Under scrutiny over guidance counseling at Gunn High School, Palo Alto school board members this week said decision-makers at Gunn should have all the data at their fingertips but reiterated earlier statements that reforms must be shaped by the school's own community.
While a majority seemed to agree in substance with critics of Gunn's current counseling system, they did not directly address a challenge by the critics to "restate (their) commitment" for Gunn to move toward a counseling model similar to the "teacher advisory" model used at Palo Alto High.
"I think we did say (at an earlier meeting) that Gunn should consider an advisory-type program -- that's just reiterating," board member Barbara Klausner, also a Gunn parent, said.
"But it has to have the ownership and buy-in of key people in the system, and parents," Klausner said.
Board member Melissa Baten Caswell said: "I believe what we asked the staff to do was take a look at both (counseling) models and return with ideas on how to get closer in comparability and provide more touch points for students."
Board members generally have defended a district policy of site-based decision-making as long as students receive "comparable" services.
Critics of Gunn's program, mostly from the group We Can Do Better Palo Alto, argue the two systems are not comparable.
Paly augments its small counseling staff with 40 "teacher-advisers" who meet at least monthly with groups of 25 students through their high school years.
Gunn, by contrast, employs six guidance counselors who are charged with the gamut of academic advising, college and career counseling and student social-emotional health.
We Can Do Better has lobbied the board for more than a year to implement a teacher-adviser system at Gunn.
The group sharply criticized a recent consultant's review of the two high school programs, which enumerated the strengths and weaknesses of each but steered clear of a direct comparison.
We Can Do Better cofounders Ken and Michele Dauber reformatted student survey data published in connection with the consultant's report to yield a more direct comparison. Those findings suggested significantly higher levels of student satisfaction with counseling at Paly than at Gunn.
Through a request under the California Public Records Act, the Daubers also obtained previously unpublished open-ended student comments made in connection with the counseling survey, administered to students in March.
Their analysis of those comments also suggests greater satisfaction at Paly than at Gunn.
Board members Tuesday said Gunn decision-makers should look at the data tabulated by We Can Do Better as well as by district staff and suggested that the outside group's reports be posted on the district's website.
"In this particular case, we've had examples of data that's been put together by We Can Do Better Palo Alto that's fairly extensive work, and work we don't normally see, and to the extent it's out in the public arena already I'd like to know our (school) sites are getting that same set of data to be used however they feel because the process is now up to them," Klausner said.
Several board members also implicitly criticized a district staff decision not to include the text of the nearly 1,700 open-ended student comments in the counseling report.
"I felt the open-ended responses had a context to them that I didn't get from the numerical data and want to make sure the people doing the analysis at the two sites (Gunn and Paly) will actually be reading the responses," Caswell said.
The board heard from We Can Do Better parents as well as several others, most advocating some form of teacher-advisory for Gunn.
Gunn parent Steven Tadelis, an economist at the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley, said it was his first time coming to a school board meeting.
"We have here an extremely clean experiment," he said of the Dauber's analysis of the student survey data.
"The town is quite homogenous, and one of the main differences is the counseling and advising system. It was quite amazing that the overall average positive rate at Paly was 88 percent and at Gunn it was 59 percent -- that's a 50 percent difference.
"Many studies in business or engineering will show that moving from 50 percent to 80 percent is much easier than moving from 80 percent to 100 percent, so let's not allow perfect to be the enemy of good," Tadelis said, advocating a teacher-advisory system for Gunn.
Two other parents pleaded for the school to be allowed time to come to its own conclusions about counseling.
"For our family, the counseling process (at Gunn) was carried out with efficiency, warmth, intelligence and integrity," said Linda Lingg, the mother of a Gunn junior and a recent graduate of the school.
"Don't lose sight of the fact that we already have a working group at Gunn, which next year will include parents and students.
"I trust the Gunn leadership will conduct an effective, objective, unemotional process designed to minimize chaos and deeply understand what is needed."
Board members said they advocate "interim steps" to improve Gunn's guidance program in the short term but nothing that would preclude a long-term restructuring.
"I believe there are steps we could take while we're going toward the perfect plan that could improve things dramatically, and I'd like to see some steps taken for next year," Caswell said.
"If we don't take some steps in the interim, all those kids in school during that time are not going to be served properly."
The high school counseling issue is set to return to the board at its next meeting on June 12, with staff recommendations on how to proceed.