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New Gunn principal aims to provide steady leadership for school in transition

Kathie Laurence brings two decades of experience in Palo Alto Unified

New Gunn High School Principal Kathie Laurence welcomes the class of 2021 during freshmen orientation on Aug. 11, 2017. Photo by Veronica Weber.

Gunn High School's new principal, Kathie Laurence, doesn't see herself as a hard-charging catalyst. With 22 years under her belt as a Palo Alto Unified School District teacher and administrator, she plans to bring a sense of stability and support to the school, which in many ways is at a turning point after several years of significant change.

In the past three years, the school has implemented a new bell schedule, created a teacher-advisory program for students, developed professional learning communities for teacher collaboration and just this fall started a major construction project that will revamp the center of campus and piloted a new social-emotional curriculum, among other changes. Laurence was appointed one month after former Principal Denise Herrmann announced her resignation, despite some suggestions that the district fill the post temporarily and conduct a broad, external search.

"I felt like I'm the right person for the school at this time. I didn't come over here to be a change agent," Laurence said in a recent interview in her new office at Gunn. "I came over here to support teachers in their learning and students in their learning."

This commitment was tested on day two of the new school year, when a Gunn senior died by suicide, rocking a community that has experienced two youth suicide clusters since 2009. Since last week, she has been trying to strike a balance between providing space and support for students and staff who need to grieve the loss — extra mental-health support has been offered, and she said she gave teachers permission to have a "soft landing" in terms of work for both themselves and students — and setting a positive tone for the new year.

It's likely her leadership will be further tested this year in a school district that has done much soul searching in recent years about how its academic culture and treatment of mental health impacts teenagers.

Laurence, who described herself as a relationship builder who takes slow, intentional steps before effecting change, has spent her entire educational career in the Palo Alto school district. She graduated from Gunn and started as a social studies teacher at Palo Alto High School in 1995. (Her husband, Scott, was also a teacher, coach and vice principal at Paly before working as Gunn's principal for eight years, and her son graduated from Gunn.)

Teaching was not Laurence's first career, however. A college athlete who majored in psychology, she first worked as an athletic trainer for 12 years at her alma mater, Stanford University. She later obtained a master's degree in education there.

Laurence taught social studies and psychology at Paly before becoming an assistant principal in 2010. In that role, she had her hands in all aspects of the school, from Paly's own shift to a block schedule in 2010 to overseeing guidance and athletics. She was also a teacher-adviser for 17 years, an experience she said will help inform Gunn's move to a similar student-cohort program this year.

During the last school year, Laurence oversaw innovation and learning for Paly, including as a member of the school's Challenge Success committee, which aimed to move a school culture away from grades and test scores and toward balance and wellness.

She also oversaw Paly's "learning strands" — monthly meetings for teachers who lead professional learning for other teachers.

Among Laurence's top goals at Gunn: continuing teachers' professional training and supporting an initiative intended to improve education for students at all levels. New techniques in the first "tier" of the initiative include untimed tests (to assess what students have learned, not how quickly they can take a test) and allowing students to use notes during tests. Tiers two and three would introduce more specialized supports for struggling students.

The tiered approach, she said, is simply a more systematic approach to "good teaching for all students."

Laurence is a strong believer in the school's pilot social-emotional learning program, which Gunn rolled out this fall with all freshmen. Groups of 20 to 24 freshmen are meeting weekly in a new "Social Emotional Literacy and Functionality" (SELF) advisory class with a teacher-mentor, who will be their adviser for all four years of high school. The program is a preventative effort to instill life skills in students, from interpersonal to coping strategies, and to build small, tight-knit communities within a large school.

Laurence said that the social-emotional learning effort remains critical after last week's student death by suicide.

She used a common metaphor to describe the school's different tiers of mental health support: a lake that runs into a rapidly flowing stream and then a turbulent waterfall. The goal is to support all students in the lake through efforts like the social-emotional learning program to prevent them from floating into the stream, where they might need more intensive support, and ultimately from a crisis that could send them over the waterfall. After years with students near the waterfall, the district has improved its support for students in crisis but less so for those still swimming in the lake, she said.

"That's really the next place to focus," she said. "I still feel that our most important thing is working on that upstream work because it provides students and staff with tools to help them manage emotions and experiences that may be challenging for them.

"It doesn't get rid of the stream and it doesn't get rid of the crisis of the waterfall, but the reality is the more we can do in that upstream part, the fewer (crises) we hope to have."

For many Palo Alto students, whose lives are "well-managed" and often focused on academic accolades, Laurence hopes the new social-emotional learning curriculum will help them foster more dialogue and empathy.

"I think in our country right now there's way too much debate focused on winning. We as a school, as a society ... need to be more focused on dialogue, which is seeking to understand as opposed to 'I have to win this argument,'" Laurence said.

When she was at Paly, she said, small things made a difference in fostering dialogue and building relationships with staff, like having conversations in person rather than over email. Teachers would also often drop by her office to bounce ideas off her for classroom strategies, she said.

She's bringing that approach to Gunn, where she said relationships with both the faculty and students are in need of mending. In 2015, the Gunn teachers' union filed a formal grievance against Herrmann, accusing her of violating their contract by asking all teachers to use online management system Schoology to post their homework assignments. Students also criticized the administration for not giving students a seat at the table in decisions that impacted student life.

Gunn senior Arjun Prabhakar, a member of the selection committee that unanimously recommended Laurence as the new principal, said in a district announcement that it was clear she has "prioritized student voice — not only through rhetoric, but also through action. We, as Gunn students, can expect that transparency and cooperation will soon become the norm under this new leadership."

Another search committee member, Gunn English teacher Marc Igler, was impressed by her sincere "enthusiasm" and "warmth" for school as well as her years as a teacher and administrator at a large high school.

"That level of experience can't be underestimated," he said in the district announcement.

Laurence said she plans to have lunch with every department and to invite students in for open-office hours to talk with her about what's working and what isn't at the school and their ideas for how to improve any problems.

"I always think it's better if people who see a problem also are thinking about what are possible solutions because that's where the learning is, right?" she said.

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Comments

18 people like this
Posted by Please
a resident of another community
on Aug 25, 2017 at 8:28 am

The air at Gunn has definitely changed for the better since Kathie started! As a staff member, the dark cloud we had over ourselves from Dr. Herrmann has begun to lift. I look forward to seeing how things are under Kathie's leadership.


11 people like this
Posted by days
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Aug 25, 2017 at 9:08 am

Look at PALY and you will see your future!


31 people like this
Posted by Gunn Parent
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Aug 25, 2017 at 11:34 am

Ms. Laurence has been doing an outstanding job with a very intense beginning. She is down-to-earth and very vested in the Gunn community, both qualities that I think make her an excellent choice for the position. I appreciate that she spoke clearly and directly tackled the issues raised by parents at the first Principal's Coffee. We are fortunate to have such an involved and truly caring Principal at Gunn!!


15 people like this
Posted by Happy
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 25, 2017 at 6:53 pm

As an employee at Gunn, I will state the fact that we are ALL happy to have Kathie as our principal. The last three years under Denise Herrmann were horrible. Now we have a leader who listens, empathizes, and is available. Kathie has set the tone for inclusiveness and collaboration to make sure students, parents, teachers and support staff are taken care of.





Posted by Name hidden
a resident of Downtown North

on Aug 25, 2017 at 8:43 pm

Due to repeated violations of our Terms of Use, comments from this poster are automatically removed. Why?


35 people like this
Posted by Another Teacher
a resident of College Terrace
on Aug 25, 2017 at 8:56 pm

@Happy-
As another Gunn teacher, PLEASE DO NOT SPEAK FOR ME! As self professed educated and awesome back slapping crowd we are one would think that is common sense 101. As even keeled laid back and balanced she seems, you would have to have your head in the sand not to know that this crowd in any form does not like to be told what to do -even if it is in the interests of the most vunerable students.Platitudes smoke and mirrors- our specialty.


6 people like this
Posted by The Empire Strikes Back
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Aug 25, 2017 at 10:16 pm

She sounds very accommodative of the staff.

Good luck to the students!


2 people like this
Posted by Mandarin Parent
a resident of Gunn High School
on Aug 26, 2017 at 11:23 am

[Post removed.]


1 person likes this
Posted by Viking Senior
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Aug 26, 2017 at 11:51 am

[Post removed.]


17 people like this
Posted by PAEA strikes again!
a resident of Juana Briones School
on Aug 26, 2017 at 3:42 pm

Make no mistake, the message is clear: bow to the Palo Alto Educators Association, or you will end up like the ever-growing list of principals who have chosen, or forced to choose, another place to work. The revelation of Teri Baldwin, president of PAEA, its members, and several of the Gunn teachers getting Baldwin to evoke the power of an official grievance showed us who has the power in this district. Parents only have power if they have the backing of teachers, or if they hire a lawyer. I don't think anyone can argue that the them of the last 10 years has been lawyers, they have directed the bulk of change in this district, and they are continuing to do it with the latest Title IX investigations. Don't worry, we'll suck up another couple of hundred thousand dollars from the general fund, and use the parcel tax to backfill it. No one will know. Meanwhile, I will warn you readers as I have warned you before in the last few years, there will be more suicides because staff is not focused on ending them, they are still focused on salary increases and other collective bargaining issues.


Like this comment
Posted by Parent
a resident of Esther Clark Park
on Aug 26, 2017 at 7:00 pm

@Paea strikes again, are you implying that Herrmann leaving was somehow driven by the union? I don't think that is correct. Herrmann had been a high school principal for over a decade I believe (including before she came to Gunn) and wanted a district office job - no surprise there. I imagine her new job will be a lot more fun than running a high school.


Like this comment
Posted by It's Not Rocket Science
a resident of Downtown North
on Aug 26, 2017 at 7:11 pm

[Post removed.]


6 people like this
Posted by Another Teacher
a resident of College Terrace
on Aug 26, 2017 at 7:13 pm

@Parent
In answer to your question: you would be blind not to see this was AT LEAST a factor in her decision. Being reprimanded for telling teachers to use Schoology when a select few because of their ENTITLEMENT got offended for being asked to do so? Please- she saw the writing on the wall and took her PRAGMATIC brand of FORWARD THINKING leadership out of dodge. Accountability in collaboration? Apparently too much to ask. Now the achievement gap can be a distant memory. Topical posters for deep discussion issues. Please.


9 people like this
Posted by Teacher
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Aug 26, 2017 at 7:17 pm

@Parent
In answer to your question:YES SHE WAS DRIVEN OUT BY THE UNION.


Like this comment
Posted by Parent
a resident of Esther Clark Park
on Aug 26, 2017 at 7:54 pm

@Teacher - how do you figure? In what way? She took a bigger, easier job for more money in a nearby district after over ten years as a school principal. There was no suggestion that I heard that she was going to be fired or reassigned. That seems more "drawn in" than "driven out."


8 people like this
Posted by Teacher
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Aug 26, 2017 at 8:08 pm

@Parent
In what way? Every reasonable, sensible request driven by our 10 year track record driven by ego and head in the sand directives. Posters with nice quotes wont and hasn't fixed this quagmire. I would take another job as well rather than face the petty, hypocritical, too much time on their hands PAEA who have a beef to pick with ANYONE who leads in the most topical of fashion. God forbid if they get busy getting to work what the taxpayers requested 10 YEARS AGO!


6 people like this
Posted by Another Teacher
a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 26, 2017 at 9:15 pm

@Parent-
I would take another job to if pragmatic common sense directive leadership was constantly seen as a threat to my notions of severe entitlement. This is a team that complained that her emails and communication were too informative and long. Too much time on your hands? I think so.Go grade something!


5 people like this
Posted by Parent
a resident of Esther Clark Park
on Aug 26, 2017 at 9:43 pm

@Another Teacher, I'm not saying she got along well with the teachers. Apparently she didn't. But even if the teachers had loved her, she would have left anyway.


10 people like this
Posted by I'm one of them
a resident of another community
on Aug 27, 2017 at 2:03 pm

What about Denise trying to boot out some of the classified staff at the end of last school year? What about her trying to get rid of one of our beloved tech guys a few years ago? She always wanted to move on to "bigger and better" things so she didn't care who she stepped on.


2 people like this
Posted by another parent
a resident of Crescent Park
on Aug 29, 2017 at 10:35 am

[Post removed.]


Like this comment
Posted by lol
a resident of Los Altos Hills
on Sep 1, 2017 at 3:06 pm

arjun prabhakar is a junior not a senior


Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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