The Palo Alto school board endorsed Tuesday night a staff proposal to convene a district committee to evaluate current social-emotional learning curriculum being used in the district and recommend a unified approach from pre-kindergarten through 12th grade.
Two board members did, however, express some reservations about putting aside a previous intent to create a committee that would address actual service models for counseling, particularly at the district's two high schools.
Board Vice President Terry Godfrey said she was "surprised" to see the social-emotional learning focus herself after setting an agenda item to discuss what had been called the "Distributed Counseling Committee," a reference to a model in which teachers and counselors work purposefully as a team to address students' social-emotional and academic needs together.
While she was "thrilled" to see the social-emotional curriculum proposal, something she said has been a long time coming, she said she doesn't "want to lose sight of the counseling work that we want to get finished."
Staff brought forward the "Social Emotional Learning Curriculum Committee" Tuesday after two previous iterations more focused on recommending a direct service model for both high schools. The new committee made up of students, teachers, staff, administrators and other stakeholders selected through an application process will "research and evaluate existing curriculum and look at efficacy with regard to outcomes," Chief Student Services Officer Holly Wade told the board.
"Social-emotional learning doesn't take place in one place in short lessons," she said. "It's embedded into a culture."
Wade described the district's current approach to social-emotional learning as uncoordinated, with different schools choosing different curricula and programs that don't have aligned learning targets or frameworks.
Board President Heidi Emberling said she was unclear about the committee's charge. Would it look at everything in the district that touches social-emotional learning, from actual curriculum like the required Living Skills classes at the high schools and Second Step at the elementary schools to programs like Gunn High School's freshman-transition program, Titan 101, and Palo Alto High School's freshman cohort program, TEAM, she asked.
Board member Camille Townsend, too, said she didn't understand the purpose of the group. She stressed that any approach to mental health must also take into account physical health, for the two are intertwined, she said.
Board member Melissa Baten Caswell asked: "Are we trying to swallow the ocean here?"
"I'm just worried if we try to swallow the ocean with the committee we'll end up with nothing," she said.
Wade said the committee will be tasked with evaluating current curriculum and vetting other evidence-based approaches not in use in Palo Alto, including from the national Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), then recommending a unified path forward for the entire district.
Emberling shared Godfrey's concern about losing sight of an original commitment to counseling work. She suggested forming a larger committee that could break into two subgroups one focused on social-emotional learning and the other on counseling models like the recent Enrollment Management Advisory Committee (EMAC) did (with one subcommittee focused on the elementary schools and the other on secondary schools).
Superintendent Max McGee said that coordinating a curriculum should come first, and then the rollout of a new delivery model. The goal is to identify a curriculum between now and Nov. 1, he said, and put a new model in place in the 2017-18 school year.
"It's really important we take a step backward and not put the cart before the horse and have an integrated system, the foundation of which really needs to be the curriculum," McGee said.