxiety due to relentless grade-reporting;

...and of distraction because kids are on their phones during class...

--such schools will never be healthy, welcoming places no matter how much "social-emotional" curriculum we shovel at our students and bury them under.

Let's dig our kids out from under the burdens they already have!

Save the 2,008, the community coalition to rescue our high schools, has six simple proposals to do so.

To learn more, or to join our 248-strong membership, visit:


Marc Vincenti

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

7 people like this
Posted by Please no
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Mar 9, 2016 at 1:34 pm

Please read this: Every parent should know.
Web Link

Like this comment
Posted by Jeanine Joy
a resident of another community
on Mar 11, 2016 at 9:46 am

I am happy to see this and hope they do it right. The "Are we trying to swallow the ocean here?" comment does not understand that when you address problems from the root cause they are far easier to solve than they are after the dis-ease from the root spreads to the branches and creates the physical, psychological, emotional, and social problems that comprise most of the world's suffering.

I would like contact information for someone at the district. I've been researching human thriving for over twenty years from the root cause perspective and my newest book, which addresses this very subject (Our Children Live in a War Zone, A Plan to Bring Peace to our Homes, Streets, and World: For Individuals, Families, Teachers, Communities, and Activists) details the evidence-based science that strongly supports the direction they're heading and lays out specific plans for implementation thereof.

11 people like this
Posted by True Concern
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 11, 2016 at 10:45 am

More caring by committee rather than from the heart, Marc Vincenti is right, it starts by actually caring and walking the walk. Employees should be hired and reviewed in part for how well they walk the walk and foster student emotional health. If that isn't part of life, piling on a curriculum is meaningless. (First, of course, there would have to be some kind of truth squad to root out untrustworthy behavior in the district office because, holy cow... How can people like that legitimately oversee emotional wellness?)

@Marc, can you please bring readers up to date on where things are for students now? The district and city have done a lot in the past , including after the first cluster. In addition to the suicides, there has been major levels of depression reported - has that changed? Have the suicide watch list numbers changed? I heard a siren headed toward Gunn again yesterday - it could have been anything, not even Gunn, but given the level of secrecy about anything related to this issue, it's very stressful every time it happens. Is there any good news in the numbers? Anything not budging despite the hard work and awareness? We hear a lot about addressing the problem nothing about whether anything is working/not working since last year. Can you help find and report?

2 people like this
Posted by Ken Horowitz
a resident of University South
on Mar 12, 2016 at 12:38 pm

Finally, after years of not recognizing there was indeed a problem in the PAUSD,the Board has acted to adopt a social-emotional curriculum thru K-12 grade. Let's hope it gets done soon!
Kudos to all(:

2 people like this
Posted by Marc Vincenti
a resident of Gunn High School
on Mar 14, 2016 at 10:13 am

March 14

Dear "True Concern" (and others),

Let me see if I can help! I'm glad to.

For an overview of how our Gunn and Paly kids are feeling, good sources are the two studies done last year by Challenge Success. They're full of rich data on feelings about homework, on sleep, on the school environment.

To find the Gunn study online, google: "Gunn HS survey report v1 - Palo Alto Online." For the Paly survey, write to me at, and I'll email it to you as an attachment.

My feeling is that things are still very tough for our kids. The elimination of zero period affected only 10% of our high-schoolers, and the change in the bell schedule affected only half. We have a homework policy but no good tool to make it work (the kids need a voice).

In a recent Weekly, there was this about what one Board member said at a meeting: “Dauber pointed to disturbing statistics about the number of high l students—about 600—who reported in a recent district survey that they had considered suicide in the last year and the number of students, about 1,200, who had felt sad or hopeless.” These figures ought to tell us something.

Class sizes last semester were terrible: Palo Alto had 407 high-school classes with 30 or more students. (These numbers are from District sources.) As for AP classes, though the District recommends that kids take no more than two, the caution is so weak that this year there are 680 kids taking three, four, five, or more.

You'll find the rates of cheating in the Challenge Success study, and they're disturbingly high. Cheating is rampant at both our high schools and causes great anxiety, lowered self-esteem, and stress in friendships.

Please accept my personal invitation to join Save the 2,008!--at We need strength in numbers! And feel free to write to me with further questions--at savethe2008@gmail.


Marc Vincenti

9 people like this
Posted by Just big enough to fail
a resident of Terman Middle School
on Mar 14, 2016 at 5:31 pm

These efforts will have almost zero positive effect on our kids. The culture is sick, boxes of character education materials, delivered by PAEA teachers who will show up in force to demand more money, will not change the culture. Have fun storing those boxes in your classrooms.

5 people like this
Posted by Ferdinand
a resident of Barron Park
on Mar 16, 2016 at 5:42 pm

Although anyone can benefit from a social-emotional program, I'm not sure adding another program--with its delay--would be as effective as the original task of implementing the best counseling model at both schools.

It is always enticing to intellectually explore a new method, but including time in the schedule for a relationship-focused "class" [yes, Advisory] that brings continuity for 3 or 4 years is simply a great gift to both students and advisors. My understanding is that teachers choose to be advisors, so those who don't want to can carry on as usual. It is unclear why Gunn didn't include the advisory with their new block schedule when the survey identified that a majority of students were open to the idea. Something as simple as more time with the same person over the high school years can be powerful. I've talked with Paly graduates who disliked their advisor freshman year but really grew to appreciate that person over time. What an excellent lesson in our culture of elitism and disposability.

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