Gunn, Paly expand student mental-health efforts | News | Palo Alto Online |


Gunn, Paly expand student mental-health efforts

Both Palo Alto high schools focus on new wellness centers

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.


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16 people like this
Posted by kimmy
a resident of another community
on Aug 12, 2016 at 10:14 am

I hope these changes help, but I think some of the pressure starts at home. I tutor many of these students, and the pressure from parents to achieve can be frightening. I went to Gunn High myself, in the late 60s. We had Ride your Horse to School Day, the Latin Club raised money for flood victims, we played in the orchestra, we had a group of friends who spent most of the weekend on outings. When it came time to apply for colleges, we took the SAT once, picked our top 4, added a safety school, and that was it. It was a wonderful time, and I am SO sad that Palo Alto has become such a stressful place for our kids. Remember parents, the top 10 colleges in the US are basically lotteries at this point - there are 100 top - ranked schools which offer wonderful programs for your students. Teachers, administrators, parents, please get the pressure OFF these kids!!!

9 people like this
Posted by Marc Vincenti
a resident of Gunn High School
on Aug 12, 2016 at 2:30 pm

Friday afternoon

Hi, folks,

At a time when Palo Alto mothers and fathers, aunts and uncles and grandparents, continue to tell me of the waves of stress and pressure threatening to inundate our high-schoolers, it makes me sad that, rather than beating back the school conditions that add to this stress, we would focus any of our time on beating into our kids more "grit" or "gratitude" or "resiliency."

Why instill "grit" into our kids when it would be more merciful to stop dunning their grades into them every three weeks (rather than the nine-week reporting policy that we had until 2013), as required by District policy?

Why make our kids sit in their desks for lessons on "resiliency" when school-home communication around homework and AP enrollment is so poor that the average Palo Alto teen, according to PAMF's pediatricians, is losing 70 full nights of sleep per academic year?

Why suggest to kids they should feel grateful for a daily and nightly environment rife with cheating--where a majority of students copy homework, provide exam answers, plagiarize, and nothing is done to alter this demoralizing culture?

Why send kids to "wellness centers" from classrooms where kids have their smartphones out on their desks all period, or hidden behind their texts, or are on them immediately before or after the bell--accessing all day the high-pressure, emotional whirl of social media?

I applaud all those who so badly want our kids to feel better, but I believe that we have the solutions exactly backwards.

For those who'd prefer "forwards" solutions, I hope you'll look into the proposals of Save the 2,008--the community initiative now supported by 500 parents, physicians, Stanford professors, business-people, rabbis and pastors, yoga and martial arts instructors, authors and realtors and mental-health experts.

Marc Vincenti
Gunn English Dept. (1995-2010)
Campaign Director, Save the 2,008

16 people like this
Posted by Palo Alto Parent2
a resident of Palo Verde
on Aug 13, 2016 at 9:35 am

Palo Alto Parent2 is a registered user.

I think this is a great initiative and I hope it works and the kids are supportive of it. But I agree with the tutor poster above who said so much of the stress and craziness begins at home. I helped with textbook distribution at Gunn yesterday and the number of kids - especially the juniors - who were handed books for AP US History, AP Statistics, Analysis Honors (2 books) and then either AP Bio, AP Chem or AP Physics (also 2 books) was CRAZY (more than 1 kid took books for 2 AP science classes or 2 AP math classes). Then people complain about how hard the Junior year is! The kids/families are MAKING it this hard.

I have 1 child who graduated from Gunn and he took 1 AP his junior year and is a very successful college student at a very good school now and I have a current junior at Gunn who is taking no AP classes this year and I know she'll get into a good college for herself also.

I'm not anti AP, but kids should not be allowed to take 3 or 4 academic AP classes in a year on top of other classes. College students don't do that. We need to let high school students go back to being kids who have time for sports, friends, and SLEEP.

4 people like this
Posted by Ferdinand
a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 13, 2016 at 10:04 am

Kimmy's point is well taken--parents play a large part in creating a school culture that values balance and achievement. Let's not be too critical of attempts to create a healthier school structure that is sustainable--one not totally dependent upon specific people or subject to the changes in the student population. Although it is frustrating to see obvious improvements take time, there is some value in building a consensus together.

Aligning students into a smaller group with the same coach for 4 years is a very good thing, and possibly a very effective vehicle for allowing students to feel connected, express their feelings, and influence peers. Hopefully, the sessions won't be lectures on generic "grit" and "resiliency" as solutions and more about specific things which detract from the culture: feeling comfortable asking questions in class, being more comfortable developing one's talents rather than being perfect in every subject, etc.

Dare I say it, but isn't this sort of the advisory that we've wanted at Gunn?

Like this comment
Posted by Person
a resident of Ventura
on Aug 13, 2016 at 8:53 pm


7 people like this
Posted by Swept
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 13, 2016 at 11:22 pm

I do hope this helps, though for some special ed kids who fall through the cracks, the best thing high school staff could do is really be on families'sides and not let people in the district office sweep kids into those cracks with their political brooms. I look at this from the side of community member and think, Great! Then from the perspective of a parent who has been wrung out by the system (still pulling knives out if my back) and a child who felt like (middle school) teachers/staff held kids with accommodations at arms' length or even bullied them, who couldn't even talk about the way this hurt because staff actively wanted to avoid documenting any problems, and it feels much less sincere. The metaphor for me is the person who thinks money can buy love, who lavishes tons of stuff on a kids who mostly just needs to be treated with respect and given a hug once in awhile.

I do hope it makes a difference for those who need it. My concern is if the kids who most need it still won't get the basics met. How will kids who already have trust issues at school and thus feel less connected going to access the help as well as others? It can actually feel worse to hear all this supposedly great stuff when the experience is very different in real life. It would be one thing if the district had actually done something to meet it's goal of helping each child (regardless of learning style) reach their creative potential. There just still seems like such a gap between words and action.

4 people like this
Posted by outsider
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Aug 15, 2016 at 10:43 am


They make new students take really hard placement tests from out of print books because....quote from the math IS... What for it.... Here at PALY, our a-g classes are harder than all others and if you want to be at our level here at paly,you will need to test out at our designated level-we expect our students to work harder....

Why in the heck is this still the mentality at this school. WHY do they think it is ok to make their kids work harder for the same exact score on a transcript than every other kid. It does not help them or give them resiliency or grit, it just raises their blood pressure, stress level and takes the sleep they need for a healthy life. Getting a B in their overdone classes does put them at a severe disadvantage. Do not believe that an A at Paly is like a B at Lynbrook. Colleges will not be impressed if you followed the new slogan PDF if you get all B's. playtime, downtime, freetime.... I think PDF should stand for something else.

1 person likes this
Posted by jet pilot
a resident of Stanford
on Aug 15, 2016 at 8:52 pm

jet pilot is a registered user.

Kimmy's comments are spot on. You don't need to attend an Ivy League or Stanford to succeed in life. Privately Stanford's former President Hennessy has even proposed a lottery for applicants who meet a certain GPA and SAT (or ACT) standard. That would take away a lot of the pressure children and their parents feel to take excessive numbers of AP classes, and do insane amounts of extracurricular activities in order to be accepted at an elite university. I also feel strongly that PAUSD needs to take the lead on limiting to 2/year the number of AP classes students can take. Since parents are often the source of the pressure allowing them to be able to grant permission for their children to take more than 2 AP classes doesn't seem wise.

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