Gunn to reform counseling program | March 30, 2012 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

News - March 30, 2012

Gunn to reform counseling program

New direction follows school board discussion of high school counseling models

by Chris Kenrick

Gunn High School administrators said they will move toward significant reforms in the school's guidance counseling program following a discussion with the Board of Education Tuesday night.

The sometimes emotional, four-hour discussion came in response to a consultant's report on guidance programs in Palo Alto's two high schools, which employ substantially different systems for counseling students.

Consultant Kelun Zhang said her report was intended "expressly not to compare the two models," and she did not recommend one high school's system over the other.

But several school board members expressed "a sense of urgency" for Gunn to explore changes, pointing to the survey of students that indicated consistently higher levels of satisfaction with counseling at Palo Alto High School than at Gunn.

Though saying they were loath to dictate specifics, a majority of board members suggested Gunn shift to a counseling system closer in structure to that at Paly, which augments its four-member guidance-counseling staff with 46 "teacher advisers" and several college counselors.

By contrast, Gunn employs six guidance counselors, who are charged with the gamut of academic advising, college and career counseling and student social-emotional health.

In particular, board members said they wanted to see more built-in "touch points" between students and adult counselors than the current once-a-year model at Gunn. At Paly, students meet in groups of 22 with their teacher-advisers at least monthly throughout their four years of high school. In junior year, they meet one-to-one with college counselors.

"I'm in no way saying we have to take a system from one school and dump it on another, but there are specific goals I'd like to see us do," board member Barbara Klausner said.

Gunn Principal Katya Villalobos and Superintendent Kevin Skelly said they will consult with staff members and return to the board in June with suggestions on how to proceed.

Zhang said she felt "discomfort" about data from her report being used to advocate one high school's system over the other's.

"The original intent of the report and study was expressly not to compare the two models or make recommendations about which is the right model," Zhang told the board.

Among Zhang's findings was that Paly spends more than Gunn on its guidance counseling program — about $1,522,536 compared to Gunn's $1,213,086 — when total salaries, benefits and stipends are considered.

Board members recalled that Gunn had elected instead to invest in smaller class sizes in English.

Skelly suggested it would be difficult and time-consuming for Gunn to fundamentally alter its model.

"These are not trivial changes. I'm not happy with the (survey) results at Gunn, and I'd like them to be as high or higher than Paly's are, but these are part of a larger ecosystem at those schools.

"We know we need to add resources at Gunn or experiment with different things," he said.

But board members and others kept returning to the surveys, with high response rates at both schools, reporting consistently higher levels of satisfaction with counseling at Paly.

"We can't have different investments at the two schools in something as important as this," board member Melissa Baten Caswell said.

"I'm OK with small differences, but this just seems like we have major differences, and I don't understand it in a community with only two high schools.

"I'd like to know what's going to be different next year as a result of this," Caswell said.

Klausner cited a comparison chart prepared by the community group We Can Do Better Palo Alto, which reformatted data from Zhang's student survey into a direct comparison of satisfaction levels at the two schools.

"Given that Paly's numbers ... are higher, I'd like to look at those and figure out if there's something to be adapted," Klausner said. "There's something our students at Gunn are not getting."

We Can Do Better, which advocates for policies to reduce academic stress, has pushed aggressively for the past year for Gunn to adopt Paly's teacher-adviser model.

The group assembled seven parents Tuesday who spoke in favor of Gunn adopting Paly's model.

"A year ago we brought forward evidence of student and parent satisfaction levels at Paly much higher than those at Gunn, and a year later we have more evidence of exactly the same thing," We Can Do Better co-founder Ken Dauber said.

"There really isn't any further reason for delay.

"I know the district instructed our consultant not to compare these two schools. I don't know why that was. I'd like to hear that because it seems like a real missed opportunity.

"We have a lot of analytic ability here that has not been fully made use of," Dauber said.

"It's really time to stop wondering what's going on or looking for the underlying reasons and to give to Gunn parents and students what you're giving to Paly parents and students. It's a simple matter of equity and fairness," he said.


Do you favor changing Gunn High School's guidance system to more closely resemble the one at Palo Alto High? Talk about the issue on Town Square, the community discussion forum on Palo Alto Online.


The consultant's 43-page report is available on online at

Staff Writer Chris Kenrick can be emailed at


Posted by Ken Dauber, a resident of Barron Park School
on Mar 28, 2012 at 7:09 am

This is a great outcome for Gunn students and future Gunn students. The move by the school board came in response to comparative data compiled from the district's report by We Can Do Better Palo Alto. That data, from student surveys of satisfaction with counseling systems at Gunn and Paly, showed that out of the 125 measures on which the high schools could be compared directly, Paly students are more satisfied than Gunn students by 5 or more percentage points on 95 measures. Gunn students, by contrast, are more satisfied than Paly students on 6 measures. Paly students are much more satisfied than Gunn students across every grade and area of counseling, from academic to social-emotional support (see Web Link for links to the data and our analyses).
These data show clearly that despite schools with very similar populations and equally dedicated and hardworking counseling staff, Gunn is hobbled by a traditional counseling model that just doesn't work as well for students as does Paly's teacher advisory model.
Barbara Klausner and Melissa Baten-Caswell came out strongly for moving to a single model for counseling based on teacher advisory at the two high schools. Dana Tom also voiced strong support for teacher advisory while insisting that the high schools provide comparable results for students, something that all board members agree is not happening now. Camille Townsend, who has long been a supporter of teacher advisory based on her experience as a Paly parent and was again last night, also insisted on the need for comparable outcomes and swift action. Kudos to all these Board members for finally moving this question from study to action.
Our job in the community is to continue to hold the district and Board members to the expectation that all students in the district will receive the same high quality of counseling services. Katya Villalobos, the Gunn principal, was enthusiastic at the Board meeting about the prospect of moving to teacher advisory, and promised to bring a plan back to the Board in June (Katya ran the teacher advisory program when she was at Paly). We'll continue to provide data and feedback to help this process along.

Posted by cautious, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 28, 2012 at 9:26 am

What about Camile's comments that she had never heard of A-G in all of her travels as a parent through Paly? What about the suicides that occurred while Paly was under the TA system? What about Gunn's small class sizes for freshman Eng and Alg? What about the fact that Gunn staff voted down TA system when Ms. Likens tried to intstitute it several years ago? What about the instructional minutes they would be transferring to TA curriculum?

Wouldn't we be better off just hiring more counselors at Gunn?

Posted by Michele Dauber, a resident of Barron Park
on Mar 28, 2012 at 11:40 am

The focused goal from the Board regarding counseling for this year was to:

Provide more specific description and analysis of guidance models and consider suggested enhancements.

The specific activities for this goal were:
(a) Contract with an independent, third party agency to assess the guidance models at both high schools, considering recommendations and potential enhancements; and
(b) Plan for the implementation of any needed adjustments to ensure quality
guidance experiences for all PAUSD students (see: Web Link)

Somewhere between this board goal and specific activity (which was assigned to district staff Amy Drolette and Mike Millikin) the consultant was specifically instructed not to "assess the guidance models at both high schools." Any assessment of the models themselves would necessarily require a comparison of how each model performs in relation to the other model, and in relation to the national standards for guidance delivery which were cited but not applied.

Rather, the charge to the consultant required her to prepare two separate reports that merely described each model and oddly pretended that the other model and the other school did not exist. As Board member Melissa Caswell remarked, "we only have two high schools." The only comparison that the district permitted into the report was the financial comparison which showed Paly spending more money than Gunn. Even this seemed designed to mislead since it understated the amount Gunn spent by around $30K and made other errors as well that tended to overstate the gap in numerous ways too boring to get into here. In other words, the schools are spending quite similar amounts of money but getting quite different results.

This crippled the consultant's ability to do goal (b) which was to "ensure quality guidance experiences for all PAUSD students," since she was expressly instructed not to recommend assessing or changing models at either school.

By taking off the table the analysis we needed, and by taking away from the consultant the tools she needed, the district staff tried to prevent the board from receiving the information it had requested in this focused goal.

Whether or not you agree with We Can Do Better and the majority of the school board that it is time to consider implementing a TA model at Gunn because Paly students have three different adults and many more points of contact and connection than Gunn students, you should be unhappy about this waste of your tax dollars on a report that was purposely designed to hide the ball from ourselves and from the school board.

Fortunately the survey data itself was of excellent quality and by spending hundreds of hours of community time it was possible to take the survey and produce the comparisons needed to "assess the guidance models." But why was taxpayer money (and how much?) spent outside the scope of this direction? The community should receive an answer to this question.
students." See: Web Link

Posted by It is getting old, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 28, 2012 at 12:03 pm

If 20-25% of Paly students do not feel supported then why is this such a great model? Surely, if we are paying for a "study" then we should be looking at best practices. I doubt that PAUSD has all the answers. Surely there are schools that rank high in counseling and student support. We should be learning from them rather than the tired, old "Paly vs Gunn" comparison.

Posted by cautious, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 28, 2012 at 1:11 pm

Were all of the seven parents who requested that Gunn adopt Paly's model actually Gunn parents or were they elementary and Paly parents as we have seen in the past?

Posted by Michele Dauber, a resident of Barron Park
on Mar 28, 2012 at 1:22 pm


All parents who spoke in favor of the change were parents of multiple Gunn students, as well as one Professor from the Stanford School of Education who stated that advisory counseling systems tend to raise student achievement scores and are considered best practice interventions in order to address both social-emotional health and improved academic performance.

Posted by MSaunders, a resident of Ventura
on Mar 28, 2012 at 3:19 pm

I am relieved to hear that this is finally happening. I have three children. The first two went to Gunn and the Gunn counseling system and teachers failed both of them. They were unavailable, not knowledgeable about the range of areas on which they were supposed to provide guidance and were singularly focused on graduation requirements. I sent my third child to St. Francis and the support and education that she received was easily 100 times better than my son's received at Gunn.

Posted by Observer, a resident of South of Midtown
on Mar 29, 2012 at 10:09 am

This is a long overdue reevaluation. Gunn counseling is inadequate to the number of students. The counselors are very overworked, and some of them do not know the most basic facts about how to get into college. Last night at a meeting about choosing a college, parents were told that taking both the SAT and the ACT is best, while at a meeting earlier this year of the same group, two Gunn guidance counselors said a student should take one or the other. This is an important piece of bad guidance. Imagine what else they are claiming in one on one sessions. At least at Paly, students receive guidance from more than one source. Although my Gunn students are fortunate to have a good counselor, there is at least one counselor at Gunn who is simply not helpful to her many students.

Posted by It is getting old, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Mar 29, 2012 at 1:20 pm

Can anyone define what the community is expecting of counselors. Are they supposed to help with getting into college; making sure that students are graduating; making sure that someone is available to talk 24-7; emotional/social guidance? It is unclear to me exactly what we are expecting out of "guidance" on the high school campus. Maybe a definition of expectation would be a great start to finding a better way to support students.

Posted by Michele Dauber, a resident of Barron Park
on Mar 29, 2012 at 1:28 pm


Excellent question. With respect to Gunn, the answer is "yes." We expect counselors to do every single one of these things.

With respect to Paly, counselors (1 for each grade level) do social-emotional counseling, and other teachers and advisors do other parts. Teacher-advisors do academic counseling, graduation advising, and course selection and schedule changes, and also some of the college advising and letter writing, and there are 2 career and college advisors for college advising also.

The importance of this difference is that there are multiple adults assisting and supporting each student at Paly and only one guidance counselor per 350 students at Gunn who wears all these hats. Is it any wonder that the counselors at Gunn triage their time toward seniors? What is really interesting is that even in senior year, Paly students are happier and more connected to their guidance counselors than those at Gunn on average.

Posted by Michele Dauber, a resident of Barron Park
on Mar 29, 2012 at 3:10 pm

For those of you who did not see the data:

Web Link

Posted by spam, a resident of Barron Park
on Mar 29, 2012 at 10:49 pm

[Post removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

Posted by John Tuomy, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 17, 2012 at 3:22 pm

Why was this comment removed?

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