Palo Alto Weekly
News - May 18, 2012
Paly, Gunn students detail dissatisfaction with counseling programs
Asked what could be better, students plead for more personal attention
by Chris Kenrick
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.
Those sentiments emerge — sometimes in pleading terms — from nearly 1,700 anonymous, open-ended comments made in a March survey asking students about their experiences with guidance counseling programs at Gunn and Palo Alto high schools.
Specifically, students were asked: "What can the (counselors) do differently or better to help you and other Gunn/Paly students succeed?"
Fifty-five percent of Gunn students surveyed and 45 percent of Paly students surveyed offered their opinions (excluding those who wrote irrelevant comments).
Survey comments from Paly students were not uniformly positive about counseling there but were significantly more positive than those from Gunn.
"There is an extreme lack of communication between the guidance counselors and the students," one Gunn 12th-grade boy wrote. "I realize that Gunn is a large school with many students, and it is difficult for the counselors to get to know every single student, but there is a small effort in providing an organized way for the students to meet the counselors.
"I remember in my sophomore year, when we were being called up for meetings, some of my classmates never even received a call slip to meet with their counselors, and ended up not meeting them that year," he said, while adding that he was nevertheless grateful for his counselor's help.
The school district had not released the comments with the independent consultant's report on counseling at Palo Alto's two public high schools, which was presented to the Board of Education on March 27.
The student comments were obtained under a California Public Records Act request from a parent-led group, We Can Do Better Palo Alto, which has actively lobbied the school board on counseling and other issues related to student stress.
In a tabulation of the 3,077 student questionnaires from both schools, Michele Dauber of We Can Do Better said she found 45 percent of the Gunn student comments were negative, 8 percent were neutral, 3 percent were positive and 40 percent were blank.
That compares to results at Paly that found 27 percent of the open-ended comments negative, 9 percent neutral, 8 percent positive, 4 percent irrelevant and 51 percent left blank, Dauber said.
Another Gunn student wrote: "At our school, a very academically prominent school and one that has been plagued with suicides and other problems, there are fewer counselors than at almost any other schools.
"I have yet to find a person who can explain to me. Our counselors don't have time for us and cannot/will not help us. Reform would be great."
Gunn currently has a staff of six traditional guidance counselors for its 1,864 students. By contrast, Paly devotes more financial resources in order to augment its four-member guidance-counseling staff with 46 "teacher advisers" and several college counselors.
School board members in the past have said the Gunn and Paly programs need not be identical but should offer roughly equivalent services to all students.
At the March 27 consultant's presentation on counseling, however, several board members expressed a "sense of urgency" for Gunn to explore changes, pointing to survey numbers indicating consistently higher levels of satisfaction with counseling at Paly than at Gunn.
Stressing they were loath to dictate specifics, a majority suggested Gunn shift to a counseling system closer in structure to that at Paly.
In particular, board members said they want to see more built-in "touch points" between students and adult counselors or advisers 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.
Following the March 27 school board meeting, Gunn Principal Katya Villalobos and Superintendent Kevin Skelly said they would return to the board in June with suggestions on how to proceed.
Meanwhile, Skelly and Villalobos sent an email to Gunn parents on May 5 stating that a specific guidance model would not be "forced" on Gunn. Villalobos told the Weekly in a May 9 interview she expects an informal "working group" currently exploring counseling reforms at Gunn to be formally constituted this fall with a timeline to come up with recommendations by March 2013.
The issue of guidance models has become entangled with a new controversy due to the revelation that Skelly has been sending confidential weekly memos to school board members (see www.paloaltoonline.com, "Weekly calls for halt to confidential school board memos").
Asked why he did not release the 1,700 open-ended student comments with the March 27 consultant's report to the board, Skelly said last week it was partly a matter of logistics, since comments were being collected up to the day of the presentation.
"We didn't talk about putting out 500 pages of raw data. That was not the purpose of the report," he said last week.
But Skelly said he did regret the way he managed the March 27 board presentation.
"My view was, 'Let's present the report, and then we'll do more analysis as time goes on.' I plunked the report down and left the board to wallow around in the general findings instead of stating, 'Here are the results, and here's what we're going to do next.'"
Skelly will present his own analysis of the open-ended student comments about counseling at the Board of Education meeting coming up next Tuesday, May 22.
Staff Writer Chris Kenrick can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Somehow contact students to tell them who their counselor is.
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.