Palo Alto Weekly
News - May 25, 2012
School board under pressure on Gunn counseling
Members advocate structural reform but say it must be shaped by Gunn community
by Chris Kenrick
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 ignored a direct 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, have lobbied the board for more than a year to have Gunn adopt a system akin to Paly's, which augments a 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 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.
The group 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under the California Public Records Act, We Can Do Better leaders Ken and Michele Dauber also obtained previously unpublished open-ended student comments made in connection with the counseling survey, administered to students in March.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 Gunn 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.
Staff Writer Chris Kenrick can be emailed at email@example.com.
Posted by Ken Dauber,
a resident of Barron Park School
on May 25, 2012 at 6:59 pm
The real story is more complicated than is presented here and in the comments. The school board is looking to the Gunn administration to come back with a plan for counseling at the June 12 school board meeting, but it has given the administration some significant constraints that aren't detailed in the story. However, senior district staff intervened very early, in early April, to direct the process at Gunn in a way that will make it difficult for the administration to meet the school board's requirements. The question now is how that will all play out. This is a lengthy post but I think it's useful to lay this all out in some detail.
As the story notes, at the March 27 school board meeting our parent organization, We Can Do Better Palo Alto, presented data drawn from PAUSD that shows that students at Paly are much more satisfied with their guidance services than are students at Gunn, and that they report that they have much more access to a varied set of services than do Gunn students. The school board recognized the service gap, and (with the exception of Barb Mitchell) spoke strongly in favor of change at Gunn to make guidance services comparable between the two high schools. The board also directed Gunn to strongly consider adopting teacher advisory in order to achieve comparability. (You can read about that meeting at Web Link).
At the meeting on Tuesday night, the school board reiterated its commitment to comparable services, its conclusion that the services are not now comparable, and its instruction to Gunn to strongly consider teacher advisory. The following is drawn from a summer of the meeting I posed to our Facebook group page, at Web Link, and you can check my summary by viewing the meeting yourself, at Web Link (scroll down to item G, about the open-ended student responses).
Three of the four Board members present (Camille Townsend left early because of an ongoing health issue, and Barb Mitchell continues to oppose significant change at Gunn) reached consensus on the following directions to staff.
Barbara Klausner made two points:
1. The data analyses and comparisons that We Can Do Better has performed should be sent to the high schools for use in understanding the current state of counseling at the two schools. This is important because the district's data does not allow comparison, does not fully capture the benefits of multiple overlapping guidance roles in advisory, and does not allow easy access to the student comments. It also does not allow analysis of the effect of the different guidance modes on services for minority students.
2. Gunn's plan must provide for comparable services to Paly. Klausner explained that comparability means that Gunn's plan must provide a similar number of touchpoints over time, overlapping roles between adults (for example, both TAs and college advisors deliver college information to students, making it harder for students to slip between the cracks), a division of labor among adults, and multiple adults in guidance roles for each student.
Dana Tom said that Gunn must seriously consider a change to a teacher advisory system or another major change that delivers comparable services, and must be prepared to discuss in detail how it considered that change and how it reached its conclusion. (Ironically, he wondered aloud how to ensure that this message would get communicated to Gunn).
Melissa Caswell agreed with Klausner's and Tom's points, and added the explicit instruction that guidance models be compared on their own terms, without attention to speculations about impacts such as larger class sizes, fewer electives, etc. These supposed negative effects have been a major part of the district's rhetoric in resisting change at Gunn, even though, as we've pointed out repeatedly, the financial impact is relatively small and there are many options for funding this change other than cuts to classroom teaching.
Taken together, the Board's action strongly underlined its March 27 direction, and provided an even more detailed set of criteria and expectations. Clearly Board members felt frustrated by the resistance to their directive of March 27, and felt that they had to set forth specific language to limit discretion.
If anything, the Gunn administration is more constrained than it was after the March 27 meeting, because the Board reaffirmed its commitment to comparable services, described in some detail what "comparable" means, required that Gunn take into account the data comparing the two high schools, and clearly stated the expectation that Gunn should consider a structural change to its counseling model, and be prepared to defend a recommendation not to make such a change with clear and explicit evidence.
However, the Gunn administration is operating within another set of constraints, these imposed from above by senior district leadership, most importantly Superintendent Skelly. As has been reported, Dr. Skelly wrote a memo to the school board on April 20, telling them that he had met with senior district staff, including the director of secondary education, Michael Milliken, and the Gunn principal, Katya Villalobos, and decided that Gunn should make incremental improvements in counseling rather than make a change to teacher advisory, including hiring 2 additional counselors. Dr. Skelly told the board that he was communicating that down to Gunn staff. (It's important to note that in addition to the direction already noted in the March 27 meeting, the board told Dr. Skelly not to hire more counselors at Gunn, as those resources would be needed for teacher advisory if that was the ultimate decision). That memo is the subject of the Brown Act discussion that will be the subject of a special meeting of the school board next Thursday. We received the memo via a Public Records Act request, which we made after it became clear that there was a private process going on that was not consistent with the school board's March 27 direction.
What has not yet been reported is that Dr. Skelly wrote a memo to his senior staff 2 weeks earlier, on April 6, laying out his rationale for opposing the school board's decision on March 27. We also received that memo via another Public Records Act request. That memo can be seen at Web Link. The memo consists mostly of commentary interspersed into a long email from the district's consultant on counseling, Kelun Zhang, sent following her presentation to the Board on March 27. Dr. Skelly asked senior district staff, including Charles Young, the associate superintendent, to take the lead on next steps. What is most useful about the memo is that it lays out in very clear terms the basis for Dr. Skelly's opposition to counseling changes at Gunn. In brief, Dr. Skelly believes that guidance counseling is largely about college counseling, and therefore that the service gaps identified by the PAUSD data in the areas of academic advising and social-emotional support are mostly irrelevant. For example, he writes "AS A PARENT, I DON'T REALLY CARE IF THE GUIDANCE COUNSELOR MEETS WITH MY FRESHMAN OR SOPHOMORE STUDENT. THEY DON'T HAVE THAT MUCH TO TALK ABOUT AND I DON'T WANT TOO MUCH HYPE ABOUT COLLEGE TOO EARLY. I AM FINE IF, AS A PRACTICE, OUR COUNSELORS FOCUS ON STRUGGLING KIDS. BUT THIS MEANS MANY STUDENTS DON'T HAVE A PERSONAL RELATIONSHIP WITH THEIR COUNSELOR. AND SURVEY RESULTS ARE LOWER." In fact, of course, there is little likelihood that students struggling with social-emotional issues will be noticed by counselors who don't have time to meet with them. But Dr. Skelly's memo at least sets out clearly his vision for guidance at Gunn, and it bears careful reading.
The problem is not that Dr. Skelly opposes implementing teacher advisory at Gunn, although I think most parents disagree with his argument that freshman and sophomores don't need guidance, and that students don't need personal relationships with their counselors. It is that he has not made his disagreement with the school board public so that we can have an open and honest debate, and has instead directed a process at Gunn that is not responsive to the school board's direction at its March 27 meeting. We can get a hint of that in his instruction to senior staff that "we should be courageous in terms of our next steps but also cognizant of the conversation we had at the last board meeting" in the April 6 memo, and a full acknowledgement in his April 20 memo to the school board. That was followed on May 5 by a letter from Dr. Skelly and Principal Villalobos to the entire Gunn parent community, assuring them that Gunn would make no major changes to counseling, and by an announcement to the press by Principal Villalobos of a process of further study that will return to the school board in March 2013, even though the school board has made no such decision.
Dr. Skelly has also played a direct role in opposing teacher advisory at Gunn. He met with instructional supervisors and restated his opposition to teacher advisory. He recounted to me personally an encounter with a Gunn math teacher who told Dr. Skelly that he was interested in teacher advisory, and might be interested in being a teacher advisor himself. Dr. Skelly responded with a long list of negative consequences, to which (at least in Dr. Skelly's telling), the teacher responded by saying that he was no longer interested in teacher advisory.
So the reality is more complicated than this story indicates. The school board has asked the Gunn administration to return with a plan for comparable services, but with a substantial set of conditions attached. The Gunn administration, however, is contending with a senior district leadership that opposes consideration of teacher advisory, which is realistically the best (and probably the only) way to satisfy the school board's demand for truly comparable services with Paly. According to school board members, as of two weeks ago Gunn staff had not even met with Paly teachers to discuss teacher advisory, despite having had over a month to do so. It's difficult to see how Gunn can return to the school board, in the face of the position of senior district leadership, with anything other than a plan for more delay. Unfortunately, the school board is likely to accept that delay unless parents communicate clearly to board members that they really do want guidance services at Gunn as effective as those the district is delivering at Paly.
For more details and links to data, you can visit Web Link.