Palo Alto school wellness centers provide support, coordination | News | Palo Alto Online |


Palo Alto school wellness centers provide support, coordination

Student: 'We're all working for the same goal. So is this space.'

Less than three months into the school year, new wellness centers at Palo Alto and Gunn high schools have been visited about 2,500 times by students stopping by for everything from mental health counseling to snacks.

Staff from the wellness centers, along with Brenda Carrillo, the Palo Alto school district's director of wellness and student services, gave a presentation on the new spaces at Wednesday's meeting of youth well-being collaborative Project Safety Net.

The centers, which opened at the start of this school year, are helping the district to achieve several ambitious goals, school representatives and students said Wednesday: increasing students' access to mental health services, decreasing stigma around seeking help and coordinating care.

This summer, staff at each school transformed spaces on campus into the wellness centers, repainting walls and adding comfortable couches, coloring books, friendly looking signage and tea and food for students. At Paly, the wellness center is housed in the Tower Building, across from the main office. Gunn converted its health office, also across from the main office, into the new space.

The wellness centers bring many, though not yet all, of the high schools' health-related staff under one roof: school psychiatrists, nurses and new wellness outreach workers hired this year, who serve as the first point of contact at the centers and help triage students for any need — social-emotional, academic, physical or otherwise. The wellness center teams work closely with the schools' guidance counselors as well as partnering community organizations that provide more targeted mental health services, such as Adolescent Counseling Services (ACS), the Stanford University Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Asian Americans for Community Involvement (AACI).

Before the centers provided a physical space to coordinate these efforts, the "onus was on the student" to navigate the myriad resources at the schools, Carrillo said Wednesday. The schools' systems were less efficient, with students sometimes being referred to duplicate services, wellness staff said.

"The idea of the wellness center is it's one door," Carrillo said.

And many students are walking through that door. There have been approximately 2,526 drop-in visits at Paly and Gunn's wellness centers, according to Carrillo. The majority (890) came in for a snack; others visited the nurse (396) or simply needed a break (302).

The two centers have provided 4,211 direct services -- such as a counseling session or meeting with the school nurse -- provided to 1,233 unique students, Carrillo said.

The majority of students who have sought individual counseling sessions at the wellness centers did so because of psychological issues (62 percent), which include depression, panic attacks, post-traumatic stress, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and other anxiety or mood disorders,

Twenty-nine percent came in for a social or emotional issue relating to social dynamics, relationships (peer, family or romantic) and/or new or severed attachments such as blended family challenges or grief and loss, according to Frecceri.

Five percent sought counseling support related to an issue at home or with their family, according to Carrillo.

Wellness referrals are closely split by gender at both schools, though slightly more female students have been referred than male (53 percent compared to 46 percent, respectively). Anyone on campus, including teachers, staff and students, can refer students to the wellness center through the school counselors, psychologist or by going directly to the center. The wellness centers aim to streamline the referral process, Carrillo said.

Paly's wellness center is seeing the highest rates of juniors and freshmen, said Jonathan Frecceri, the school's mental health coordinator. He attributed that to the fact that juniors "tend to get referred quite a bit." He wrote in an email after the meeting that this is "in part because 11th grade is known for being one of the most active academic years in high school as students start preparing for the college application process."

Freshmen from both schools toured the wellness centers during orientation at the start of the year.

"As incoming classes come in, it's just going to become a staple," Frecceri said.

At Gunn, seniors came in most rapidly, but the center is seeing a rise in the number of freshmen coming in, said Mental Health Coordinator Joanne Michels. Freshmen are bringing each other in groups, she said.

High school students said Wednesday that the wellness centers are having a visible impact on students and school climate, from simply offering busy students a relaxing space to grab a much-needed snack to providing a higher level of coordination between groups working wellness-related efforts.

"Being able to walk in there, having a smiling face by the door, some nice ambiance and a comfy seat and a coloring book is very calming," said Chloe Sorensen, Gunn student body president and co-founder of the school's student wellness committee.

At Paly, the wellness outreach workers have helped student groups put on events, including an activity the Queer Straight Alliance (QSA) organized for National Coming Out Day earlier this month. (The students baked gingerbread and sugar-cookies in the shape of people and had students decorate them in however they wanted to express their gender identity.)

Two QSA officers, Paly senior Max Usman and junior Maddy Lee, credited the wellness center with giving their group more visibility this year. In Usman's four years of being a part of Paly's QSA, the "genderbread" activity was the club's first on-campus event that other members of the student body showed up and actively participated in, he said.

"Having the wellness center has been such an amazing impact on how we run our club, how we see ourselves on campus and how the rest of the campus sees us," he added.

For Cezanne Lane, Paly student government's social justice and school climate commissioner, the wellness centers provide a physical gathering space for the school's brand-new student wellness committee. It's also helping to bring together previously siloed wellness efforts on campus, she said.

"What I've seen is there's not a lack of initiatives but there is, to me, a lack of collaboration," Lane said. "To me (the wellness center) solidifies (that) we're all in this together. We're all working for the same goal. So is this space."

Guidance counselors and wellness staff at both Paly and Gunn also started a new daily logging system this fall to track and monitor what services students come in for, which ones they receive and the outcome of the visit, Paly Principal Kim Diorio said in a previous interview. That will help the schools quantify anecdotal data, something that's been lacking, she said in August.

Frecceri and Michels described the new spaces as "wellness center 1.0." In several years, Gunn will have a new two-story building to house a larger wellness space, and Paly is hoping to take advantage of forthcoming renovations to the library to expand its center.

Until and beyond then, the centers' success depends not only on what goes on within their walls, but a broader school-wide embrace of their efforts, Michels said.

"It's not just the wellness team, people who have a counseling background or mental health background, but really enlisting the support of teachers (and) administration — that they are instruments and tools for wellness as well.

"It's not just the physical space; it's also a paradigm shift," she said.


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15 people like this
Posted by Window Dressing
a resident of Midtown
on Oct 27, 2016 at 11:07 am

Window Dressing is a registered user.

Creating a comfortable space for students to decompress is great. Clearly students are using it (for normal nurse visits, snacks, and a break). With that said, this is primarily window dressing that mostly makes administrators feel good, and doesn't address the source of the issues that drive students here. It's a back-end bandaid for big, systemic issues at Paly. If Paly would like fewer students who need a Wellness Center, fix things on the front end! Several examples:

Paly literally barricaded the counseling office before school started this Sept. when students desperately needed help ironing out schedules the week before school. See article in the school newspaper written by students describing the debacle and the need for "more guidance and less avoidance": Web Link. AP Test registration last spring was a stressful disaster mismanaged by the Paly administration. Here's another article written by students about it: Web Link. The CCC is an amazing resource but needs improvements which have yet to be made. See student article about it: Web Link. Just last week, both Paly and Gunn made the mindboggling decision to schedule their Spirit Weeks (big deals at both schools) the same week as the PSAT! Students are already juggling high pressure regular classes and school work with float building, rallies, costumes, homecoming, etc. Why would any administrator who has students' best interests in mind schedule all of this the same week as the PSAT for Juniors? Insanity. Instead of using common sense and moving the state standardized test in the spring (CASSPP), a test that has no benefit whatsoever to students and only benefits the school, Paly continues to beg Juniors and Seniors to take a state test the same weeks as AP Tests, SATs, and Finals. Illogical. But that's OK. The students have a nice waterfall, squishy balls, and snacks in the Wellness Center for when they need to recover from the ineptitude of the Paly administration.

Like this comment
Posted by NIce
a resident of College Terrace
on Oct 27, 2016 at 11:08 am

This looks like a lovely, welcoming space. I particularly like the large window.

3 people like this
Posted by PSAT timing
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Oct 27, 2016 at 11:43 am

Do the high schools have a choice about when the PSAT is scheduled? I thought the PSAT schedule was controlled by the College Board.

7 people like this
Posted by Window Dressing
a resident of Midtown
on Oct 27, 2016 at 12:15 pm

Window Dressing is a registered user.

@PSAT Timing

Yes, you are correct, the PSAT is scheduled by the College Board. So that is a fixed date. But Paly and Gunn absolutely have a choice about when to do Spirit Week, and they did not have to schedule it the same week as the PSAT. They could've scheduled Spirit Week the week after PSAT.

15 people like this
Posted by All That Glitters, etc
a resident of Midtown
on Oct 27, 2016 at 1:00 pm

All That Glitters, etc is a registered user.

Until they hire staff who can provide SERIOUS help for the actual ROOT causes of the problems the high schoolers are having, this is nothing more than putting lipstick on a pig, so to speak.

Glossing over reality with warm fuzzies feels good, at first.
Who doesn't like those? But eventually the kids with the real and serious issues are going to catch on to the fact that nothing here is in-depth enough to help, and will just give up. Hopefully not, but if they feel they've been failed yet again, it could lead to tragedy.

In the meantime, all is well until the novelty wears off!

16 people like this
Posted by Marc Vincenti
a resident of Barron Park
on Oct 27, 2016 at 1:03 pm

Marc Vincenti is a registered user.

This is a poignant story, and it's great to see so many caring people at our schools.

Poignant, because it asks the unspoken question: what is it about life outside the wellness center that makes so many students seek refuge there? Why do our kids feel so much longing for such common, everyday things: "a smiling face by the door, some nice ambiance and a comfy seat and a coloring book"?

I believe it's at least in part because our schools are such factories of anxiety and discouragement. How ironic that we have to create special refuges on campus for what is maunufactured by the rest of campus life! What if the entire school could have a nice ambiance, smiling faces, and activities that are rewarding in themselves--if the entire school could be a center of wellness?

Well, schools can't stop giving out grades--so that everything is as stress-free as a coloring book!--but there's a lot we can do.

Save the 2,008, a community alliance of 531 citizens, is proposing just that--and it isn't a wrecking ball to our beloved high schools, just a toolkit of six proposals for commonsense change. Founded two years back, by a Gunn sophomore and a former teacher, we're named for the number of students and teachers at our school during that sorrow-filled year.

Save the 2,008 would nurture trust, joy and, meaning at our local high schools by:

1) Shrinking class sizes--now routinely at more than 30 teenagers per room--so that students won’t feel lost in the crowds and their teachers will be more accessible;

2) Empowering kids with a nightly voice in homework loads--via a confidential, student-teacher app that compares minutes assigned to minutes worked;

3) Requiring guidance counseling before enrollment in multiple APs (which wipe out sleep-, family-, and friendship-time, with less payoff for college admissions than is supposed);

4) Rescuing our teens from their all-day dependence on social media--by banning phone-use, first bell to last (except for class instruction), and by making campus more companionable;

5) Reining in the relentless grade-reporting (so that kids aren’t under a continual G.P.A. gun but instead have time to recover from the hurts and setbacks of adolescence);

6) Undoing the misery-inducing cheating—engaged in by a majority of students, countenanced by officials, and inimical to mental health.

Dispersing this toxic cloud of stressors, we’ll open up breathing room for student-to-teacher connections--those ties that sometimes become lifelines--and for a sense of togetherness on campus.

You can join our campaign with just the keystrokes of your name, at Strength in numbers is our best hope for overcoming the resistance of the school board and superintendent.

Above my desk in the English Dept. at Gunn I kept the motto: “I touch the future. I teach.” Add your voice to our chorus for change, and let's touch the future together.

Best wishes,

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

10 people like this
Posted by Dewi
a resident of Gunn High School
on Oct 27, 2016 at 1:31 pm

S2K8 puts forth suggestions that could make a real difference in the lives of our kids. I hope the important work being done by this group continues to gain notice and traction.

13 people like this
Posted by Gloria Symon
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Oct 27, 2016 at 3:05 pm

I absolutely agree with Marc Vincenti and Dewi. Save the 2,008 is the common sense plan that addresses the daily life of our high school students. The very fact that more than 2,000 students have used the wellness center already, illustrates the need to address the pressure cooker environment the students face each school day. I encourage members of the community to go to and support the campaign.

6 people like this
Posted by Suzanne Jacobs
a resident of South of Midtown
on Oct 27, 2016 at 6:57 pm

A troubled teen might not want to walk by the snacking teens, who surely notice who's going to yoga & who's not.

And, as we've learned, the deeply troubled often hide it & do not seek help.

You mean we make a brand-new facility, staffed and supplied, and still the ones who need it probably won't come? Frustrating! What are caring people supposed to do?

As others have said, we need to address PAUSD stress. I believe that S2K8 suggestions would relieve stress at our pressure-cooker high schools, show the students that we value honesty over grades, and give teachers & students the time to be sensitive to the troubled.

Like this comment
Posted by Harold A. Maio
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Oct 28, 2016 at 11:21 am

---decreasing stigma

Why do you abet people who direct that prejudice?

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