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Editorial: Improving high school counseling
Palo Alto school board asks for major changes to Gunn counseling model

An unusually impatient and resolute school board made clear this week that it does not believe students at Gunn High School are receiving comparable counseling services to those at Palo Alto High School and asked administrators to return in June with a reform plan.

The board's direction came after receiving overwhelming data demonstrating that the teacher-adviser counseling system at Palo Alto High School is producing better outcomes than the traditional guidance counseling system used at Gunn.

The school district's evaluation of the two different counseling programs -- both in existence for many years -- has been a long and torturous path, and frustration and tension were obvious during Tuesday night's three-hour-long discussion.

Superintendent Kevin Skelly, who has resisted moving to unify the two high schools under a common counseling model, tried hard to minimize the significance of the results of surveys conducted of Gunn and Paly students by the district's consultant. He argued that the counseling programs were part of a larger "eco-system" at the high schools and that they needed more assessment in that broader context.

The Gunn system, which consists of six guidance counselors each responsible for 325 students, follows the traditional model similar to what most parents in the district experienced when they were in high school. Gunn's counselors are responsible for all academic counseling, college and career guidance and for providing social-emotional counseling. Students are required to see their counselor at least once a year.

By contrast, under the Paly system, each student is assigned a teacher-adviser, a guidance counselor and, in junior year, an adviser in the College and Career Center. More than 40 teachers serve as teacher-advisers, and assigned students (about 25 per year) remain with that adviser during sophomore, junior and senior years. Students are also assigned one of four guidance counselors for their entire four years.

According to Skelly, the district had specifically instructed the consultant not to directly compare the two programs since they were so different. The result, a big mistake in our opinion, was an assessment of each program rather than an analysis of what would constitute a "best practices" system.

The student survey results, a key part of the study, were presented for each school but not in a form that allowed for comparison of the data, a decision that effectively obfuscated important information. One parent group, We Can Do Better Palo Alto, compiled and distributed a spreadsheet directly comparing the survey results -- a comparison that any professional presentation should have included and that provided important context for the board and public.

After a muddled discussion in which board members seemed to want to signal their desire to move toward the Paly teacher-adviser system but unwilling to clearly state it, all but one trustee, Barbara Mitchell, finally coalesced around the position that changes to the counseling system at Gunn were needed and that the pace for making changes needed to quicken. They directed the Gunn staff to work with the Paly staff to learn more about the Paly system so its benefits could be incorporated into the reforms.

The reasons for Skelly's reluctance to support moving to a single counseling system at both high schools and for the board's hesitancy in simply making a clear decision seem rooted in the concept of site-based decision-making, a district philosophy that tries to push all possible decisions out to the individual schools.

This vague philosophy, which is not clearly articulated anywhere, creates immense inefficiencies, confusion and parent angst, and it makes school board and superintendent accountability to the community virtually impossible. Its effect is to put the interests of individual site stakeholders above the benefits of arriving at a district consensus on best practices.

And it has particularly failed the community with respect to high school counseling.

To the extent that parents and students have voiced opinions about the two different counseling systems there is strong consensus that the Paly system allows for more "touch-points" between student and counselors and that it successfully distributes the counseling function among more people.

The strength of the teacher-adviser system is the opportunity for more adults to become familiar with each student, for the students to have more options for help and guidance on both academic and social-emotional issues, and the increased collaboration among faculty. It's not perfect, but it reflects the needs of today's students far better than the traditional counseling model.

Institutional defensiveness over current practices notwithstanding, there is simply no evidence to suggest that Gunn families would not be much better served by adopting the teacher-advisory system used at Paly and other innovative high schools.

Transitioning to the teacher-advisory system at Gunn won't be easy. It involves training some 40 teachers and reorganizing the current counseling staff. But it's long overdue and in the end, will ensure that Gunn and Paly families receive the same high-quality services.

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