Palo Alto Weekly

News - March 22, 2013

Gunn counseling reforms could take three years

School board pushes for timetable on 40 recommendations for program

by Chris Kenrick

Gunn High School administrators have begun work to reform the school's counseling program, including emailing weekly counseling-department updates to parents and improving the school's counseling website, they informed the Palo Alto Board of Education Tuesday night, March 19.

But there's no time in Gunn's current school day to deliver some aspects of counseling — including regular, small-group meetings of students with adults — that are at the heart of reforms recommended this month by Gunn's Guidance Advisory Committee, made up of parents, staff members and students.

In order to fully deliver a prospective new guidance-counseling curriculum, the school's daily "bell schedule" may have to change in 2014-15. A possible change will take at least a year to hammer out, administrators said.

Board members praised the work of the Guidance Advisory Committee, whose 17 once-contentious members came to terms on 40 general recommendations.

But they pressed Gunn officials for clearer comparisons with counseling service levels at Paly. They also asked for a definitive, three-year timetable as to when all 40 of the advisory committee's recommendations will be fully implemented.

They expressed unwillingness to vote on April 9 to approve Gunn's year-one "action plan" without a more detailed calendar for full implementation in three years.

Gunn parent and advisory committee member Amy Balsom supported having a long-term plan in place. Balsom, who earlier had been among the strongest critics of Gunn's traditional program, pleaded with the board to hold the school accountable for all 40 reforms.

"I don't want to lose momentum here," she said.

"While the first-year action plan was approved by (Gunn department heads), I'm worried about what happens when the second-year action plan meets resistance within the school community.

"We're not going to get comparable services and outcomes (with Paly) unless we go the full distance. We need the board and district leadership to really hold Gunn accountable, and I'm talking very collectively.

"We can't take the easy stuff and leave the hard stuff. We need to be held accountable to achieve this," Balsom said.

Director of Secondary Education Michael Milliken stressed it was no small task for the 17 widely divergent members of Gunn's Guidance Advisory Committee to reach consensus, as well as to earn the "full support" of Gunn's academic department heads.

The advisory committee included staunch defenders of Gunn's traditional-style counseling program as well as harsh critics of the program, who for two years have urged Gunn to adopt a Paly-style "teacher advisory" model. That model uses more than 40 teachers to augment a small, full-time counseling staff, enabling monthly small-group meetings with advisees.

At Tuesday's meeting, Gunn and Paly administrators told the board they've shared ideas on how to improve their respective counseling programs. But board member Melissa Baten Caswell suggested they go further, creating a shared website in the area of college and career information and also possibly in the area of parent education.

Students at Gunn and Paly are likely to have exactly the same questions in those areas, she said.

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

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