Gunn High School's new principal, Kathie Laurence, doesn't see herself as a hard-charging catalyst. With 22 years under her belt as a Palo Alto Unified School District teacher and administrator, she plans to bring a sense of stability and support to the school, which in many ways is at a turning point after several years of significant change.
In the past three years, the school has implemented a new bell schedule, created a teacher-advisory program for students, developed professional learning communities for teacher collaboration and just this fall started a major construction project that will revamp the center of campus and piloted a new social-emotional curriculum, among other changes. Laurence was appointed one month after former Principal Denise Herrmann announced her resignation, despite some suggestions that the district fill the post temporarily and conduct a broad, external search.
"I felt like I'm the right person for the school at this time. I didn't come over here to be a change agent," Laurence said in a recent interview in her new office at Gunn. "I came over here to support teachers in their learning and students in their learning."
This commitment was tested on day two of the new school year, when a Gunn senior died by suicide, rocking a community that has experienced two youth suicide clusters since 2009. Since last week, she has been trying to strike a balance between providing space and support for students and staff who need to grieve the loss — extra mental-health support has been offered, and she said she gave teachers permission to have a "soft landing" in terms of work for both themselves and students — and setting a positive tone for the new year.
It's likely her leadership will be further tested this year in a school district that has done much soul searching in recent years about how its academic culture and treatment of mental health impacts teenagers.
Laurence, who described herself as a relationship builder who takes slow, intentional steps before effecting change, has spent her entire educational career in the Palo Alto school district. She graduated from Gunn and started as a social studies teacher at Palo Alto High School in 1995. (Her husband, Scott, was also a teacher, coach and vice principal at Paly before working as Gunn's principal for eight years, and her son graduated from Gunn.)
Teaching was not Laurence's first career, however. A college athlete who majored in psychology, she first worked as an athletic trainer for 12 years at her alma mater, Stanford University. She later obtained a master's degree in education there.
Laurence taught social studies and psychology at Paly before becoming an assistant principal in 2010. In that role, she had her hands in all aspects of the school, from Paly's own shift to a block schedule in 2010 to overseeing guidance and athletics. She was also a teacher-adviser for 17 years, an experience she said will help inform Gunn's move to a similar student-cohort program this year.
During the last school year, Laurence oversaw innovation and learning for Paly, including as a member of the school's Challenge Success committee, which aimed to move a school culture away from grades and test scores and toward balance and wellness.
She also oversaw Paly's "learning strands" — monthly meetings for teachers who lead professional learning for other teachers.
Among Laurence's top goals at Gunn: continuing teachers' professional training and supporting an initiative intended to improve education for students at all levels. New techniques in the first "tier" of the initiative include untimed tests (to assess what students have learned, not how quickly they can take a test) and allowing students to use notes during tests. Tiers two and three would introduce more specialized supports for struggling students.
The tiered approach, she said, is simply a more systematic approach to "good teaching for all students."
Laurence is a strong believer in the school's pilot social-emotional learning program, which Gunn rolled out this fall with all freshmen. Groups of 20 to 24 freshmen are meeting weekly in a new "Social Emotional Literacy and Functionality" (SELF) advisory class with a teacher-mentor, who will be their adviser for all four years of high school. The program is a preventative effort to instill life skills in students, from interpersonal to coping strategies, and to build small, tight-knit communities within a large school.
Laurence said that the social-emotional learning effort remains critical after last week's student death by suicide.
She used a common metaphor to describe the school's different tiers of mental health support: a lake that runs into a rapidly flowing stream and then a turbulent waterfall. The goal is to support all students in the lake through efforts like the social-emotional learning program to prevent them from floating into the stream, where they might need more intensive support, and ultimately from a crisis that could send them over the waterfall. After years with students near the waterfall, the district has improved its support for students in crisis but less so for those still swimming in the lake, she said.
"That's really the next place to focus," she said. "I still feel that our most important thing is working on that upstream work because it provides students and staff with tools to help them manage emotions and experiences that may be challenging for them.
"It doesn't get rid of the stream and it doesn't get rid of the crisis of the waterfall, but the reality is the more we can do in that upstream part, the fewer (crises) we hope to have."
For many Palo Alto students, whose lives are "well-managed" and often focused on academic accolades, Laurence hopes the new social-emotional learning curriculum will help them foster more dialogue and empathy.
"I think in our country right now there's way too much debate focused on winning. We as a school, as a society ... need to be more focused on dialogue, which is seeking to understand as opposed to 'I have to win this argument,'" Laurence said.
When she was at Paly, she said, small things made a difference in fostering dialogue and building relationships with staff, like having conversations in person rather than over email. Teachers would also often drop by her office to bounce ideas off her for classroom strategies, she said.
She's bringing that approach to Gunn, where she said relationships with both the faculty and students are in need of mending. In 2015, the Gunn teachers' union filed a formal grievance against Herrmann, accusing her of violating their contract by asking all teachers to use online management system Schoology to post their homework assignments. Students also criticized the administration for not giving students a seat at the table in decisions that impacted student life.
Gunn senior Arjun Prabhakar, a member of the selection committee that unanimously recommended Laurence as the new principal, said in a district announcement that it was clear she has "prioritized student voice — not only through rhetoric, but also through action. We, as Gunn students, can expect that transparency and cooperation will soon become the norm under this new leadership."
Another search committee member, Gunn English teacher Marc Igler, was impressed by her sincere "enthusiasm" and "warmth" for school as well as her years as a teacher and administrator at a large high school.
"That level of experience can't be underestimated," he said in the district announcement.
Laurence said she plans to have lunch with every department and to invite students in for open-office hours to talk with her about what's working and what isn't at the school and their ideas for how to improve any problems.
"I always think it's better if people who see a problem also are thinking about what are possible solutions because that's where the learning is, right?" she said.