Town Square

Paly, Gunn students detail dissatisfaction with counseling programs

Original post made on May 15, 2012

Students in Palo Alto's two public high schools wish they had more personal attention from their counselors to help them with what they perceive as ever-looming college-admission pressures, newly released survey results reveal.

Read the full story here Web Link posted Tuesday, May 15, 2012, 5:59 PM


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Posted by Bill
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 15, 2012 at 7:30 pm

This situation is getting to be beyond crazy. Asking this kids what they think about their guidance counselors, or the guidance program as a whole, is not generating a lot in the way of intelligent answers.

Let’s look at one of the shorter answers--
> The counselors can help students be more informed about
> college requirements (classes, SAT I & II, AP tests) by
> giving out lists or links to specific resources.

The student indicates some possible answers to “college requirements”. She (in this case) even gives us a couple ideas about what she is talking about (maybe). So, what’s the issue? Has the school provided her no information about what the graduation requirements are? Or does she have other needs that she hasn’t managed to articulate in this answer?

Obviously, the school knows what its requirements are—so have they never told the students? And if they did, does the PAUSD need to tell them in a way that is clearer? Certainly the PAUSD web-site would be the best place for this sort of information to be found, or perhaps the high school’s web-site. So, is it there? Is it clear? And who is responsible for reading this information, and understanding it?

It would be a good idea if the parents were in the loop here. Most of the answers seem to suggest that the school is the only source of information about college, and the rest of these students' lives. So, wonder how often these same kids, who are complaining about the high school counselors, have spoken to their parents about these issues? Having the parents sign a form (on-line OK), that they have seen the requirements, and understand them—would seem to be necessary. Having an email sent to the home, that requires at least one parent visit the school web-site that outlines student requirements, and to sign a statement of understanding, would seem like a mandatory part of the management of the student/parent/school relationship. This form should be signed every year, and the signatures kept in the student’s permanent record.

At some point, there is only so much the school can do. Many of these kids sound like they expect the school to do just about everything that should be done in the home, and then some.

This whole process is getting out of control.

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Posted by Bill
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 15, 2012 at 7:57 pm

Here is another of the shorter answers—

> The Guidance Counseling department can help more
> with switching/dropping classes to help with the
> process of transferring classes.

This one seems to indicate issues within the school that has to do with schedule changes. Presumably the guidance counselor needs to be in the loop, but to what extent? Does this take a “consultation” with the student, and possibly the teacher? Does it take a parent’s approval?

Perhaps someone with detailed knowledge of the situation might answer the follow-on question: “what’s going on here?” Is this something that an automated class scheduling system can handle better? How much counselor's time should each student dropping/adding a class be expected to take?

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Posted by Twins, but one costs more
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on May 15, 2012 at 8:33 pm

How can anyone conclude that Paly students feel more connected at school than Gunn students do?

In the district student survey 64% and 65% of Gunn and Paly students said that they felt a part of their school community (the same).

The stats are even the same at both high schools for brand new 9th graders. After just a few months into high school:

* 72% of 9th graders at both high schools said that their high school is welcoming

* 52% at Gunn said that there already was an adult on campus who cared about them. 59% said the same at Paly.

So when it comes to student CONNECTEDNESS - which goes straight to what Project Safety Net is about and is its #1 suggestion on how to help students who feel alienated and alone – our two high schools are virtually indistinguishable.

If instead this debate is about Paly having a system that is better at college counseling, then the outcomes - the number of students who get into the college of their choice - should be skewed in Paly's favor. On this measure they seem pretty indistinguishable too.

Do the math. Same results but Paly spends $300k more than Gunn does for a guidance system that is supposed to, but doesn't, deliver premiums on connectedness and college placements.

It pretty darn seems like our two high schools meet the school board’s test of offering “roughly equivalent services to all students" albeit at different price points.

Can folks stop picking on Gunn now?

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Posted by Enough is enough
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on May 15, 2012 at 9:15 pm

I agree with Bill. Lets step back and give the school administrators a chance to review the process and develop a plan or recommendation.
They already are aware of the needs. It is always good to improve the process. Maybe each high school should add a couple of academic counselors instead. Lets don't jump into conclusion and on the bandwagon of "We must do something quick".

Gunn's administrators are already forming a committee(parents, counselors, students and consultants). A proposal is due out soon. Not everyone is dissatisfied with the college counseling at Gunn. Personally, I think academic counseling can be added to complement college counseling at Gunn.

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Posted by Palo Alto Parent
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on May 15, 2012 at 9:47 pm

Having been active in the student community, the students at both schools need guildance as they plan for live after high school. They need individuals that have the time to help them establish realistic goals after high school.

I know that many of the Paly Seniors have appreciated the help they have received as they applied, evaluated and decided on colleges they will attend.

I support the school administrators as they look to improve the process of the district.

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Posted by Sharon
a resident of Midtown
on May 15, 2012 at 9:57 pm

We need qualified adult supervision by MDs from Stanford and PAMF for these programs.

There are lots of paraprofessional MFCC and psychologists around but they they need supervision by qualified MDs when the issue is our kids welfare

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Posted by jj
a resident of Midtown
on May 16, 2012 at 7:23 am

In a way I am glad I am not alone. My daughter who is a junior at Gunn never got notified by her counselor last year. And we thought
that she didn't let us know about the meeting on purpose. We had a fight about it.

Councilors at Gunn, wake up and do you job please.

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Posted by Grandma
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 16, 2012 at 8:08 am

Many years ago when my younger son was at Gunn I asked him if he'd got any advice about college from a Counselor or information about which UC to apply to for his major, physics. His reply was he'd been to a Counselor but her advice was too general and useless, we ended up doing the research on our own. I guess things haven't changed.

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Posted by soccer mom
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on May 16, 2012 at 8:24 am

Bill, you have some good ideas about how some process automation and web based communications can improve Guidance department operations at Gunn. Student transfers are all paper based with students having to collect signatures of the teacher from the class they are transfering out of, the teacher of the class they are transfering into, the instructional supervisor and their counselor. Also, the college application package is paper based and has to be submitted in the first quarter which usually means that students are requesting and paying for transcript requests for more colleges than they may end up applying to just to cover themselves. Of course this also creates more work for staff to process these requests.

Automation of these business processes can help to free up valuable counseling time and should be part of the proposed changes. Note that the proposed timetable from the Gunn working team to come back with a plan is March 2013 - we are losing another year. WASC reports going back to 2008 requested changes to the Gunn counseling model. This is not a new or unknown issue.

In response to Twins comments above, an important part of process improvement is to identify a core set of metrics against which a process is measured. Twins response included two metrics - 1) # students admitted to Top Tier universities and 2) Student evaluation of connectedness. Both of these have inputs other than Guidance which would materially impact the outcome. These measures may be interesting to track at the school level, but do not measure Guidance services specifically. Paly's Guidance department is rolling out a Guidance curriculum with pre/post tests to make sure that students are exposed to core information and are tested to make sure that they leave the TA session having understood the material. I think this is a good quantitative evaluation of Guidance services. Student and parent satisfaction surveys are qualitative measures.

I am interested in what other people think are good ways to measure Guidance service delivery.

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Posted by delay
a resident of Crescent Park
on May 16, 2012 at 9:01 am

One question is, would those measures just delay those suicides into college years? Yes, just recently a freshman kid in a top local university killed himself by jumping from the building. I suspect if we handle all the difficulties in high school for them, when they are in college, who would watch them, they will be coming from riding the high cloud to the bottom of land. Real hard.

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Posted by Michele Dauber
a resident of Barron Park
on May 16, 2012 at 9:04 am

Thank you Chris for this excellent coverage.

Not only are the Gunn comments more negative they are also more detailed and longer. The students apparently felt so frustrated by their experiences in a system that is overburdened and unresponsive that they thought writing into the comment box of a survey was their best option for obtained needed assistance. The Gunn responses are quite qualitatively different from Paly responses as well. Paly students who gave negative feedback often wrote short comments such as "more one on one." Gunn students often wrote paragraphs.

The main theme that emerged from the Paly data is that some students would like more one on one time with their TAs. By contrast, Gunn students are upset about the lack of access to counselors, would like the onus to be shifted so that students do not always bear the burden of reaching out for help, want better and more information in a more timely manner, more individualized treatment, more emotional support, a lower student/counselor ratio, more responsive communications (probably a subset of access), greater personal respect and more individualized information. Many were very angry.

Many, if not most, students have interpreted the poor structure of the system at Gunn which is overburdened and overtaxed not as a structural problem but as a lack of caring by the adults. While I do not agree with this interpretation, I think it is very important for the community to realize that these young people have come to see the unresponsive system in which they are placed as one in which the counselors do not care about them. Many comments reflect this anger and resentment through sarcasm and irony, as with this sophomore male, who wrote: "actually talking to me might help. hahahaa."

Also exhibiting this anger and frustration, a junior girl who wrote: "He/she does not explain what the classes are, just wants to fill up the table so that you can graduate." Similarly, and more poignantly, a freshman female wrote: "What the guidance counselor has to do is to meet the students, every one of us, and memorize our names. Also, do not lie or blab or make a whole spiel on something you do not even know! JUST DO THE RESEARCH and work hard, and don't just leave and lie that you are sick when I e-mail you that we have a meeting planned a week ago and you confirmed. You should try to be a good counselor that even students from a poor family can go to, not one of those paid-for counselors!!!!!!"

In these examples we can see that the child has interpreted the lack of accessibility brought on by the structure of the system as a personal rejection of her need for support, and has assessed the situation as being about a personal rejection, perhaps on the basis of her class, rather than as a counselor who is too busy and overburdened to provide her with needed assistance.

Another student similarly sees her overworked counselors as hostile and and uncaring, and has interpreted the consequences in her life as the result of the counselor's lack of "believing in her heart" in the student: "i feel that the only way that the guidance counselors can grasp the severity of the choices they help make students do is to look past the silver lining and believe in their heart. Also the councilors wouldent let me change classes. SO ipso facto they are the reoson im not graduating."

This system is not serving the students or the staff well because it by its structure is generating ill-feelings and placing barriers between kids and adults. The staff feel misunderstood and unappreciated, while the students feel uncared for. Certainly we can do better than this.

It is the job of the school board to reflect the democratic will of their constituents (including these students, who are constituents) and then the job of the administration to provide that leadership and support necessary to implement the decision of the people.

I have posted all of the coded responses for both schools to the web and have made my coding decisions transparent. I urge all community members, especially, Gunn, Terman and JLS parents to visit this website to read them all: Web Link

Below are a few more representative examples from the data:

Sophomore Female:
We need more counselors to be able to handle the amount of students we have. The Paly model seems to work better than ours, follow what they are doing. Counselors should meet with each student more times and make themselves more approachable. They need to make it easier and evident that they want us to say hi with a tidbit of our personal lives for it to be easier for them to write letters of recommendation. Also, when we ask the same question more than once, it would be nice if you answered the question [the first time] when the question is totally something each counselor would know. (When is my appointment scheduled for?) Make it known for what circumstances and when one should take SAT, SAT II, and ACT tests and what an individual should do to prepare for them. Also, don't say that we won't get in to any college because we didn't do something nobody even told us was important, and then voila, we got in to Harvard. Tell us before freshman year what we should do SPECIFICALLY during our summers, extracirriculars, etc. and be consistent. Nothing that you are doing is working out very well, so why don't you just rewrite your policies, hire people who can actually do the job, and start fresh.

Freshman Female:
I don't ever remembering them help me academically or with college. The only time I see my counselor is when I need a schedule change. I don't see my counselor as someone to talk to or tell them how I feel or if I'm stressed. I do not think my counselor really cares about me or even remember who I am.

Junior Female:
I had a very difficult time meeting with my counselor. Finally, after many emails from me and my father, I was able to schedule an appointment. It was after I had already decided my classes for junior year and overall it wasn't too helpful. I feel like I barely know my counselor and I do not feel comfortable speaking with her about anything, even school related things, because we are so distant. It would be really nice to have some guidance and be able to talk to my counselor about personal issues but I think it would just be awkward because we don't know each other. I would really recommend getting more counselors so the student to counselor ration would be lower. I don't think my counselor would even recognize my face.

Junior Female:
We need more counselors! My counselor does not really know me, even though I have spoken with her many times. If each counselor had fewer students to worry about, each student would get more attention and probably feel much more comfortable speaking with their counselor. I also think that graduation requirements and college entrance requirements need to be more thoroughly explained.

Junior Female:
I would like to meet with my Guidance Counselor during times other than when I'm struggling with a class or when I want to change my schedule, I haven't had all that much time to really talk about my future goals with them.

Senior Female:
I am currently waiting to have a meeting with my counselor even though I arranged it at the start of the semester, so I guess actually having that meeting would be something to change. Apart from that everything is fine.

Freshman Female:
Somehow contact students to tell them who their counselor is.

Sophomore Male:
when people stand outside there office and even tho there helping someone else, they should take a minute to ask whats wrong or tell the student if its important or a serious issue instead of writing whats wrong in a peice of paper and wait for them to read it and sometimes they dont even call you right away.

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Posted by This is too much
a resident of Green Acres
on May 16, 2012 at 9:48 am

[Post removed due to same poster using multiple names]

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Posted by local gurl
a resident of Greenmeadow
on May 16, 2012 at 10:11 am

We had a miserable experience with the Gunn guidance counselors when my son was a student there. One counselor told my son he shouldn't apply to the very school that not only accepted him with enthusiasm, but on whose Division 1 baseball team he competed (after being told by another staff member/baseball coach that he would never make a D1 team). SO glad our high school days are well behind us.

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Posted by Concerned Retiree
a resident of Midtown
on May 16, 2012 at 10:39 am

My children were at Gunn more than 20 years ago. The guidance counselors were ineffective and uncooperative then and it looks as if things have not changed much.

There are solutions to budget shortfalls for more counselors, look at Paly. And barring the influence of the all powerful teachers' union to hold onto poor teachers/counselors at all costs, there is a solution to ineffective and uncooperative counselors too.

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Posted by Patti
a resident of Midtown
on May 16, 2012 at 11:00 am

The American Association of School Counselors (ASCA) has created a National Model which is a framework for a comprehensive, data-driven school counseling program. I certainly hope that whomever is involved in restructuring PAUSD's guidance program is consulting with ASCA. No need to recreate the wheel. Additionally, ASCA recommends a 250:1 student-to-counselor ratio. Wake up PAUSD and do what is right for the kids. They deserve it.

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Posted by Jan
a resident of Downtown North
on May 16, 2012 at 11:01 am

Does not look like anything has changed since my kids went there. SAD.

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Posted by Anne K
a resident of Midtown
on May 16, 2012 at 11:02 am

I have a daughter in her junior year at Gunn. We have resorted to going to professional counselors for academic and personal counseling. We're fortunate that we can afford these professionals; I know many families can't.

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Posted by member
a resident of Greenmeadow
on May 16, 2012 at 11:22 am

In Palo Alto if your grade point average was above 3.25 you had plenty of attention. When I attended one of the high school in Palo Alto my GPA was below 3.25, they really don't pay any attention to students. I always noticed that after 3pm counselors were rarely in, they had already left for the day. Parents need to take note, if your young adult GPA is below 3.25 you had better complain.

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Posted by This is too much
a resident of Green Acres
on May 16, 2012 at 12:14 pm

I see my post above was removed. In it, I questioned the use of the word "dissatisfaction" in the title to the article.

I also pointed out that majorities of students who responded to the survey at both high schools, and especially at Paly, are satisfied (or neutral) with their schools as stated in the article. (The worst score being 45% the Gunn respondents making negative comments). This is in contradiction to the "dissatisfaction" mentioned in the title.

Why was my post deleted?

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Posted by iFried
a resident of Midtown
on May 16, 2012 at 1:21 pm

If you are really concerned with these poor kids, then look at the book iDisorder, and get the cell antennas off the high school! I have an RF analyzer and know how extremely high the microwave radiation is at Gunn. These kids are bombarded continually with very high levels of RF [portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]

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Posted by Annie
a resident of Midtown
on May 16, 2012 at 3:34 pm

I think it can be hard for high schoolers to really understand everything that's being done on their behalf. We've been very happy with the Paly TA and college counseling system. We've gotten calls from the TA when there have been issues with low grades, help from the TA with changing lanes and advice re: classes to take. I've also found the college and career center to be just amazing in walking juniors and seniors through every step of the college application process. They cc the parents on the e-mails and send out repeated notices to make sure no one falls thru the cracks. I can't comment on the Gunn system, just feel that the Paly system has a lot to offer, whether or not the kids can see it directly.

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Posted by resident
a resident of Fairmeadow
on May 16, 2012 at 7:02 pm

Although this is not the point of the article, many of the comments written by Gunn students use either poor grammar, poor spelling, or both. Is this a reflection of the teaching staff? Is it due to a culture of texting?.....

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Posted by Maria
a resident of Midtown
on May 16, 2012 at 8:57 pm


Could you speak some more about the microwave radiation at Gunn. I have a sophomore who has had daily headaches ever since she set foot on the Gunn campus. These disappear over breaks.

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Posted by headaches
a resident of another community
on May 16, 2012 at 9:58 pm

@Maria -
Headaches can result sometimes from allergies triggered by environmental surrounding, mold etc.
You may want to see where your child spend most time - any correlation to specific location? portable?
also - some old florescent bulbs used to triggered headache, those are not commonly used anymore, but may still be around.

Cell Towers - school should be able to tell you if/where located. Doubt located @Gunn

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Posted by Jenny
a resident of Barron Park
on May 17, 2012 at 12:09 pm

My Daughter is a Senior this year and said that her Counselor is never
in her office? But fairness to the Counselor's their are almost two thousand student's at Gunn how the heck are 4 or 5 Counselor's suppose to deal with all the student's? They should think about hiring more Counselor's for next year to deal with all the student's. But the Teacher's Union is such a joke and so political!! and the money the 5yr. and 10yr. teacher's make is CRAZY!! good O Union? to bad the student's don't have a Union that they can decide where the money should be spent? Like more Counselor's!!

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Posted by gunn parent
a resident of Fairmeadow
on May 17, 2012 at 4:06 pm

My son is a senior at Gunn this year. I can say that Gunn's counseling is bare minimal to student who is not at the real top/famous one or a trouble maker. If a student is the in the middle, you don't get much help from a counselor. For 4 years as a Gunn parent, I have never had a chance to meet his counselor. I did send a request during his 11th grade to meet his counselor once, but I never got a response at all. Knowing they are too busy and hopeless to meet them, I had to depend on my good friend, who has kid went through college application, for college admission information. Without my friend, I guess that we had to spend money for a private counselor.

I don't blame Gunn counselors at all. I think they are all over-worked. I don't think my son's counselor knows him at all. Not sure how they eventually wrote his college recommendation. As a very regular student at Gunn, look for help elsewhere.

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Posted by Nora Charles
a resident of Stanford
on May 18, 2012 at 12:11 am

I would love to read about all this from the perspective of the counselors. It seems they have tremendous responsibilities and are vastly overworked, yet, predictably, dissed by parents and students. Perhaps the parents who find them lacking (what a surprise in this city!) might take over their jobs for a week or two and see how they fare.

Funny, I don't recall ever once visiting a counselor in high school, yet I managed to apply for college and be admitted to the school of my choice. Why is it so complicated today? Isn't most of the necessary info online? The term "self-sufficiency" seems not to be in vogue today.

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Posted by CrunchyCookie
a resident of Greenmeadow
on May 21, 2012 at 11:08 pm

CrunchyCookie is a registered user.

Yep, Gunn's counselors are a pretty useless bunch [portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff]. Back in the late 90s, my counselor of four years (Suzy Drake, who handled the 350 students in the last quarter of the alphabet) met with students only on occasion and usually spoke in generalities and/or an apathetic tone. I remember coming in once to ask about college planning and she directed me away, telling me to just wait a few months for when all of us 11th graders were supposed to meet with her and do that anyway. When the day finally came, she basically checked a few boxes on a piece of paper filled with some arbitrary list of schools and told me to apply to those, with little elaboration.

A couple years ago I was feeling a bit directionless and in the area, so for the heck of it I dropped in looking for a counselor to talk to. After a brief mutual introduction, that meeting pretty much turned into a one-way exchange, with the counselor seemingly on autopilot, spewing out a 20-minute rant comprised of commonsense advice and total horsecrap, and concluding with a recommendation to set up a meeting with a for-profit personality testing place in San Francisco.


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Posted by Allison
a resident of another community
on May 24, 2012 at 12:03 pm

As a parent considering moving to Palo Alto from NYC (public)I took interest in this article. I can't conceive how it is the counselors fault that these children are not prepared to handle the college process. Stop outsourcing your parenting and help your children yourself. How about teaching our children to advocate for themselves? Help them do the research and have realistic conversations about goals and expectations. Then cheer them on when they realize they are helping make their future happen. I am definitely concerned about moving into this entitled culture.

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Posted by gunn parent
a resident of Gunn High School
on May 24, 2012 at 9:00 pm

Why is the weekly allowing crunchy cookie to say "gunn's counselors are a ... bunch? That whole sentence would have been removed if it had been referring to ANYONE else. It is so frustrating watching the town newspaper belittle these good people. Just see, if someone put that in about the paly counselors or the challenge success folks, how long it would last.