Palo Alto Weekly

News - October 5, 2012

Counseling group seeks common ground

Gunn 'guidance advisory committee' aims for reform consensus by February

by Chris Kenrick

After more than a year of public divisiveness over Gunn High School's guidance-counseling system, 18 people representing divergent views sat down this week in search of common ground.

With help from a professional facilitator, the Gunn Guidance Advisory Committee met for most of the day Tuesday, Oct. 2, and will gather at least six more times to meet a February 2013 deadline for recommending reforms to the Board of Education.

Formation of the advisory committee which includes Gunn parents, teachers, students, counselors and administrators follows sharp criticism of Gunn's current counseling system from the parent group We Can Do Better Palo Alto.

Citing polls showing higher satisfaction levels with counseling at Palo Alto High School than at Gunn, the group has lobbied the school board for more than a year to instruct Gunn to switch by this fall from its traditional counseling model to Palo Alto High School's "teacher-advisory" model.

Under that model, Paly uses about 46 "teacher-advisers" to augment its small counseling staff, and students meet regularly in advisory groups. By contrast, Gunn employs seven guidance counselors to handle academic advising, college and career counseling and student social-emotional health, generally on an appointment basis.

School board members, who identified shortcomings in both schools' counseling programs in the district's 2008 strategic plan, said they prefer to let Gunn arrive at its own counseling reform so long as it meets certain standards. The standards include more adult "touch points" for students.

Though most public discussion has focused on the need for change at Gunn, Paly Principal Phil Winston said Wednesday he also is implementing a formal plan to address weaknesses in Paly's counseling system.

Winston and Gunn Principal Katya Villalobos are both due to deliver progress reports to the board next Tuesday, Oct. 9.

In this past Tuesday's all-day meeting at the Elk's Club, facilitator Ken Yale, a former high school principal and social studies teacher, guided the group through get-acquainted and consensus-building exercises.

Committee members shared their own memories of high school counseling and later were asked to write down and share what should be true for all students in an ideal counseling system for Gunn, regardless of the method.

Members cited features like support for every child, regardless of whether the student seeks it out; attention to social-emotional health as well as academic and college advising; availability of trusted adults; easy access to adults; a program to help students make the transition from middle school to high school; multiple "touch points"; and the idea that students should feel at home in school.

"When we talk about the outcome what we want to be true for students I'm not hearing a whole lot of difference," Yale said.

"We might have all kinds of differences about policy, which particular model, which particular approach, but it's important to appreciate the fact that we all want the same things for the kids, by and large."

A binder provided to each committee member included school district materials on guidance review as well as a report from We Can Do Better Palo Alto outlining a "counseling gap" in parent and student satisfaction levels between Paly and Gunn.

"They (Paly and Gunn) are not comparable. There's a huge divergence, and the notion that the board stated is they want comparability," said Gunn parent Amy Balsom, a member of We Can Do Better Palo Alto.

Gunn parent Kathleen Blanchard noted the board's direction for comparable services, not necessarily the same structure.

"I think we should look at what's good for Gunn, not necessarily what's comparable to some other school," Blanchard said.

"The last thing we need is to set up some sort of football-like rivalry. We should focus on what students need."

The group tried to clarify its charge from the board, as well as ground rules for a safe and open discussion of differences.

The next scheduled meeting of the Gunn Guidance Advisory Committee is Oct. 16 at 3:45 p.m. in the Gunn staff lounge. Meetings are open for community members to observe.

Members of the committee are parents Amy Balsom, Kathleen Blanchard, Alexis Green, Lori Krolik, Linda Lingg and Jyoti Sahdev; teachers Kristy Blackburn, Diane Ichikawa, Lynne Navarro and Lettie Weinmann; students Rebecca Alger, Wayland Fung and Julia Qin; counselors Myesha Compton and Jovi Johnston; Gunn Assistant Principal Tom Jacobousky and district Director of Secondary Education Michael Milliken and support staff member Olga Celis.

Staff Writer Chris Kenrick can be emailed at ckenrick@paweekly.com.

Comments

Posted by priorities?, a resident of Crescent Park
on Oct 5, 2012 at 11:56 am

The serious issues identified by the surveys were:
Gunn
----
1. I feel anxiety about getting into the colleges that I want to go to
2. I feel tremendous pressure to succeed academically
3. My family expects me to attend a top college
4. I feel anxiety about my workload at school
5. I feel pressured to take a challenging load of Honors and AP courses
6. My classmates and I compete to do well in school
7. I found Freshman Orientation / Link Crew and Titan 101 useful for helping me to transition from middle school to Gunn High School
8. My Guidance Counselor helped me with the transition from middle school to high school
9. If I am struggling with a personal issue, my Guidance Counselor is among the first adults at school that I would go to for help
10. The Junior Manual was a helpful tool for me
11. I feel comfortable going to my Guidance Counselor about personal issues that I might be struggling with
Paly
----
1. I feel anxiety about getting into the colleges that I want to go to
2. I feel tremendous pressure to succeed academically
3. I feel anxiety about my workload at school
4. I feel pressure to take a challenging load of Honors and AP courses
5. My family expects me to attend a top college
6. My classmates and I compete to do well in school
7. I believe that if I do not attend a top college, I will have failed
8. I feel tremendous pressure to succeed at athletics
9. Advisory is a valuable use of my time
10. If a friend is struggling with a serious personal challenge, I would advise her / him to go see their TA


Posted by Gunn parent, a resident of Gunn High School
on Oct 5, 2012 at 1:26 pm

The data comparing the two schools that started this process in the first place, and shows that teacher advisory is working better than what is happening at Gunn, is here: Web Link (this spreadsheet was put together by a parent group that Ken Dauber used to run, I think).


Posted by priorities?, a resident of Crescent Park
on Oct 5, 2012 at 3:49 pm

Responses where both are doing very well and where each school should be looking to the other:
Gunn
----
49. I feel physically safe on campus
48. I feel well-informed about the requirements for graduating from high school
47. I understand the difference between requirements for high school graduation and the requirements to enter a four-year college
46. I believe that my Guidance Counselor can be helpful for me in applying to colleges
45. I feel well-prepared to graduate from high school
44. I feel well-informed about the different classes and academic options available to me
43. My Guidance Counselor makes time for me if I need help
42. I find Gunn High School to be a welcoming place
41. My classmates and I collaborate to do well in school
40. My Guidance Counselor was able to help me deal with my personal issue
39. I trust the advice my Guidance Counselor gives me about classes and schedules
38. I am fully able to pursue interests outside of academics
37. My Guidance Counselor has been a valuable resource for me
Paly
----
64. I understand the difference between requirements for high school graduation and the requirements to enter a four-year college
63. I feel well-informed about the requirements for graduating from high school and being eligible to apply to college
62. I have an academic plan that will help me to meet my goals while at Paly
61. I trust the advice my TA gives me about classes and schedules
60. I feel well-prepared to graduate from high school
59. I feel physically safe on campus
58. I trust the advice my Guidance Counselor gives me
57. I feel well-informed about the different classes and academic options available to me
56. My TA makes time for me if I need help
55. I believe that my College and Career Advisor can be helpful for me in applying to colleges
54. I find it easy to talk to my TA
53. My Guidance Counselor makes time for me if I need help
52. My classmates and I collaborate to do well in school
51. I find it easy to talk to my Guidance Counselor
50. I trust my TA to help me if I am struggling academically
49. I find Paly to be a welcoming place
48. My College and Career Advisor provides me with the tools and resources I need to be able to research and make decisions about college
47. I felt well prepared for the transition from middle school to high school
46. I am satisfied with the level of support I get from my TA
45. I am fully able to pursue interests outside of academics

Note: Gunn Students had 49 questions and Paly had 64. The rest of the responses are areas where both are just doing OK.


Posted by local parent, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 7, 2012 at 12:59 pm

I don't know if this helps, but when I was in high school, we had a 2,000 student population with a few guidance counselors similar to the Gunn model. I liked my counselor personally, but did not benefit in any way from the counseling, there were too many students per counselor to accomplish anything. I remember I and several other students applied for an engineering scholarship that had to be submitted through the guidance office (the organization wouldn't take our applications individually), and the guidance counselor forgot to send them by the deadline. I really felt like I was completely on my own learning about and applying for college.

By contrast, in college, they had a few counselors (who I never saw) and they matched all freshmen up with faculty members who served as mentors and counselors, more similar to the Paly model. I believe the system came out of a period where there were also suicides in the college, followed by a great deal of soul searching about how to prevent stress even while maintaining high academic standards (this was MIT). Or I guess another way to put it is helping kids how to engage in good stress (challenging themselves) in a healthy way and cope with bad stress better. My freshman advisor made all the difference - sometimes I think I couldn't have made it through that first year without that.

The two experiences were so very different, in high school, it was almost like not having any counseling. So, I am very much in favor of what is happening here to try to figure out the best way for Gunn, and to transition to a system more like Paly's if there is good reason to believe it works better (that was my own experience, too).

Change is always hard, but I appreciate as a local parent that the district and parent groups who want better are not just letting it go because there is resistance to change. I hope something even better comes out of this discussion, and that everyone is able to keep their eye on the goal rather than meeting over it to death.


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