Faith groups lobby for teen 'connectedness' | September 10, 2010 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

News - September 10, 2010

Faith groups lobby for teen 'connectedness'

Following suicides, local congregations worry about kids who 'fall through the cracks'

by Chris Kenrick

Palo Alto's religious congregations have taken an active role in community discussions about the social and emotional health of local teens in the past year.

Amid a multitude of plans to address teen mental health in the wake of five student suicides, faith-community representatives are insisting that programs be structured in such a way that no student can fall through the cracks.

Beyond services in which students can participate on a voluntary basis, they are pushing for programs, such as JLS Middle School's Panther Camp, that reach all kids, particularly those who never sign up for anything.

"We think it's fantastic that the (school) district is putting 'student connectedness' at the top of the agenda," parent Greg Smitherman told the Board of Education recently.

"We want to make sure the result is systematic, that it reaches every kid — especially the kid who's not going to raise his hand and volunteer to be part of athletics, choir or a school team."

Smitherman is one of a group of St. Mark's Episcopal Church members who have met regularly since last October.

The Midtown neighborhood church long has had an active youth program that welcomes teens from across the community.

But, shaken by the suicides, a group of up to 30 St. Mark's parishioners, from young parents to seniors, gathered to go beyond what was traditional. Their meetings evolved into a research-and-discussion forum about how to better support teens.

Similar concerns were raised in other local congregations, including All Saints Episcopal Church, Congregation Beth Am, First Presbyterian Church, Iglesia Fuente de Vida, St. Bede's, St. Thomas Aquinas, Our Lady of the Rosary and Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto.

Once the St. Mark's group satisfied itself that immediate concerns about suicide prevention were being addressed by others, members turned their attention to research on overall youth well-being.

"When you looked through all these studies — from the Gates Foundation, CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), the Youth Community Survey and others — the one consistent thing they found was that being connected and building community was consistent with well-being," Smitherman said.

"If you have some sort of systemic program that would better connect kids with other kids, and kids with adults, there's absolutely no downside to it.

"Being connected makes kids feel better, relieves stress and ironically — even though in theory it's taking time from academics — they actually do better academically. It can also help alleviate other risky behaviors, drinking, drugs, sex too early — all those other things you don't want to have happen."

St. Mark's, working with other congregations through the coalition Peninsula Interfaith Action, drew 175 people, including two school board members, to a May meeting, to discuss ways to boost support for vulnerable teens.

Faith-community representatives have since become regulars in school board discussions of student social-emotional health.

When the board considers the final version of the district's "focused goals" for 2010-11 Tuesday (Sept. 14), the faith representatives will push for a "systematic and measurable" approach to "student connectedness."

"We need to make sure the programs capture all the kids, with none falling through the cracks," parent and St. Mark's member Carrie LeRoy told the board at its last meeting Aug. 24.

While not pushing for any particular program, LeRoy said, "We are advocating some measurement and assessment" of effectiveness.

Smitherman points to JLS Middle School's Panther Camp as a model for the kind of program his group is seeking.

"For the first couple of days of sixth-grade they break kids into groups of 30, do team-building exercises, learn about the school, where things are. They make new friends, meet the teachers. Suddenly, this new school that seemed really scary coming from elementary school becomes a wonderful place.

"It's the kind of thing that doesn't have to cost a lot of money and pulls in all the kids. It's critical that you can't have something kids can opt out of."

Smitherman and LeRoy believe the students they're concerned about represent "a fairly large group."

"They're not the kids that are easily identified as having real issues. It's the large group in between, oftentimes quiet, who sit in the back of the classroom, don't raise their hand and feel completely disconnected," Smitherman said.

The Developmental Assets Program recently adopted by the school district to foster student emotional health is "a good starting point," Smitherman said.

Smitherman and LeRoy stressed that anyone is welcome to attend their meetings, which typically draw 15 to 30 people, including parents, older people and representatives from other religious congregations. They meet roughly every three weeks in the Parish Hall at St. Mark's.

"Our meetings are completely open to anyone of any faith or lack thereof," Smitherman said. "We're pushing a very secular, community-focused agenda."

Added LeRoy: "This is not a religious issue at all, but a way of organizing people together to get some sort of critical mass for this issue. We welcome anyone to get involved in this, to come to board meetings and push for concrete focused goals.

Staff Writer Chris Kenrick can be e-mailed at


Posted by Judy, a resident of Los Altos Hills
on Sep 10, 2010 at 3:42 pm

St. Marks is doing a wonderful job to spearhead a focus on connectedness in the schools! I'd like to see programs such as Camp Panther's middle school orientation be adopted by schools in the Whisman and Los Altos-Mountain View districts, as well.

Posted by Paly Parent, a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Sep 10, 2010 at 3:57 pm

This sounds wonderful. I hope that in this day and age of being PC and fear of mentioning faith/church/religion in the same breath as school and education that youth groups in general and faith based ones in particular are being seen as beneficial to our young people.

Posted by concerned, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 12, 2010 at 12:42 am

The above article says:

When you looked through all these studies — from the Gates Foundation, CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), the Youth Community Survey and others — the one consistent thing they found was that being connected and building community was consistent with well-being," Smitherman said.

"If you have some sort of systemic program that would better connect kids with other kids, and kids with adults, there's absolutely no downside to it."

If we need a systemic program to better connect kids with other kids, why then are we allowing our district to charge ahead with making Gunn and Paly campuses larger (at a premium of cost for multistory structures) instead of demanding they consider whether we can reopen Cubberley?

Here's a quote (from one of many papers reaching same conclusion):
Review of Empirical Evidence about School Size Effects
"Results of this review of 59 post-1990 empirical studies suggests that the longstanding trend toward larger schools is not the best interest of students."

"The results of all studies indicate significantly stronger student engagement in smaller as compared to larger schools."
"McNeely, Nonnemaker and Blum (2002) used the concept of 'connectedness' in their U.S. study ... as part of the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health. These data were from 83,074 students in 127 schools. Among the structural variables in the study -- public/private, school location (suburban, rural), class size and school size, only school size had a significant relationship with students' connectedness to their school. As school size decreased, school connectedness increased."

And "...students are more likely to feel connected and engaged in smaller rather than larger schools."

In the summary section (under advantages of smaller schools):
"it is easier to develop relationships with other students in smaller environments;
smaller schools increase the chances of staff knowing students well;...
smaller schools offer students a better chance to be known by someone;
smaller schools increase the connection between student and community;
better teaching strategies are associated with fewer students;
Theoretical arguments underpinning the historical trend toward larger school units have not held up well to empirical scrutiny..."

Just so we're clear here about what "smaller" means, this paper says,
"'smaller' is a relative term. In districts with secondary school sizes exceeding 2500 students, for example, smaller can mean as many as 1500 students..."

We now have around 1800 students at Gunn and Paly, each. The plan is to enlarge them to take 2500 or more. Just the enlargement expenditure is many tens of millions of dollars. Could we reopen Cubberley for that, especially if we partnered with Foothill (if it's not too late)?

Please connect the studies that show how important student connectedness is with all the studies showing how student connectedness suffers in these ultra-large schools of exactly the size we are paying to enlarge Gunn and Paly to. Do we really want to spend our money increasing rather than decreasing the systemic challenges to our students' mental health?

If we need a "systemic" shift, we need to be seriously considering whether this is a wise way to spend so much money, on enlarging those campuses, instead of using the money to instead improve the campuses and reopen Cubberley (as a choice school, so enrollments at both Gunn and Paly could be lowered).

Posted by member, a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Sep 12, 2010 at 4:03 pm

I hope real change results from the brilliance of many of these concrete suggestions as a result of the participation of caring and informed people. So here is one more suggestion to promote student connectedness. Let's implement the Academy model, some call it a "school within the school" or team concept in our high schools. We can create a smaller, more personal rapport for our students and families, a safer more connected community that emphasizes inclusion rather than elitist tracking. We can include AP options within these models, but not isolate the AP students. This would prevent students from slipping through the cracks. This allows teachers to cooperate, to avoid piling on homework, because they can be interdisciplinary and aware of what the team is asking of students. Built into the Academy we can include social events, counseling visits with each team or Academy, increase the ability to keep track of each student regardless of social or academic standing. This is the most effective way to create a small school atmosphere in our schools. Let's Celebrate and value all of our children, it is a gift to have them in our midst.

Posted by concerned, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 13, 2010 at 11:02 am

Hi member,
My understanding of the "school within the school" concept, where it has been shown to produce results, is that it has to really, truly be a school within a school -- meaning, a completely separate school that has contracts to maybe share some common spaces like the gym during different hours, but that has its own buildings, its own entrances, its own teachers and its own administration. It's basically getting the benefits by creating two small independent schools out of one large one for districts that have no other options for locating a separate school.

We are one of the lucky ones, however, we do have an option. The "school within a school" concept would probably be more expensive for us, because we have Cubberley. The costs of enlarging our two school sites to take all those extra students is significant -- running into the tens of millions just for the EXTRA costs of building the multistory structures we'll need because those campuses don't have space. The Brookings Institute did a review paper on school size in which they said the optimal situation was if school districts had a decomissioned school site they could put back into commission. We have that.

If we are planning on using the school within school concept, there should be a harder look at what it would entail and the costs, because it's not something you can do on the fly. If we don't take a hard look, we're likely to lull ourselves into the idea that we can do something, while the money we could otherwise have used to put Cubberley back into commission goes into packing more students at Gunn and Paly to their detriment.

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