What teens need, part 2 of 2 | September 10, 2010 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

Cover Story - September 10, 2010

What teens need, part 2 of 2

Health and education experts offer their perspectives on the local educational system and how to foster emotionally healthy teens

The Palo Alto Weekly convened a panel of local health and education professionals on Aug. 30 to discuss what local teenagers need in order to live healthy, balanced lives. The basis for the discussion was an essay by a Gunn High School teacher, "High school life: To whom it may concern," published Sept. 3 in the Weekly.

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A full transcript of this panel discussion is posted at www.PaloAltoOnline.com


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Posted by Concerned Parent
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 10, 2010 at 10:37 am

I think one thing that wasn't or is never adequately addressed is the use of alcohol and other drugs in school and also by many parents of our students. Not only are we checking out in every way possible but our lack of attention to how we, as parents, are attempting to deal with the stresses in our lives is having a profound effect on our students. We need to start looking at what we are modeling and get out of the denial modes that seem to be so prevalent in so many communities. This happens often even in "Perfect Palo Alto".

I have found the whole atmosphere at Gunn High School (don't know what it is like at Paly these days) to be very unwelcoming. When I went to see a counselor there last school year I was ignored for at least 20-30 minutes while I was given the opportunity to gaze upon school banners from prestigious universities (not sure if there was a Foothill/De Anza banner on the wall). I can't help but wonder what kind of message a student gets when they go to get "help" in that office. Why can't they think of a way of making the whole office more warm and welcoming? I also found the staff at Gunn to be very unresponsive (that is an understatement) and got no response until Superintendent Skelly was made aware of this in the presence of one of the people from the counseling office. This should not be when people are trying to help the students and are not even listened to. I gave up on trying to move forward with my help but hope that parents and other interested community members can get involved. A whole new climate of caring can be created but it takes willingness on the part of the staff and administrators and parents to accomplish this.

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Posted by Member
a resident of another community
on Sep 10, 2010 at 11:35 am

We raised all 3 kids in Palo Alto (and moved once the youngest one finished high school)and I would like to loudly second the previous poster's point about the presence of drugs and alcohol. Our kids had friends who died as a result of drugs and/or alcohol, and more who had very serious issues otherwise. Our kids were so stoned by the end of the morning break and so drunk by the end of lunch that the entire day was a complete waste. The kids pose little problem in the class because they're basically comatose. When we requested consideration of 'lock-down' campuses, like some of the other bay area public high schools, we were told by the high school counselors that PA parents would never stand for it. Yet, kids of a friend of ours in Belmont, whose kids were friends of ours, did not have the issues because once the kids drove into the parking lot, it was locked till school was out. Snacks and meals occurred on campus and everything was supervised.

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Posted by observer
a resident of Barron Park
on Sep 10, 2010 at 12:31 pm

The open campus structure is not child-friendly. Many students are not ready for that type of freedom. Just walk through Bol Park and take a deep breath.

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Posted by Mom
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Sep 10, 2010 at 12:59 pm

I thought the initial piece was very thought-provoking. I have had conversations with many other mothers about the suggestions offered by the teacher.
We all oppose one suggestion the teacher made, which was to limit the use of online grade reporting. If there is one tool that has help to manage stress for my middle and high school students, it has been the ability to track the grades as they are calculated during the semester.
One teacher had several assignments listed as missing. My child was able to bring back in the graded assignments and get the matter corrected.
Another teacher entered a quiz grade of 96 incorrectly as a 69, which significantly impacted the course grade. Being able to catch that teacher's error made a huge difference to the grade and to my child's stress level.

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Posted by JT
a resident of Crescent Park
on Sep 10, 2010 at 1:05 pm

I'd like to see more investigation in how the school district and ACES responded to the first and second suicides. I get the impression things were chaotic, with a lot of people running around, not knowing what to do, and making things worse by whipping up an hysteria that caused more kids to take their lives. The sense of panic by adults definitely was felt by youth, and that may have led to more suicides.

This discussion would feel more honest and authentic if the panelists had owned up to that.

The Weekly deserves blame, too. Not just for that revolting bodybag-by-the-tracks shot they posted after the first death, but for not asking tough questions.

For instance, what protocol were the authorities following after the first and second deaths? Were they following an established protocol, based on national best practices (that were gleaned from other communities that successfully defeated youth suicide clusters) or where they winging it?

Also, why weren't the police and sheriff checking the computers, phones, Facebook pages and PDAs of the victims immediately after the deaths? How do we know there wasn't a pied piper? How do we know there wasn't a common thread?

The cops refused to say what they were doing, so we had no idea that they weren't doing the basics of a death investigation. The only way I found out that they weren't doing their jobs was when I read the story (Weekly, July 30, 2010) about how Stanford was initiating a study into these deaths. The story said that researchers would be asking the parents to look at the kids' computers, PDAs, etc., because it hadn't been done previously. Where are our well-paid cops? What were they doing? If Stanford finds something, the trail will be cold a year after these tragedies.

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Posted by Jane
a resident of University South
on Sep 10, 2010 at 3:26 pm

Thank you SOOOO much for running these articles, and making them the lead articles. They are a significant contribution.

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Posted by Jay Thorwaldson
editor emeritus
on Sep 10, 2010 at 4:53 pm

Jay Thorwaldson is a registered user.

The Weekly and Palo Alto Online have a policy of specifically not using photos of the scenes of adolescent suicide deaths. A review of our pdf of May 8, 2009, following the first death, showed only the young man's photo and a photo of teens with flowers. Perhaps the comment above confuses the Weekly with another publication.

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Posted by maguro_01
a resident of Mountain View
on Sep 10, 2010 at 5:48 pm

People might ask what the students view of the external world and their future is. Choosing a major is getting harder and harder yet they represent a serious commitment that may seem irrevocable, though it isn't. For US citizens or already Permanent Residents a career path in engineering or science is very iffy even for talented people. Few parents in these fields recommend them. Students get that reality through older siblings or friends also. Contrary company PR assertions just make any official information suspect. Corporate efforts to lobby automatic work visas for MS grads in the US will just make all entry level jobs require an MS. Journalism as a profession is shrinking fast.

More than the last few American generations, today's is just setting off in a small boat hoping to arrive somewhere. But they have their parent's generation's expectations behind them. It might be interesting to talk to some of the few older people still with us who graduated from high school in the Depression or there may be a body of literature that explores that.

Both my parents graduated from college in the Depression; my father was looking and my mother was teaching but would be laid off when they found out she was married. My mother said that he told her before they were married that if he had to he would carry boxes or whatever he had to do. Do not underestimate the seriousness of the discussion. Just before WWII he was in the Army running part of a CCC camp in Massachusetts. There were carpenters, factory workers, artists, lawyers, anyone working in the camp. I still have a couple of small paintings given to him around 1940 there. After the war he did very well as so many Americans did.

I don't know that things are that bad now though there is some chance they will be if we have a big derivatives crash. But reading these articles makes it seem as though there is a disconnect between what the students know as reality and the business as usual they hear everyday. It's the student's job to be a good antenna, as it were.

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Posted by Concerned Parent
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 10, 2010 at 7:06 pm

Maguro (the last posting) has it right in the first sentence, "People might ask what the students view of the external world and their future is." I went to many of the panels last year and found them to be wanting in letting students talk. Even the one where there was a student panel on stage (one from middle school, one from HS, and a UC student who had attended PA schools). They were given very little time to talk and were treated disrespectfully by the so called "experts" who got off the stage and left the kids in the semi darkness alone on the stage while the "experts" made their presentations. We need to hear from our kids. Our kids need to be listened to. I am sick of all these panels of "experts" analyzing everything and pontificating on what the kids need. Some of the information offered (the teacher's article and suggestions were great by the way) by the panels had some usefulness but for the most part they didn't shed much light on the real problems in this community. We have a community that has a conspiracy of silence and denial about lots of the things that are going on behind closed doors. Nothing develops in the dark but negatives unfortunately (you can tell what generation I am from!). Until we are willing to hear from the kids and really really listen to them and modify the behavior of the parents in this community I don't think much is going to change. We are still talking about freekin' online reporting of grades when the issues that need to be addressed are so much more important than that.

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Posted by palo alto mom
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Sep 10, 2010 at 7:17 pm

I would particularly like to thank Barb Spreng for bringing up the fact that PAUSD is actually behind the times in dealing with student stress. "Right across the street at Stanford, Denise Clark Pope has done groundbreaking research into the whole issue of student stress, and Palo Alto is one of the last and slowest to adopt any of that. "

We give lots of lip-service to wanting to reduce stress, but little real changes. For example, when asked (and listened to) the students asked for nicer teachers and prompt return of papers and tests. Seems pretty simple, yet those two changes are not being made. (My son had an English teacher last year who took literally months to return papers, five of them he never got back. Talk about stress inducing - having no idea what your grade is going into the final and little feedback on your writing. BTW, this teacher just got promoted, go figure!)

Something as simple as a polite greeting at the beginning of class would go a long way.

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Posted by Question
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Sep 10, 2010 at 7:43 pm

Can anyone identify a school district that has limited the number of AP classes a student can take? That would be an interesting place to research. Are there other school districts in the area who are doing some of the concrete steps talked about here we should look at? It goes beyond Challenge Days and the like. Paly and Gunn have Link Crew, which are similar. What about mobile phones off? What about no student recognition? There must be schools who have taken these simple steps mentioned here that we can learn from...

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Posted by Wondering Parent
a resident of another community
on Sep 10, 2010 at 8:43 pm

I don't know about public school districts, but some leading private schools have now eliminated AP and honors courses; some also don't single out individual students for recognition on a regular basis.

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Posted by Misha
a resident of Midtown
on Sep 10, 2010 at 11:38 pm

Kudos to the PA Weekly and its editors for keeping this important community health issue front and center, and for asking hard questions.

I am sorry the school district declined to participate. The silence is deafening. While I am encouraged by the district's decision to embrace Project Cornerstone, this should not be at the exclusion of staff and student education on emotional and mental health issues which will always be with us.

The schools seem to have gotten past fear and stigma related to health issues such as STD, drug and alcohol use. They include these topics in the classrooms and at assemblies. And yet in this particular community, the more prevalent issue may be the fragility of a child's psyche.

The schools are in a very good position increase awareness and courage so that students and staff can be better equipped to help someone in need. And yet, what is actually being done?

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Posted by Paly Mom
a resident of Midtown
on Sep 11, 2010 at 12:31 am

I liked what Becky Beacom said in the second installment-- What's coming out of the Challenge Success program is that we can do more than reduce stress; we can increase engagement and learning. Those who view the move to create a more caring school environment as working against students' preparation for competitive universities miss the point. Those who feel supported, connected and cared for will undoubtedly get more from the school experience and are likely to perform better. Some of the suggestions made, like the use of online grade reporting, might seem trivial to some, but they help. Timely grading of papers is another.
I don't think we can expect teachers to take on the role of confidante or counselor. We can, however, expect them to be sensitive to students' needs and to care. Teachers who can't be bothered shouldn't get tenure. PAUSD can afford to be more selective about hiring and granting tenure, and they need to be.

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Posted by Pam
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Sep 11, 2010 at 12:48 am

Some schools, like Sequoia High in Redwood City, have strict policies about cellphones, and they enforce them. Students seen using cellphones at school have them confiscated but can pick them up at the end of the day the first time. The second time a student's phone is confiscated, the parent has to come to school to pick it up in the office. Because of the strict policy, students are much less likely to use phones during class than in some classes at Paly. (There are some teachers at Paly who are too lax about cell phones; some are not.)
Other schools, like Carlmont High in Belmont, permit students to use cellphones before and after school and during brunch and lunch. Students are not permitted to use phones during class and may have them confiscated if they do so.
I believe Carlmont's policy is more realistic since so many students have cellphones, but Sequoia's stricter policy has been very effective. Cellphone use is not much of an issue at the school.

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Posted by Research
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Sep 11, 2010 at 9:23 am


Web Link

Web Link

Here are links to what Gunn has been doing on behalf of students. You can find similar information on Paly's website. Much of these efforts are site based.

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Posted by soccer mom
a resident of South of Midtown
on Sep 11, 2010 at 10:17 am

Does any one know why a man is his 20s was allowed on Gunn campus on Friday to approach students asking to "buy pot"? I am very disturbed by this. My son thinks this is some kind of "sting operation." If so, how is this being managed and supervised? By whom? Is it a coincidence that my son was with a group of African American/Hispanic/South Pacific Islander/Filipino students?

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Posted by Research
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Sep 11, 2010 at 12:07 pm

Soccer Mom:

You should encourage your son to alert school officials. And you should have him share his suspicions.

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Posted by absolutely clueless
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Sep 11, 2010 at 12:45 pm

"Does any one know why a man is his 20s was allowed on Gunn campus on Friday to approach students asking to "buy pot"? I am very disturbed by this. My son thinks this is some kind of "sting operation." If so, how is this being managed and supervised? By whom? Is it a coincidence that my son was with a group of African American/Hispanic/South Pacific Islander/Filipino students?"

Ah that must be it! It's not a war on school, its a war on drugs! And let's play the race card too!

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Posted by Mom
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Sep 11, 2010 at 3:20 pm

I agree with palo alto mom that looking at the role teacher's behavior plays in student stress is crucial.
One English teacher at Paly last year was outsourcing her grading responsibilities to a Stanford grad student (with the knowledge and consent of the administration). The grading was arbitrary and inappropriate for high school work. No amount of student or parent feedback about the teacher's dereliction of duties made any difference.

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Posted by What's Up?
a resident of Barron Park
on Sep 11, 2010 at 7:13 pm

Project Cornerstone, the mental health survey that the kids are taking next week, is an anonymous survey. It won't help to spot students who need help. A kid could be screaming for help but that survey won't do a thing to save that child.

How many people knew this?

I was very surprised.

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Posted by concerned
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 12, 2010 at 12:52 am

Amid all this discussion on what we can do, where's the issue of school size?

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) instead of demanding they consider whether we can reopen Cubberley?

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)?

From: Review of Empirical Evidence about School Size Effects

"...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..."

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?

We need to be seriously considering whether paying for ultra-large schools is a wise way to spend so much money, instead of using the money to improve the campuses and reopen Cubberley (as a choice school, so enrollments at both Gunn and Paly could be lowered).

I applaud those who held this discussion, much good came out of it -- but this issue was relevant and glaringly absent.

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Posted by Member
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Sep 12, 2010 at 12:21 pm

The teen articles are providing a good discussion about education and I hope the comments provided on this blog will reach the ears of our educational leaders, teachers and school board. Here then is another chord to be heard:
I would like to shout out the voice of the parents who do not pressure their children and love them for who they are, YES we are out here, living in Palo Alto and part of the P.A. schools!! We want our children to grow, prosper and contribute to society. We have been raising children for decades and find that it was not the college that determined their ultimate fate, but the character of the beings they have become. We have dear friends who went to Ivy League schools and discovered life just as daunting and with just as few guarantees for their happiness. We have children who went to universities with less fame, but had fabulous experiences. Ultimately, the college is less important than life skills. As parents of both adult children and teens we know that with any education or great job you may crash or glide into real life along the way: recessions occur, job are lost, businesses fail and then there are natural disasters, illness, divorce and more. How do we prepare our children for life regardless of their various gifts, their strengths and weaknesses? How will they navigate the storms life will present and remain loving,stable people rather than feel like failures and turn to drugs? Surely we know that AP classes and SAT scores are NO indicator of a students ability to be successful in life, love oneself, find happiness or be a good citizen. Check the research, they are NO indicator or predictor of such good fortune.
We are proud of our wonderful, just above average children. They are terrific, fun,creative, generous and have many gifts to offer society. Are there more of you proud P.A. parents out there, without the awards, the scholarships???? Please speak up! Our voices are being drowned out by the drum beat of the obsessed, by the first time parents who are panicked by potential "ordinariness" in their children.
As an educator I do appreciate the importance of this discussion and hope real change results from the brilliance of many of these concrete suggestions. So here is one more suggestion. Implement the Academy model, a "school within the school" 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. Let's Celebrate and value all of our children, it is a gift to have them in our midst.

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Posted by Other mom
a resident of Midtown
on Sep 12, 2010 at 9:40 pm

To member in Charleston Meadows

We are one of these families in the "silent" category. And I agree with you 100%. We have one child who went to PAUSD schools throughout, graduated from college in 2009, and has been working for a year, and one child still in a Palo Alto high school.

Our first child was not pressured by us regarding school, he was allowed to make his own decisions and choices about all extracurricular activities, and he chose a path quite out of the Palo Alto ordinary for those activities. That child did not have stellar grades, just very decent grades, and great SAT scores. He did not go to a very prestigious university, but to a good, solid college. Now, this child, only one year after college, already is not treated by his employer any differently than his many colleagues who went to universities that are more prestigious and much harder to get into! And he is completely comfortable with his work situation!

However, I agree that AP classes should not be arbitrarily banned. Again, our oldest took a number of AP classes, because HE wanted to, we never pressured him. It turns out he had better grades in his AP classes (without spending all his nights studying) than in his regular classes! And passed all the AP tests he took. I think it was because he actually found those classes more engaging than the regular curriculum. So let's not adopt drastic cookie-cutter solutions.

I think parents, not schools and teachers, play the biggest role in what happens to our kids in school, particularly high school.

Let's not restrict everything for everybody because there is a number of parents who are over-involved. Parents: just RE-LAX !

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Posted by Johnny
a resident of College Terrace
on Sep 14, 2010 at 1:25 am

It's not about parents or teachers, its about peers. This is the greatest source of teenage depression.
Nothing harms a student more than feeling like an outcast. Since he's enclosed in a playpen with the same people and is forced to see them every day, he just might have trouble finding a niche. He is not exposed to the outside world, which has a striking variety of people to meet... no, Gunn is all about trends. I think this is the biggest problem in high school. During this crucial developmental stage, a kid is forced to associate with a limited amount of people, the same faces, and he must fit into this pseudo-society and he is pressured to fit into a limited number of social options, which have nothing to do with real people in the real world.
When a kid can't find people to hang out with, it becomes something akin to terror, and creates a learned helplessness within him when it comes to social situations.
The kid who doesn't follow a trend, who can't fit into a certain clique will feel ostracized to the point where he might be damaged beyond recovery. Nothing hurts more than being left out, and it leaves deep scars, even suicidal ones.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.