As the new school year begins in Palo Alto, students at both Palo Alto and Gunn high schools will see changes on their campuses related to mental health and wellness, from new, physical homes for these efforts to a revamp of Gunn's freshman transition program.
Gunn's Titan 101 becomes four-year initiative
Gunn's 5-year-old freshman transition program, Titan 101, has a new name and purpose this year: the Titan Connect Initiative. Instead of participating in an orientation program started to help ninth-graders adjust to high school life, incoming freshmen will be part of a pilot, redesigned program that strives to keep all students connected and supported throughout high school.
Gunn staff have been working this summer on the new program, which will start this fall with just the freshman class and expand in subsequent years to include sophomores, juniors and seniors. Small cohorts of students will meet with a specific teacher, or Titan Connect "coach," as well as with two upperclassmen-mentors, or Titan Connect "ambassadors." Students will stay in their cohorts throughout all four years.
Titan 101 focused on ice-breaking activities and familiarizing students with campus resources, but Titan Connect will tackle topics like grit (an educational buzzword that signifies resolve and perseverance), gratitude and resiliency, said Courtney Carlomagno, a Gunn Teacher on Special Assignment (TOSA) focused on wellness. Teacher-coaches will be encouraged to meet with their cohorts not only during designated times during the school day but also in less formal ways, like attending a football game as a group.
"It's going to be fun, and it's going to be another home for (students)," she said.
Titan Connect will capitalize on "what we're learning about student wellness and what students need to really build their resiliency and the important role that the adult mentors will play," echoed Principal Denise Herrmann.
Gunn will spend the 2016-17 school year working with students and staff, as well as representatives from the Institute of Design at Stanford University, to further develop Titan Connect over the next few years, Herrmann said.
The new program will align Gunn's counseling model more closely with Palo Alto High School's longtime teacher-advisory program, which augments the school's regular counseling staff with a group of teacher-advisors. Paly students meet regularly with their teacher-advisors for academic planning and anything else with which they might need support. Freshmen meet more frequently with their advisors than students in other grades -- weekly rather than monthly.
Similarly, 24 Titan Connect coaches will support Gunn students along with eight traditional guidance counselors and one college-and-career counselor. The school also will add a new "outreach" counselor this fall, who in addition to students' regular counselors, will specifically help support at-risk and struggling students.
Expanding Titan 101 was recommended three years ago by the school's Guidance Advisory Committee. The committee suggested that groups of students be assigned to one staff member, who would meet with them frequently in a non-academic setting during all four years of high school.
The committee's final report said this would address many goals that persist today at Gunn: finding more opportunities to make connections between adults and students, as well as between students in non-academic settings; and making more time for counselors to have more frequent one-on-one meetings with students. This model also "gives every student the opportunity to form a connection with a staff member, particularly those students who fall in the category of the 'silent middle,'" the Guidance Advisory Committee report states.
Gunn, Paly open wellness centers
This fall, both Gunn and Paly are consolidating most of their wellness staff and efforts into new "wellness centers" with the goal of streamlining communication and easing access for students. At Gunn, the center will be temporarily located where the attendance office has been located (and attendance is moving to the main office). A new two-story building with a wellness center permanently on the second floor is planned.
Gunn's temporary space will house Adolescent Counseling Services (ACS), the school's mental health coordinator (hired last year to help coordinate and oversee direct services) and a new wellness outreach worker, hired this summer. The same position has been created and filled at Paly. The school is converting its health office into a wellness center, where the school's mental health coordinator, new wellness outreach worker and other staff will triage students who come in for any need -- social-emotional, academic, physical or otherwise, Principal Kim Diorio said in an interview. The school's ACS counselors have also moved from the library into the same building, but on the second floor.
Diorio described the new wellness outreach workers as a friendly "first point of contact" for students in the wellness centers.
Herrmann said that Gunn's wellness outreach worker, Myrna Zendejas, who worked at Gunn last year as a social-work intern, will be the school's new wellness outreach worker. Her responsibilities will be to triage students who come in for any kind of services or support, work with student leadership on wellness initiatives, oversee parent education and outreach, and find creative ways to support student wellness, such as bringing in a nutrition counselor for a workshop, Herrmann said. She can provide direct services to students but only on a short-term basis, staff said.
During last school year, staff and students from both high schools visited Bay Area school districts with wellness centers and outreach workers and spoke highly at school board meetings of their apparent impact on student wellness and school culture.
Guidance counselors and wellness staff at both Paly and Gunn also will start a new daily logging system this fall to track and monitor what students come in for, what services they receive and the outcome (did they get referred to an external mental-health provider, for example), Diorio said. It will help the schools quantify anecdotal data, something that's "lacking" right now, she said.
Gunn also has put in place a new staff structure to help ensure struggling students don't fall through the cracks. Every guidance counselor will be connected with three particular Titan Connect coaches, and every assistant principal will be connected with two guidance counselors. A wellness team already meets on a weekly basis to collaborate and confer about students, but this new structure will, ideally, create a stronger support team for students and families at every level, Herrmann said.