The Palo Alto school district has for the first time issued a request for proposals (RFP) for counseling services for its secondary schools, which will bring an end to a decades-long partnership with its current provider, nonprofit Adolescent Counseling Services.
After 37 years of providing on-campus counseling to Palo Alto Unified's middle and high schools, Adolescent Counseling Services (ACS) does not intend to respond to the RFP, Executive Director Philippe Rey confirmed to the Weekly.
The school district is facing a multimillion dollar budget shortfall and is seeking to reduce its spending on programs and services, Superintendent Max McGee said of his decision to issue the request for proposals. At the same time, ACS had recently requested an increase in funding from the district.
"We put an RFP for new auditors; we put out RFP for legal firms," McGee told the Weekly in an interview. "Given that we're in a time where we really can't afford to increase our costs by the amount they were initially asking, (I thought,) let's put out an RFP."
From ACS' perspective, the shorter-term model of care the district has implemented in the last two years in response to student demand following a youth suicide cluster has been at odds with ACS' typical focus on long-term, comprehensive counseling, Rey said.
"Over the years, on-campus services within PAUSD have moved toward brief, therapeutic interventions and triage, and away from the intense, longer-term therapy and family-system care that ACS wishes to practice," Rey and ACS board of directors president Annette Smith wrote in a message sent to supporters Monday afternoon, announcing the nonprofit's exit from the school district.
Adolescent Counseling Services, which provides Palo Alto Unified's three middle schools and two high schools with a mix of part- and full-time licensed psychotherapists and counseling interns five days a week at no cost to students, has also increasingly struggled to raise the funds necessary to maintain its services, primarily due to a sharp rise in salaries, its leadership has said. The nonprofit's board decided to dip into its reserve last year for the first time to mitigate staff salaries.
The district's contract with ACS has seen $10,000 annual increases in the last several years, but that hasn't been sufficient to cover rising costs, Rey said in a previous interview. The district currently pays the nonprofit $100,000 for its services. ACS asked the district this year to contribute an additional $50,000. Adolescent Counseling Services also receives close to $25,000 from the Parent Teacher Association (PTA) at the five schools.
The school district and City of Palo Alto (through the Human Services Resource Allocation Process, which provides grants to organizations that provide direct services to residents) have historically covered approximately 30 percent of the funding for ACS' services, "leaving ACS to fundraise the majority of necessary funding from private donors, foundations, and corporations," Rey wrote in his message to supporters.
The RFP asks providers to submit proposals for a comprehensive, "short-term" counseling model for the 2017-18 school year for all middle and high schools. Under the contract, licensed therapists would be required to provide individual and group therapy, case management and education and outreach to families; participate in student meetings and as part of the school wellness teams; serve as a resource to administrators and school staff; and manage all intakes, assessment caseloads and discharge or termination of services. The district will also allow, as it currently does with ACS, for the provider to use interns to counsel students.
The RFP describes Palo Alto Unified students as facing the social emotional challenges of a "fast paced, high performance, technologically driven society" and living in a community that has experienced two youth suicide clusters in the last nine years.
"For the upcoming school year, PAUSD is interested in receiving proposals that address the ongoing issues that students face in light of these recent events," the RFP states. "Proposals should establish how (the) provider would work with school site personnel to support students toward wellness and balance in their lives."
It also requests a "specific explanation of how short term, school-based counseling will benefit individual students, student groups and families" and the scope of services, "making clear the distinction of short-term goal oriented counseling and when long term counseling might be needed."
The district estimates the new provider would at least initially assess 400 to 450 students throughout the year and individually counsel about 300 to 350 students.
According to ACS, however, the nonprofit has provided on average between 650 and 800 students with five or more therapy sessions each year across the five schools. McGee said the school district's estimates are based on services provided by licensed therapists and did not include interns.
Several local mental health providers already working in the district have confirmed they plan to respond to the request for proposals, including Counseling and Support Services for Youth, which provides counseling at eight Palo Alto Unified elementary schools, and Family & Children Services of Silicon Valley, which serves Addison Elementary School. Another elementary-level provider, Acknowledge Alliance, said it does not plan to respond.
San Josed-based Asian Americans for Community Involvement (AACI), which the district contracted with two years ago to provide counseling and parent education in Mandarin, Korean and Spanish, also plans to respond, according to interim president and CEO Sarita Kohli. As the demographics of the district have shifted, with a growing number of Asian students, Kohli said that "culturally sensitive services that focus on involving the family as well as the students are much needed in the district."
A spokesperson from Palo Alto youth mental health nonprofit Children's Health Council (CHC) said the organization does not plan to respond.
Local nonprofit Community Health Awareness Council, which provides on-campus counseling to Mountain View schools, did not receive the RFP and won't be responding.
Providers have until April 17 to respond to the RFP. The contract with the selected provider will begin on July 1.
In addition to its contract with Adolescent Counseling Services, the school district pays AACI $83,700 for three clinicians who speak Mandarin, Korean and Spanish to spend one day a week at each high school, as well as after-school clinic hours at the district office and parent-education classes in those three languages.
Stanford receives about $62,800 to pay for two child psychiatry fellows, supervised by a Stanford psychiatry faculty member, to provide short-term consultations to students and families for four hours a week at each high school. (Stanford does not intend to respond to the RFP given it doesn't have the personnel for what the district is seeking, said Steven Adelsheim, director of the university's Youth Center for Mental Health and Wellbeing.)
As part of potential budget cuts to address the ongoing shortfall, district staff have suggested cutting the Stanford and AACI contracts by half, leaving AACI services only at the high schools and eliminating the Stanford fellows program.
ACS, which has been providing counseling services to the district since 1980, will continue to serve three other local public schools, where Rey said ACS still provides a longer-term model of care.
Rey said his organization will redirect the approximate $330,000 it spends in Palo Alto Unified to develop a clinical training program for interns and to expand existing community services. Local students and families will still be able to access -- for a fee on a sliding scale -- therapy and ACS’ substance abuse treatment facility as well as Outlet, a free support program for LGBTQ youth.