The 160-question survey of "developmental assets" was given to Palo Alto fifth-graders, seventh-graders and all high school students in October. Developmental assets are defined as "values, relationships and experiences that youth need to thrive." They include both internal and external factors, such as sense of purpose, positive peer influence and a caring school climate.
The survey gave kids a chance to rate the adults in their lives and their sense of being valued by their school and larger community.
In general, results show that elementary children have more positive attitudes than older students and that kids feel less supported and less hopeful as they move into their teen years.
Nearly half of the high school students surveyed were considered "vulnerable and at risk," according to survey measures, while only one in 10 were categorized as "thriving."
The Palo Alto school district decided to administer the Developmental Assets Survey following a string of high school student deaths by suicide in 2009 and 2010.
"Instead of focusing on what's wrong with kids, we wanted to focus on what's right," said Anne Ehresman, executive director of the 12-year-old nonprofit Project Cornerstone, which promotes "developmental assets" in schools across Santa Clara County.
The survey is designed to measure what is present in children's lives to help them succeed and stay away from drugs, alcohol and other negative behavior, she said.
The Developmental Assets program, used in communities across the nation, was developed by the Search Institute of Minneapolis.
Palo Alto's results generally mirror those of Santa Clara County and the nation as a whole, Ehresman said.
Other communities have successfully used survey data to refocus youth programs and other adult efforts to "build assets among youth," she said.
Decades of data has established that children who possess higher "asset levels" tend to thrive, while those with lower levels engage in more high-risk behavior, she said.
The Palo Alto Family YMCA and the nonprofit Youth Community Service program have used the Developmental Assets program for years.
After the suicides, the concept was embraced by the school district as well as the Palo Alto City Council, the Chamber of Commerce and a wide variety of local nonprofits. Those groups also formed a community-wide coalition known as Project Safety Net to address widespread concerns about youth well-being.
The reams of survey data — released March 17 — will define the baseline as Palo Alto embarks on a community-wide quest to "build assets."
The survey measures 40 so-called assets, including those external to youth — family support, adult role models, creative activities — and those measuring internal abilities and qualities, such as planning and decision-making, achievement motivation and integrity.
According to Palo Alto's results, 18 percent of fifth-graders are considered "vulnerable or at risk." That number jumps to 32 percent of middle-school students and 47 percent of high school students. "Vulnerable and at risk" is defined as a student who has between zero and 20 "assets."
On the positive side, students possessing 30 or more assets are considered to be in the "optimal, thriving" zone, Ehresman said.
In Palo Alto, that comprised 43 percent of fifth-graders; 23 percent of seventh-graders and 10 percent of high school students.
On questions specifically about suicidal thoughts, Palo Alto's numbers were similar to, or perhaps one point above, national statistics, according to Shashank V. Joshi, assistant professor of psychiatry at Lucile Packard Children's Hospital, a Palo Alto parent and member of Project Safety Net.
With 8 percent of Palo Alto students saying they've attempted suicide — and 7 percent nationally, according to the Centers for Disease Control, the numbers may be within the margin of error, Joshi said.
"It's about where it is nationally — but still a number to pay attention to," he said.
Several observers said they were surprised by Palo Alto students' low estimation of whether their community "values youth."
Only 34 percent of fifth-graders think the community values youth, according to the survey results. Among seventh-graders, the number climbs to 40 percent, but it drops to only 22 percent among high school students.
"This surprised people because these numbers are really low," Ehresman said.
"A lot of adults say, 'We're doing something,' yet the kids don't see that or feel that."
But Palo Alto High School sophomore Kyle Lui said the response on "valuing youth" was not surprising.
"I think it's just part of us growing up," Lui said. "When you're growing up, you feel that divide with your parents."
Gunn High School junior Ashley Ngu said the figure reflected students' desire for independence.
"If you (adults) took the survey, the numbers would be different," Ngu said.
Palo Alto Recreation Services Manager Rob DeGeus, who co-chairs Project Safety Net along with a school district representative, said survey results should guide "what all of us who live in Palo Alto can do to build assets in kids' lives, whether in our own homes, on the street or the kids you coach."
Leif Erickson, director of the nonprofit Youth Community Service, has used the "assets" approach to build service and leadership skills among Palo Alto and East Palo Alto youth. He said the survey gives parents and others a useful "baseline of measures."
"This approach puts the youth at the center because it is their perceptions that matter," Erickson said.
"For this test, it is the adults who are graded, not the students."
Survey results will be discussed Tuesday (March 22) by the Palo Alto Board of Education and were expected to be available Friday on the website of Project Safety Net, www.psnpaloalto.com.
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