News

As school starts, new social-emotional curriculum debuts

Gunn High introduces new model for teacher-advisory program

Gunn High School freshmen Hyewon Ahn, left, and Anna Gersh, center, talk about their common interests during an activity in their Social Emotional Literacy and Functionality class on the second day of school on Aug. 15, 2017. Photo by Veronica Weber.

During the first days of school this week, along with finding their lockers and classrooms, Gunn High School freshmen got a new kind of assignment: Discover what they have in common with each other.

In classrooms across campus, freshmen conducted "frienterviews" with each other — interviewing at least 10 students they didn't know and identifying a shared interest. For two students in one class, it was writing and drawing; for two others, it was simply that they both have a sister.

The activity — an assignment in finding commonalities rather than differences when meeting new people — is lesson No. 1 in a new social-emotional learning curriculum Gunn is piloting in earnest this fall. (Palo Alto High School is also testing out the curriculum but not as extensively as Gunn.)

The social-emotional effort is a districtwide initiative that will roll out to all 17 Palo Alto Unified School District (PAUSD) campuses over the next few years, from elementary through high school.

Gunn is launching it this year through a new iteration of the school's teacher-advisory program, the second new version in as many years. Last year, Titan Connect — a program that paired cohorts of students with a teacher-coach and upperclassmen mentors and which started with last year's freshmen class — replaced Titan 101, a freshman transition program.

Titan Connect has been replaced this year with Social Emotional Literacy and Functionality, or SELF. For the pilot year, ninth-graders have been assigned to a cohort of 20 to 24 students and paired with a mentor — a Gunn teacher who volunteered for the role. These cohorts will stay together through to their senior year, meeting together in a weekly advisory period.

Unlike Paly's longtime teacher-advisory program, Gunn's program will not have an academic advising component but rather focus on the tenets of social-emotional learning.

Courtney Carlomagno, a social-emotional learning teacher on special assignment at Gunn, defines the increasingly buzzy educational term as "skills so you're able to understand yourself, so you can understand others and more successfully navigate your life at the high school level and after." Lessons touch on everything from making first impressions and taking effective notes to understanding the teenage brain and forging identity.

At Gunn, the idea is to provide students a small, tight-knit community within the large school, Carlomagno said.

"The long-term idea is that PAUSD in general is in a big shift to making social-emotional learning a priority in how we prepare the whole child for a happy, healthy and responsible life," she added.

The ultimate goal, Carlomagno said, is for students to receive direct instruction in the new program. Professional development for all teachers will also touch on social-emotional learning so that the skills are also reinforced in core classes such as math and English. She plans to send out a weekly update on the program with suggestions for how teachers can incorporate social-emotional learning into their classes.

Advisory classes at both Paly and Gunn participated in the same activities during the first week of school, but each teacher put his or her own spin on the lessons. At Paly, teacher Paul Kandell led his class of sophomores through four "frienterviews" and then asked them to find one new person outside of the class and write down his or her name and common interest by the next time they were to meet.

Gunn teacher Yukie Hikidas challenged her students instead to memorize the name of each person they interviewed in class.

The curriculum is structured so the first few weeks are the fun, "low-stakes" activities, like memorizing names and a handshake competition, so students can get to know each other and feel more comfortable before moving onto heavier topics, said Tara Firenzi, Gunn's other social-emotional learning teacher on special assignment. Something as simple as learning each other's names seems "mundane," she said, but is "critical" to forging early connections between students and teacher.

Gunn formed a student advisory committee that will meet regularly and give feedback on the new program, Carlomagno said. Sixty upperclassmen — out of 100 who applied — are also serving as "Titan Ambassadors," this year, helping with freshman orientation and in the first days of the social-emotional learning program.

Gunn sophomores, juniors and seniors can also opt into the freshmen's SELF lessons during their free "flex" period on Thursdays.

The school district's focus on social-emotional learning grew out of interest in evaluating counseling and service models at the two high schools in recent years, part of a broader focus on student mental health and well-being. A committee of students, parents, staff and administrators convened last year to explore possible social-emotional learning curriculum, which the district said existed in pockets throughout the district but lacked coherence.

Acting on the group's recommendations, the district is phasing in the curriculum this year at the high schools. A group of teachers and staff from Paly, Gunn (including new Principal Kathie Laurence) and the district were trained this summer in the chosen curriculum, School Connect.

Kandell, who has taught in the district for close to 20 years and participated in the summer training, said he's wary of educational trends but sees this as a well-intentioned effort to support students proactively, inside and outside of the classroom.

After two teenage suicide clusters in recent years, the district's stance was, "'We're going to do everything on the list to try to change our culture,' and they're going through the list," Kandell said.

The district plans to form a new advisory committee this fall to help oversee the continued roll-out of social-emotional learning at all schools in the coming years.

Related content:

Behind the Headlines: Inside social-emotional education

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Comments

6 people like this
Posted by Sarah1000
a resident of Los Altos
on Aug 18, 2017 at 12:54 pm

I hope the list includes consulting with and learning from the youth crisis interventionists in our community. Uplift's Crisis Intervention Team and the mental health professionals at BACA, ASPIRE and CHC help kids in crisis every day. Perhaps it's time to ask those on the "front lines" of youth mental health what they recommend to prevent suicide in Palo Alto. I mean that literally. I am sure that Rami Vissell (Uplift), Michael Fitzgerald (El Camino Hospital) and Dr Tom Tarshis (BACA) would gladly share their expertise. They are passionate and successful in helping suicidal youth.
Sending love and strength to the family who lost their son/brother this week. My condolences.


24 people like this
Posted by for Healthier high Schools
a resident of Gunn High School
on Aug 18, 2017 at 1:42 pm

My heart goes out to all the staff who are working so hard, with teenagers, to enhance their lives--especially right on the heels of another tragedy at Gunn. Truly, everyone is being courageous and intrepid.

I cant help feeling an irony, though, that to kids lives that are already overfilled we have chosen to add still another curriculum. "We're going to do everything on the list to change the culture," as Mr. Kandell's phrase has it, and this sounds like a recipe for asking more and more and more of our kids, regardless of the usefulness of that more, and has a ring of panic to it rather than selective good sense.

We need to fix our schools, not our kids. We need to not just add lesson plans and wellness centers, but make our sehools themselves into centers of wellness (with fewer overcrowded classes, less sleep-deprivation, less grading, etc.). Student health, no matter how diligently taught, is an oxymoron in an unhealthy, all-day, four-year environment.

I encourage families truly concerned about their young people's well-being to support Save the 2,008--for Healthier High Schools, a community alliance that now has 577 members. And, like Sarah above, I send love and strength to the friends and family of the Gunn senior who took his own life three days ago. I can't imagine their grief.


19 people like this
Posted by Been Through
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Aug 18, 2017 at 2:55 pm

Agree that they can't continually torture students, then offer therapy; it's the torture that must stop.

Disappointed that the new bell schedule doesn't allow students a later start, as sleep debt is torturing students. Teachers want to take the train home or beat rush hour. They should be forced to stay after school for at least 30 minutes for students who need help. It's their job to help students!


22 people like this
Posted by staff/parent
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 18, 2017 at 3:15 pm

to "for Healthier high Schools" - No clear cut answers here. You're right to point out the potential irony that we want to help kids and then we add more to their plates. We should keep an eye on that. Your post, however, doesn't help in putting even more responsibility on the schools. I'm both a staff member and a parent, so from the parent side of course I've been as concerned as anyone about getting this right. As a staff member, I can tell you that comments like this add to our stress (not assuming intent), and that matters too. Stressed out teachers, counselors, and admin. are not we want or need. I've been around long enough to see progress, and we already take each tragedy personally, maybe too much so. It hurts. But we've changed in many ways as a district, in the past 15 years and we have grown and made progress and saved kids' lives too. Counseling staff doesn't get media coverage for their numerous successful interventions. We know our kids are feeling pressure, and we are trying to address it. The schools alone can't fix it, parents alone can't fix it. I'm not even sure it can be fixed if I'm being honest today. I'm hoping to regain my optimism by Monday and I'll get back to work and try as hard as I can to do my part. Just please keep in mind each tragedy is unique in some ways. I've talked to family members of multiple teens who died by suicide and I've never heard THEM blame the schools. There's a variety of causes and some of the strongest influences are absolutely not school-related. (I haven't talked to all of them, so of course, some might). Unless you know all the details , please be careful about taking a complex tragedy as an opportunity to prove a simplified theory that our schools caused this.

Sorry I'm not going to be interested in any further dialogue at this point. Talk amongst yourselves as they say. Too tired and in need of some self-care now. Peace and grace.


9 people like this
Posted by Experienced parent
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Aug 18, 2017 at 3:30 pm

Whatever goes on at school I think it is still up to parents to make sure that teenagers get at least one after school (evening) activity and one weekend activity each week (that makes at least 2) activity which isn't challenging or competitive but laid back and fun. Sports, music, drama, are great at stress relieving for some, but for others they just add to the stress, challenge and competition. Many churches and faith organizations have one weeknight hang out as well as Sunday low key youth events. These are a great place for kids to hang out, make new friends, and are often run by young people in their 20s or 30s who are nearer to their age who can relate to them in a different way from parents, teachers or coaches.

Please help your kids find enough time each week to hang out with others and just be a teen.


12 people like this
Posted by CB
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Aug 18, 2017 at 3:41 pm

Good to hear about this - we need it at home too.
I think the schools can only do so much,
Parents need to start with themselves in order to help their kids. When I hear of parents encouraging and bragging that their their HS Freshman is having sex ...I think, and we blame the schools for how troubled teens are?


9 people like this
Posted by for Healthier High Schools
a resident of Gunn High School
on Aug 18, 2017 at 6:07 pm

Dear Staff/Parent,

Wish you weren't leaving the discussion--but you've already done more than your share of work, and put out way more effort than me, just to have made it through the first week with kids. Young people are no piece of cake! (I taught at Gunn for 15 years). Teachers and staff are heroes!

I apologize for adding to your stress; I did not mean to. And if you check out the six proposals of Save the 2,008, which few people do, you'll see that they're designed completely around lightening the kind of stress on teachers of which you speak (e.g., through smaller classes, less grade-reporting, less hassle with phones and cheating, having students come through the door every day who are better rested and better prepared).

Thank you for your hard work this week. My heart goes out to you. I really meant what I said about your courage.

Sincerely,
Marc Vincenti
Chairman, Save the 2,008


11 people like this
Posted by Just a Thought
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 19, 2017 at 12:29 am

@Marc Vincenti As a future potential parent of two Gunn High School students and an alumni of Gunn High School in the 1990's, I read through the six items on the savethe2008 website. I agree with all six whole heartedly. I think to the first one, class size, is the most important and for all the same reasons as class size, I think we need to address overall school size as well. When I went to Gunn it was just as competitive but it was half the size (~800-900 versus 1800-2000) so it didn't feel very cut throat.

The average high school size for California is closer to 900 than 2000.
Web Link

The idea of restarting Cubberly High School seems to have met an uncertain demise due to a mix of community concerns about extra costs, complexity, increased traffic and school boundary maps a scaled back approach to achieve school size reduction seems needed.

Two simpler, lower costs alternative options to lower the number of students per school could be:
- Divide Gunn and Paly into 4 schools - Gunn West Campus and Gunn East Campus and Paly West Campus and Paly East Campus where assignment is completely randomized freshman year
- Create a magnet school at Gunn or Paly (or both) where very high achieving students can opt into and save everyone else from also having to take 6 AP classes per semester

Much of the physical space would remain the same and much of the the administration, teachers and resources (science labs, media centers) could be shared. And more importantly with respect to community support, parents who bought property expecting to go to Gunn or Paly get to go to Gunn or Paly.

So for approximately the same costs and physical space, the some of benefits to the students include:
1.) More opportunities for inter-school cohesion and bonding (maybe each East/West campus could have a dedicated quad area for students to gather)
2.) More opportunities for extracurricular leadership (4 valedictorians, 4 presidents of math club, 4 prom kings and 4 prom queens, 4 PTA presidents, 4 varsity football teams, 4 captains of the debate team)

Here is a working example of another town:
Web Link


9 people like this
Posted by Been Through
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Aug 19, 2017 at 2:24 am

@Just a Thought: That's socialist thinking, yet divisive. Class sizes aren't the reason for stress. Poor AP teachers is the reason; they somehow think "AP" is a pass to not have to teach. My children had much better instructors in college than in AP classes at Paly. Valedictorians and prom royalty were axed years ago. There isn't enough interest for 4 Varsity football teams.


5 people like this
Posted by for Healthier High Schools
a resident of Gunn High School
on Aug 19, 2017 at 4:15 pm

Dear Just a Thought,

Thank you for doing some of the best, most creative thinking that I've heard about our high-school environments. I am always thrilled when people calmly and practically grapple with our problems, in search of new and better solutions.

The devil is always in the details, and in consensus and implementation, but bless you for being a voice for reason, and I hope you'll sign on as a Save the 2,008 supporter, if the proposals do seem reasonable to you. It takes a huge crew to turn this massive tanker called the Palo Alto Unified School District! :-)


Warm wishes,
Marc Vincenti
Chairman, Save the 2,008-for Healthier High Schools
savethe2008@gmail


42 people like this
Posted by BP
a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 20, 2017 at 6:16 pm

One significant way to decrease stress on students is to have fully functioning guidance department, administrators, and teachers.

Unnecessary stress occurs when:
1) the guidance councilor assigns students to the wrong required classes, then states sorry the situation can't be fixed.
2) constant turn over of guidance councilors. My kid has had at least a new councilor each year, one year had 3 including the 2 temps. Rather than admitting their inability to really serve the students, the councilors talk in platitudes and always say "just drop in and talk to who ever is here", which means another stranger to deal with.
3) having a chemistry teacher who does not follow the textbook, instead displaying the notes in class, and then never posting on line; forcing the kids to copy madly what is being displayed on the screen. Even after complaining to the guidance department, the teacher didn't post on line until April, with essentially 6 weeks left in the school year.
4) having a teacher too lazy to fill out a form to make their video class an actual art elective. Since he didn't fill out the form, the year spent doing video was not considered an elective.
5) showing up last week to pick up text books, and being told that there is no math text book for a specific class, notes would be posted on line. Turns out that the person handing out the books was wrong, and now my kid will have to spend more time tracking a copy of the text book.
6) many more examples too numerous to recite.

If the high schools could hire competent administrators, councilors, and teachers who have some sense of fairness and follow the rules (ironic, the students are lectured constantly how they have to behave and be independent young adults, yet some teachers are their own kingdoms), a lot of kids would like going to high school in Palo Alto instead of dreading to deal with the system.

Providing a "wellness" center is only an attempt to cover up that they aren't doing their jobs correctly in the first place.


1 person likes this
Posted by Old Timer
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Aug 20, 2017 at 9:19 pm

@Just, it looks like Downington East and West are separate campuses over 5 miles apart - that is, they are further apart than Gunn is from Paly. I'm not sure of the history of their split or how they operate, but it is not like drawing a line down the middle of Paly or Gunn. Also, it looks like East and West have a combined 3500+ students, which make them only somewhat smaller than Gunn + Paly combined (~4200).

School within a school concepts are interesting, but usually have failed in the context of high performing comprehensive high schools. The District is toying with it, but there is not much evidence that it solves real problems better than simpler approaches.


7 people like this
Posted by Balance
a resident of Gunn High School
on Aug 21, 2017 at 11:25 am

I think the SEL curriculum is great, as long as the teachers that are presenting it are well trained. It is not only meant to build connections now but to also build communication and teamwork skills for the future (critically needed in today's workplace!).

Regarding the tragedies and stress, I agree each case is specific and complex. That said, I was very disturbed that my freshman child was assigned homework on Friday that was due Sunday! Another teacher assigned homework on Friday with a due date of today. How does that allow the kids to have balance in their lives? I think it's great if the allowed time to do homework spans the weekend, such as when a week is given to do it, but FORCING homework over a single weekend is really unfair and definitely adds unnecessary stress.

Weekends should be for family time and life-balancing activities like church, friends, trips, hiking, visiting relatives, etc. We were forced to cancel plans this weekend due to homework. I sincerely hope the new Gunn principal can enforce reasonable homework practices.


5 people like this
Posted by Jon Keeling
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 21, 2017 at 1:09 pm

What do the numbers 741741 mean to you?

I would like to commend the teachers & staff at Gunn (as well as other schools who are embracing such an updated curriculum) for doing what you have to offset the stress of our kids/students.

Unfortunately, there is stress all around us in Palo Alto (and beyond). And at times it can be completely overwhelming.

If you text in to the number 741741 (We recommend texting the word "BAY" to start your conversation if you are in the Bay Area), you will reach a compassionate volunteer Crisis Counselor. Crisis Text Line is an anonymous service that provides support to anyone with access to a cell phone who feels like they could use some help getting through a crisis.

As one of the thousands of volunteers in this position (just because we are volunteers doesn't mean we do not know what we are doing - there is a very lengthy and demanding training process that the majority of people do not make it through and I happen to have quite a bit of outside experience), I have helped people deal with breakups with boyfriends, drug addiction, bullying, cutting, depression, anxiety, fear, stress and suicidal thoughts.

Please keep the number 741741 handy. Maybe you will never have a need for it. But probably more than a few of the people you know would like to know that such a service is available for them...

For more information, please see: Web Link


Like this comment
Posted by Parent
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Aug 21, 2017 at 9:47 pm

I must applaud this post by "staff/parent:"

"Counseling staff doesn't get media coverage for their numerous successful interventions."

My daughter was tremendously upset by the death of another student, and as she wondered why this has happened again, I talked to her about all the students who have received help and been positively impacted. Just because it's not widely publicized doesn't mean students aren't being helped. Wellness efforts are making a positive impact.


8 people like this
Posted by BP
a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 25, 2017 at 9:19 pm

How much longer will the construction in the middle of the Gunn campus continue to disrupt the learning environment? Alot of the areas where students use to have their lunch is now gone. Why wasn't there progress made to erecting the new building(s) during the entire summer? I can't wait for parents night for parents to experience for themselves how impossible it is now to get from one side of the campus to the other.


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