As Palo Alto pursues a citywide push to bolster teen mental health in the aftermath of a devastating teen "suicide cluster" in 2009 and 2010, Beacom, the health education manager for the Palo Alto Medical Foundation, reflects on the significance of the understated actions by those in her community.
"It .... gave me daily examples of how fathers and daughters adored each other — and it transferred to me.
"Who knew how important that would be for my development?" said the Palo Alto resident and long-married mother of two grown children.
In the months of grieving and searching dialogue that followed Palo Alto's teen suicides, a wide range of community groups, including the school district, settled on a statistical strategy, among others, to assess and address the emotional wellness of the city's youth: "developmental assets."
More than 4,000 kids — nearly all Gunn and Palo Alto high school students as well as seventh-graders and fifth-graders — took a detailed developmental-assets survey on their habits and attitudes last fall.
The recently released data present a mixed picture of youth well-being in Palo Alto: While kids possess many strengths, the majority said they do not feel valued by their community. And the older they get, the less valued they feel.
Ironically, for an intellectual community that insists on research-based policies, the survey results point to deceptively simple cures — intuitive to most people, but sometimes overlooked in the crush of life in a high-achieving town:
Know the names of the kids on your block. Make eye contact with — maybe even smile at — young people on University Avenue. Take time to care about the opinions of kids — yours and others'.
"If you wanted a book to tell you what the high school students in Palo Alto have to say about us adults — what they want from us — you have it right here," said Beacom, fingering the voluminous results of the so-called "developmental-assets survey."
"People say, 'I'd love to be a fly on the wall and know what my kids are really thinking.' Well, it's in here.
"This survey asks beautiful questions, like, 'How important is it to you to help other people, help reduce hunger and poverty, help make sure people are treated fairly, get to know people of different races and ethnic groups?" Beacom said.
"What we find is that a huge number of kids — not all of them, but a large number, in my estimation — hold these values very dearly.
"The perception in Palo Alto is that parents don't let their kids make mistakes, but 75 percent of kids agreed that taking their lumps, taking responsibility for their mistakes, was quite important or extremely important," she said.
"If you never ask these questions, you would never know."
The Developmental Assets Survey, produced by the Minneapolis-based Search Institute and given to millions of young people nationwide over the past 45 years, measures 40 defined "assets" a kid needs to thrive — things like "family support," "integrity," "reading for pleasure" and "adult role models," to name just a few. They cover resources both external and internal to youth.
Decades of results have established that children who possess higher "asset levels" tend to thrive, while those with lower levels engage in more high-risk behavior.
According to Palo Alto's results, 18 percent of fifth-graders are "vulnerable or at risk." That number jumps to 32 percent of middle school students and 47 percent of high school students. A student is considered "vulnerable and at risk" if his or her survey answers reflect fewer than 20 of the 40 assets.
On the upside, students possessing 30 or more assets are counted in the "optimal, thriving" zone.
In Palo Alto, the "thriving" category comprises 43 percent of fifth-graders, 23 percent of seventh-graders and 10 percent of high school students.
Armed with baseline data on the emotional health of its youth, people in any community can become "asset builders" by being more "intentional" and engaging in their interactions with kids, the Search Institute says.
The town of Los Gatos — led by a middle school principal and former mayor Mike Wasserman — tried it, and a repeat survey found that the "asset levels" of teens there measurably increased from 2007 to 2010.
"It's paying attention to small things," said Chris Miller, a board member of the Los Gatos Union School District, where the community made a concerted effort to put the assets into action — saying hello to kids, striking up conversations, taking some time to listen to what they have to say.
Lisa Fraser, principal of Los Gatos' Fisher Middle School, introduced the "assets" approach to her campus in 2005. In 2009, then-Mayor Wasserman (now a Santa Clara County Supervisor) announced a full-on campaign to spread the assets model throughout the community. Wasserman spoke before 68 different organizations in town about the assets and the importance of interacting with young people.
The city's Youth Commission also teamed up with its Chamber of Commerce to identify and highlight businesses considered "youth friendly" — those that treat young customers with respect, hire youth and support community and school activities.
Surveys of some 2,000 Los Gatos students in 2007 and again in 2010 showed increased assets in almost every category, including an 18 percentage point gain in "school engagement" and a 13 percentage point boost in "positive peer influence."
Asset-building is more than just nostalgia for a rosy past that never existed, Beacom said.
It is particular to every time and place.
From her own childhood, Beacom remembers the reliably warm greeting she used to get from Fran Hinson, the late owner of the old Fran's newsstand on Lytton Avenue.
Hinson and his sister Ruth welcomed kids into their shop to read comics, inviting them behind the counter to pick out penny candy.
"We never bought the comics, but they were nice to us," she said. "Who knew how important those adults would be in our lives?
"Forever in my mind will be the smell of red licorice, tobacco and newsprint together and the independence of being able to walk to Fran's."
Another feature of those pre-Proposition 13 days, Beacom recalls, were the drop-in summer recreation programs and arts and crafts at neighborhood schools, open to all.
Raising her own kids in Palo Alto, Beacom looks back on the annual Addison School Carnival at the end of the May Fete Parade as a significant asset-builder.
"It was a requirement for every Addison parent to be involved, and it became this institution, this ritual, an identity," she said.
"Maybe we didn't recognize how important those kinds of things were. The Search Institute gives us scientific backing for why those things really matter for children's health and development.
"Too often we feel like everything has to be academic or taught, instead of embedded in our way of life."
Beacom stays alert for ideas from kids about what might work for them today.
Students recently told her of their admiration for a Gunn High School teacher who stands at the classroom door on the first day of school every year, shaking hands and personally greeting each student. That got Beacom's attention.
With assets in mind, school Superintendent Kevin Skelly, a basketball player, has taken to opening certain school gyms on Sundays to play informally and mingle with any kids who sign up.
Local shops like Pizza My Heart, Spot Pizza, Douce France and Rojoz are popular because "these are places that have welcomed young people, and teens appreciate that," she said.
A few simple changes could go a long way, Beacom said.
She cited recent measurable improvements in a longstanding bullying problem at Jordan Middle School after administrators there changed lunchtime and hallway policies. "Overnight, the (bullying) data improved, and continues to improve," she said.
Polling subsequent to the changes suggested that parents had noticed the difference.
"We (adults) don't generally have a good track record in following through, and some of this is really low-hanging fruit," Beacom said, citing longtime requests from high school students for "test calendars" so they don't end up with multiple exams on the same day from different teachers.
"They're not asking for reduced tests or reduced rigor — just a better system, a healthier system."
At Sequoia High School in Redwood City, where Beacom's husband has taught chemistry and human biology for 22 years, the union contract mandates that teachers participate at some level in the extracurricular life of the school — chaperoning, keeping time at games, or other chores.
That alone leads to teachers having greater connection with students, she said.
"My husband would do it anyway, and a lot of teachers (in Palo Alto) do things on their own, but that (contract requirement) is a structure that makes something happen.
"The whole school climate thing doesn't have to mean a complete overhaul. The kids have given us some suggestions — let's just start with those."
Palo Alto's survey results have been posted on the school district's website at http://pausd.org/parents/programs/StudentConnectedness/index.shtml. They are also linked to the website of Project Safety Net (www.psnpaloalto.com/), the multi-agency task force on teen mental health that was organized in response to the suicides.
This story contains 1539 words.
Stories older than 90 days are available only to subscribing members. Please help sustain quality local journalism by becoming a subscribing member today.
If you are already a subscriber, please log in so you can continue to enjoy unlimited access to stories and archives. Subscriptions start at $5 per month and may be cancelled at any time.