Surveys: Student emotional health improving | March 2, 2012 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

News - March 2, 2012

Surveys: Student emotional health improving

Schools report on citywide initiatives to boost teen wellness after suicides

by Chris Kenrick

Palo Alto students gained a bit of ground in their overall social-emotional well-being between 2007 and 2011, according to survey data presented Tuesday, Feb. 28, to the Board of Education.

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Staff Writer Chris Kenrick can be emailed at


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Posted by Becky Sanders
a resident of Ventura
on Mar 1, 2012 at 10:22 am

All right Chris! Another great article in your ongoing coverage of the Project Safety Net initiatives in our schools. I just want to remind people in our community that even if you don't have kids in school you can support kids by getting to know the names of the kids right in your own neighborhood and meeting their parents and then remembering their names and asking them about themselves from time to time. You might actually find you care so much more than you ever thought you would. And small business owners, how can you engage youth? Think about Michael Meyer. He owns a woodshop in MV, lives in PA, does custom cabinetry. But he takes the time to let young people come in, show them the tools, teach them the techniques and gives them wood to create things. That's how Michael's using his business to change lives. But the big picture here is that if we want our children to buy into our values we have to demonstrate values worth buying into. How can kids invest in us when we won't invest in them with our time. They will LOVE their community, if their community loves them. End of lecture. Thanks again PA Online and Chris.

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Posted by Harriet Chessman
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Mar 1, 2012 at 11:02 am

A valuable article! I hope these numbers continue to rise, especially the percentages of children who feel they have adults, at home and in school, to whom they can turn.

I'd like to see a breakdown of these figures by grade. My sense is that a "Caring School Climate" (one of the developmental assets) is much easier to create and maintain in our elementary schools than in our middle and high schools. Just to read a copy of Paly's wonderful CAMPANILE offers insight into high school students' efforts on many fronts to create more dialogue with the administration.

I especially hope that high school administrators can treat students and their families with increasing openness and flexibility. At a minimum, if a family asks to meet with an administrator, about an important issue in a child's situation academically, the granting of such a request would seem to mark a basic confirmation of the school's dedication to a "caring school environment."

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Posted by Paly parent
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Mar 1, 2012 at 12:16 pm

Another fabulous resource at the secondary schools is Adolescent Counseling Services, who has been partnering with with District for 32 years to bring mental health services to students on campus. ACS works directly with the guidance counselors and administration on each campus, and, on average, sees ~15% of the population of each of the 5 secondary schools in a given year.
ACS recently presented a report at a Project Safety Net luncheon (profiled in another great article by Chris Kenrick) describing academic stress as the primary reason students seek counseling from ACS.
My child was counseled at ACS and it made a huge difference in her approach to school. I've heard many other stories from parents whose students benefited from the free counseling offered by ACS on campus.
We are lucky to have such a dedicated and established agency supporting our students.

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Posted by Wondering?
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 1, 2012 at 1:04 pm

> My child was counseled at ACS and it made a huge difference
> in her approach to school.

And just what could they do in a few sessions that you couldn't, having been this girl's parent all of her life?

Is the problem with the PAUSD students, or their parents?

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Posted by Not wondering
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Mar 1, 2012 at 1:30 pm

@ Wondering?

Have you ever had teenagers? If your answer is yes, then you know that teenagers will listen to third parties much better than they listen to their own parents... That's just how it often is.

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Posted by Michele Dauber
a resident of Barron Park
on Mar 1, 2012 at 2:22 pm

Michele Dauber is a registered user.

Project Safety Net is a good initiative and the district has also accomplished some good things in terms of mental health interventions. The district has this year adopted good focused goals that will begin to look at core educational practices such as homework and counseling that may impact mental health in the high schools.

The good news is that the district is taking the issue seriously and is attempting to measure progress with real metrics.

Now, the less-good news. The district reported on not on the "school connectedness" statistic provided by the California Health Kids Survey but on the overall community and school connectedness figure, which is far higher. California Healthy Kids has an index, composed of both community and school climate/connectedness estimates (each of which is also comprised of an index). While the overall connectedness number is at 66% for 11th grade, the portion of that which refers to the school climate is at 45% - that is, only 45% of PAUSD 11th graders, and 39% of 9th graders score in the high connectedness range. The other number, the 66% is interesting, but it includes an index of community connnectedness and thus is of little or no value as a metric and baseline for district programming.

The effect of this metric choice is that even though there is a school-specific number available, the district chose a far higher number that reflects community connectedness as well, thus bootstrapping the district's figure with the addition of all the other connections kids have in the community and diluting the effect of both its own efforts and its challenges. I have no idea why they would choose to do this -- I assume it is an error, but it did allow them to show a slide claiming that we have 66% of students with high school connectedness when the real number is much lower.

See PAUSD's 2010 report here: Web Link

Disaggregating the figures by race yields some interesting information. Around 40% of white and Asian students have high connectedness to school, while a lower proportion of Black and Hispanic students score in that range, with the Hispanic number of 33% representing a fairly large gap.

In terms of school climate Table A.3.12 presents some worrisome figures. For example, around a third of 9th and 11th graders do not really feel that there is any teacher or other adult at the school who really cares about them. Around a quarter don't really feel there is an adult who will notice if they are not there. And approximately a fifth do not think there is an adult who believes that they can succeed. While those questions are not broken out by race in this report, it is not a big leap from our achievement gap to a hypothesis that minority youth score lower on these items than their majority peers.

A little more sobering even than this is the staff survey that was taken at the same time as part of Healthy Kids. This report can be found here: Web Link. The sample of high school teachers is 100, relatively large.

The most important number in this report relevant to this story is found in table 5.8 -- 32% of teachers believe that student depression and mental health is a "severe" problem, and an additional 47% think it is a moderate problem, meaning that 79% think that depression and other mental health issues are a moderate to severe problem in the schools. Around a fifth do not think that the school emphasizes helping students with social/emotional problems or fostering resiliance or asset promotion. Around a third do not think that our high schools provide harassment or bullying prevention.

One interesting number is in table 3.10, in which 57% of teachers believe that the teachers in our high schools need professional development to meet the social/emotional needs of students. A majority of teachers think that our students need more rest (table 5.6)

As might be predicted from the Paly Math letter:
- 20% of teachers believe that they need professional development to meet academic standards and a third believe that they need professional development in instructional methods to be effective.
-Over a third need professional development in order to maintain a positive school climate.
- Over a third need professional development to close the achievement gap.
-40% believe that they need professional development to work with diverse populations effectively.
-44% need professional development on "culturally relevant pedagogy"
-40% need professional development working with english language learners.
-25% do not believe that the district provides sufficient resources for special education students and half of teachers believe that they need professional development for serving special ed students. That one gave me a panic attack.
-20% of teachers surveyed do not agree that the adults in our high schools believe that every student can be a success.

I went through this very quickly, and may not have hit all the high/low points but it is clear that there is a lot of information in these surveys that is much much more specific and clear than what was presented by the district. From a journalistic perspective, a story that went deeper into these figures and fact-checked the district's citation of it's 66% "connected" number would have revealed that the district is using a figure that includes the community connectedness when there is a school-specific number available.

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Posted by Wondering?
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 1, 2012 at 2:38 pm

> Have you ever had teenagers?

Ah .. everyone was a teenager once.

And aren't teachers "third parties'?

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Posted by Michele Dauber
a resident of Barron Park
on Mar 1, 2012 at 11:30 pm

After looking at this report further I think I was somewhat incorrect on one point. It looks as if there are actually three variables under resilience and connectedness-- school environment, community environment, and school connectedness scale (the tables are set up to make it look like school connectedness is a combined index but I think it is actually not). The district uses the "connectedness scale" as an estimate. However, "school environment" is the most appropriate variable for estimating what PAUSD has defined as "connectedness" despite the var name.

See the report here: Web Link, page 5 and 12.

The questions for school environment (called "total school assets" in the 2007 version of the data, see Web Link) are about such things as whether there is a "teacher or other adult who really cares about me," and a teacher or other adult "who notices when I am not there," and a teacher or other adult "who listens when I have something to say" and who "believes that I can be a success." These seem like the things we intend to operationalize as connectedness, because they track the Developmental Assets framework and also hew to the definition of connectedness we have been using here in the district -- positive connections between kids and adults at school.

By this measure, only around 39% of 9th graders and 45% of 11th graders (less for minority students) are in the high range. These figures are flat or slightly down since 2007, when they were, respectively 41% and 42%.

By contrast, the "connectedness scale" the district is actually using appears to be based on questions like "I feel close to people at this school," which for most kids means their friends, and "I am happy to be at this school," which again does not focus in any way on connections to teachers or other adults. The only question that is about teachers asks whether teachers treat students fairly which only indirectly and theoretically is connected to connecteness -- ostensibly if teachers are unfair students won't want to be connected to them, but the mechanism is quite attenuated compared with the other variable discussed above.

In sum, the district is probably using the wrong variable (despite the fact that it is named "school connectedness") and is estimating a variable that has no relationship to the underlying quality sought to be measured (connections to teachers and other adults). Such a variable does exist in the data set, but the values on that variable and the trends over time are less reassuring.

In terms of trends, I am not sure why we are even estimating them at this point. This story says "mental health improving" but the data is from 2007, before the crisis, and in the fall of 2009, just at the beginning of it. The interventions that the district undertook during the past 2 to 3 years would be reflected in this data, thus any trend (and it is mostly flat) could not be used to show progress as a result of district interventions.

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Posted by Oh, Geez
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 1, 2012 at 11:59 pm

[Post removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

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Posted by still waiting
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Mar 2, 2012 at 7:11 am

[Portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

Even when we have good and encouraging news - on an issue that you have repeatedly and publicly chastised our schools about - reporting that more and more of our students are thriving socially and emotionally, you find a way to find fault and blame the district.

[Portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

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Posted by Harriet Chessman
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Mar 2, 2012 at 11:12 am

Michele Dauber, thank you so much for this careful and thorough comment -- I find it tremendously helpful. It squares with my own sense of a high proportion of high school students who feel at sea in our high schools, and unsupported by the grown-ups in the schools.

I would add that SO many teachers and administrators are making a huge effort to change this situation. Some of the contributing factors have to do with California budget cuts and Prop 13, and even in affluent Palo Alto this scarcity of resources (insufficient # of teachers, too many kids in each classroom, too few counselors and teacher advisors, for instance) makes itself felt on a daily basis.

I'm surprised and shaken by those figures about the high number of teachers in pausd high schools who cite awareness of their students' depression, and the perceived need for greater professional development to help them cope with the difficulties their students are experiencing. Teachers deserve help, as our schools deserve more sustainable funding.

I'm not saying that money would fix everything, but surely it would help. Smaller class size would help immensely. Teacher advisors having smaller numbers of advisees would help. The presence of more psychologist and counselors would help. A school body of almost 2,000 students, in this day and age, needs more grown-ups who have time to pay attention to each student. These students need a well-supported faculty and administration who can offer more nurture, more flexibility, more attention, than can be provided with such slim resources. The problem is huge.

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Posted by Engineer
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Mar 2, 2012 at 2:33 pm

Thanks Palo Alto Online staff for at least trying to enable reasoned discussion on this board. I'm amazed at the number of people, probably including "Oh, Geez" and "still waiting" who seem to have no other agenda than to shoot the messenger. I appreciate it when people bring additional facts and data. What's the point of trying to suppress facts that make you feel uncomfortable? Why read a newspaper if you don't want to learn anything?

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Posted by Sharon
a resident of Midtown
on Mar 2, 2012 at 5:35 pm

Fortunately Stanford Dept of Psychiatry and PAMF stepped in and provided adult supervision and professional advice to high school students in PAUSD.

Suicide way is beyond the competence of the many, many MFCCs-marriage and family counselors--who are trying to make a living in Palo Alto.

PAUSD needs to establish an oversight task force of qualifies Stanford MDs to supervise the paraprofessionals who are working in or contracting services to PAUSD.

Marriage counseling is a different matter from the very serious issues of child/adolescent psychiatry.

--we need qualified professional MDs-- not well meaning paraprofessionals-- counseling our PAUSD kids moving forward.

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