Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - March 22, 2013

High school counseling reforms inch forward

Lack of district leadership continues to impede progress on bringing high school guidance programs to 'comparability'

For those who don't have kids in the schools or don't carefully follow the nuances of school policy and governance, it must seem surreal that the subject of high school counseling is still an unresolved and controversial topic in this community.

Surely, after establishing it as a district priority two years ago, and then agreeing last June to give Gunn the time to form a committee of parents, staff and students to develop recommendations for its program, there would be a clear understanding of goals, metrics and the lens through which high school counseling options would be evaluated.

But sadly, even after the fiasco of last spring's discussions, when Superintendent Kevin Skelly had to publicly apologize for his failure to accurately communicate the board's direction to the Gunn community, we are still mired in a leadership vacuum that persists in spite of the school board's growing frustration and impatience.

As one board member after another asked Tuesday night in various ways, how can proposed changes to the high school counseling programs be evaluated by the board and community if there is not yet an overall common mission, goals and metrics for the district?

And if the one firm requirement that the board agreed to almost a year ago was "comparability" of counseling services between the two high schools, how is it possible that the district staff has not yet developed a definition of comparability to guide the work being done?

The astonishing answers, proferred Tuesday by Associate Superintendent Michael Milliken and Superintendent Kevin Skelly, were that they decided to defer that work until after Gunn had developed its recommendations, and that, according to Skelly, the staff is "struggling with defining comparability."

Pressed by trustee Melissa Baten Caswell to explain why the board's direction given last October to develop a common district mission, goals and metrics was not followed, Milliken said that district staff decided it was best to wait until both high schools had completed their work on coming up with improvements to their existing systems.

It is but another indication of a disconnect between the expressed wishes of the school board and the actions of the superintendent and his lieutenants, and the result is a process that is upside down, grossly inefficient and a set-up for frustration and further discord.

Teams at both Gunn and Paly have been working hard to analyze and develop plans and tactics for improving their counseling program without knowing what the overarching common strategy is for the district other than a still-to-be-defined concept of "comparable services and outcomes."

District administrators seem as determined as ever to deflect responsibility and accountability for policy development to the school sites, even when the board takes the unusual step of directing the formulation of common, district-wide policy and goals.

No well-functioning organization develops tactics, programs or products without having first determined strategies and goals, yet that is exactly what has been taking place regarding high school counseling for the last two years.

Administrators told the school board this week they wouldn't be able to return with proposed common district counseling goals and metrics until early fall. Yet by then the Gunn and Paly staffs will be well on their way to implementing changes to their counseling programs.

Regardless of what one thinks about the different counseling models at the high schools, this is an absurd way to operate a unified school district, and we are pleased to see board members express their frustrations more openly than they have in the past. Now we need some accountability.

The community owes thanks to the Gunn counseling advisory committee, which worked hard and under the challenges of a consensus decision-making model came up with 40 recommendations aimed at giving students expanded counseling opportunities.

These recommendations, if fully implemented, should increase the number of connections Gunn students have with an adult on campus, one key goal expressed by many on the board and in the community.

The Gunn staff, put under severe time pressure to report this week for no apparent reason, drafted an implementation plan that all agree needs more work and that wasn't ready for board discussion. Over the next few weeks, at the request of the board, the Gunn staff will develop a clearer presentation on how and when it proposes to implement the recommendations over a three-year time period, the metrics for success and an outline for who will be accountable for the work.

To its credit, the board made clear that it doesn't want a rushed, partial plan from Gunn, but one that makes clear to the community exactly how the Gunn counseling system will be changing.

In the continued absence of a clear district policy on counseling, that is about the best we can hope for.

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