Guest Opinion: Former student makes case for teacher adviser counselors at Gunn | May 11, 2012 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - May 11, 2012

Guest Opinion: Former student makes case for teacher adviser counselors at Gunn

by Trevor Bisset

I am writing to throw my support behind the implementation of a teacher advisor program at Gunn High School, and to encourage Palo Alto parents, teachers, and students to attend the May 16 panel discussion sponsored by We Can Do Better Palo Alto on the merits of TA programs. This initiative comes as part of an ongoing push to address student stress in the Palo Alto school district, and to stop the persistent and tragic string of youth suicides that have plagued our community for the past decade.

Students in Palo Alto are stressed out. They've been stressed for years. The school sits in the shadow of Stanford University, and students face crushing pressure from parents and the community at large to earn a spot at one of the nation's top colleges. Many students are raised by executives at Facebook, Apple, Intel, Sun, Cisco, Google, and other premier companies and do their homework surrounded by some of the most successful self-made business leaders in the world. It's a lot to live up to. Even the kids who aren't driven to study engineering at Cal Tech spend their formative years in a society that can't help but conflate academic performance with a sense of self-worth. The impact on students' anxiety and confidence levels is undeniable, and the epidemic of student suicides in recent years is testament to the need to support these students.

The 2010 report released by the Project Safety Net task force exploring potential sources of student stress places an enormous priority on students' ability to form personal relationships with faculty. It gives them an anchor, someone to turn to for help, and reminds them that they are not invisible and lost in the crowd. Herein lies the value of a teacher advisor program.

I attended Paly from 2001-2005 and lost friends to suicide in 2002 and 2003. This was before Facebook was available to complicate high school social lives to an unimaginable degree, and the national economic outlook was more encouraging than harrowing — people graduated from college and consistently found gainful employment. We were stressed out regardless. I was a typical burned out senior upon graduating, after charging through the typical varsity athletics, model government, AP courses, applying to elite colleges, and so on. Having a teacher advisor I could lean on for guidance was a critical support system for me, and though I felt overwhelmed every week, my TAs kept me from feeling lost.

They helped us with field trip logistics. They guided us through class registration. They made sure we covered all our bases around graduation requirements. They got us into our PSATs and CAHSEEs. They helped us wrap our heads around writing college admission essays. This was all critical, and I don't remember my monthly TA sessions having more than 20 or 25 kids for each faculty member, compared to the 300-plus students assigned to each of Gunn's guidance counselors. More importantly, the TAs were able to keep track of the emotional state within each student, and if grades were suffering, or if we were suffering, they were there to ask us what was going on, and refer us to guidance counselors. That was tremendous. I never took the time to address my own depression issues until after high school, but I vividly remember how supported I felt simply by hearing the words, "are you doing okay?" It was grounding, and it reminded me that somebody had my back through the daily pressures.

When I reflect on how supportive my TAs were, Gunn's lack of a TA program would be laughable if it didn't cast a reminder of the grim circumstances that led us to this discussion. I know that resources are limited. I know that California's school year shrinks with every budget cycle, and I know teachers are under pressure to condense more education into diminishing windows. But that doesn't matter. Paly was able to pull 45 faculty members into an hour-long support session eight or nine times during the school year (I believe it was monthly), and it made an enormous difference in the lives of the students. It still does. The Gunn community should view TA programs as an investment in the success of the other 19 school days each month; if academic rankings are so important to the community, shouldn't we make a minimal effort to ensure that kids are supported enough to absorb the material? More importantly, shouldn't we make a maximum effort to ensure that our children feel more confident than hopeless?

I would like to encourage everybody to attend "Learning About Counseling Changes for Gunn: How Teacher Advisors Can Better Support Our Kids" on May 16, 7 p.m., at St Mark's Episcopal Church at 600 Colorado Ave. in Palo Alto. Denise Clark Pope, a senior lecturer at Stanford, will lead a panel discussion highlighting the merits of a teacher advisor program. I am grateful for the opportunity to share my own positive experience with the TA program, but this panel is a much stronger way to educate the community and rally support for the cause. We have a stress problem in the district. The school district is responding to collective action. Let's continue the progress, and keep pushing for a teacher advisor program at Gunn.

Trevor Bisset, Paly '05, graduated from Pomona College in 2010 and is now a water resource analyst at the Indio Water Authority. He lives in Palm Desert.


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Posted by Grass greener?
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on May 11, 2012 at 11:48 am


Good for you for keeping close tabs on all that is happening in our community, especially living so far away.

My son is in high school now, so wasn't at Paly 7 years ago when you were. Maybe things have changed for the better because he is not finding his high school experience here in Palo Alto stressful. Yes there is homework and there are exams, so it is not all video games and hoops after school, but he is enjoying his classes and what he is learning and weathers studying for school with good cheer. He is finding students to be accessible and balanced.

Your post makes me wonder:

Some children are more anxious than others in general. How could our WHOLE community have better helped you navigate through teen stress?

You correlate the suicides a few years ago to academic stress. Depressed teens who are NOT stressed out at school suffer with tragic outcomes too. The common thread is that major diagnosable depression is a precursor to 90% of teen suicides. It is so very important for depressed teens to get professional help. Relying on teachers or guidance counselors (even Paly’s TAs) who are not expert in identifying and addressing depression is not the best path.

So, again, what can our WHOLE community do to notice when a student is suffering from depression and get him the help he needs?

Paly’s TA guidance system is not the magic pill. I have friends who do not have a good student-TA match at Paly and, as your letter says, Paly’s TA program was in place when it had its spate of tragic events.

I like the TA model but I also like how well-connected my friends’ kids at Gunn are, some with their counselors and some not. Gunn has a very tight adult-student community staffed by fun coaches and energetic teachers in after-school programs that bring together high academic types like you and those planning to go straight to careers after graduation.

I also like that Gunn which gives kids and parents 1-on-1 counselor sessions with any counselor whenever needed on the topic of their choice.

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Posted by Gunn Senior
a resident of Gunn High School
on May 11, 2012 at 9:36 pm

I would actually disagree with the claim that "some" kids are well-connected at Gunn. I will say that the vast majority of kids are not connected to counselors or teachers. The fact is, from my experience, you do not get to know your counselor well until senior year. Before senior year, I talked to the counselor maybe once a year, for scheduling. I did not feel there was any connection, and many of my friends shared this sentiment. Only this year, when we actually had appointments where we had to discuss our colleges and our futures did I have some tiny connection with my counselor. But honestly, my counselor has never asked my anything about my personal life (and why would he? It doesn't seem entirely appropriate when we're meeting to discuss college application deadlines).

It is true that counselors are generally available at any time for drop-ins, but honestly, a student who feels isolated will NOT go out of their comfort zone and drop-in "just to chat."

The same applies for teachers. I "know" my teachers in only an academic sense. There is very little personal connection. In my observations, male students don't talk on a personal level with teachers, while I have seen only a few female students (out of many) who do personally know their teacher. Sure, my teachers can write a letter of recommendation for me extolling how I participate in class and am very intelligent, etc., but they cannot attest to my personal values.

I certainly think, though, that trying to increase the level of connectedness among students and teachers will go a long way towards reducing isolation among students.

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Posted by Amy Balsom
a resident of Barron Park
on May 12, 2012 at 4:11 pm

Kudos to Trevor Bisset and the Gunn Senior who posted above, for speaking out. As a Gunn parent of two current students, I can say that the current system does not provide adequate connection or guidance for our teens. The comments by "grass greener" are quite surprising since I know of no "tight adult-student community staffed by fun coaches and energetic teachers" at Gunn. While this may be the experience of some, it is certainly not the majority. Just look at the survey data. And I must dispel the myth that "Gunn ... gives kids and parents 1-on-1 counselor sessions with any counselor whenever needed on the topic of their choice." This is absolutely not the case. While the current TA system at Paly may not be perfect, nor a panacea, it is certainly a huge improvement over what we have at Gunn. A 40:1 ratio students to advisor/counselor (Paly) beats 325:1 (Gunn) any day!

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Posted by Gunn alum
a resident of Gunn High School
on May 12, 2012 at 6:35 pm

All I can say is that when I was a student there in 2008, we were asked if we wanted advisory and pretty much all the students wanted it. We even took a survey as I recall about whether we wanted advisory and around 3/4 of us did want it and Principal Likens and Mr. Winston wanted to do it.Now Principal Likens is gone, and Mr. Winston is at Paly where they have TA.My counselor was nice but I never saw much of her.When I would go at lunch she was never there, or she was very busy helping other students. My parents paid for private college counseling as well as a lot of tutoring.I did go to UC Santa Cruz but I think that my counselor, the last time I saw her, told me to go to Chico.My sister isn't getting any better than I did and I think TA is the way to go.I think it would be good to bring back Mr. Winston.

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Posted by Trevor Bisset
a resident of Crescent Park
on May 15, 2012 at 6:39 pm

Thanks everyone for chiming in.

Grass Greener, I am a big fan of pointing out the causation/correlation distinction; I am also a proponent of grabbing low-hanging fruit. Of course there are going to be countless variables impacting each student's happiness in subjective ways, and of course there are guaranteed to be students who bring depression to high school from a troubling past or a hereditary inclination. I acknowledge all of that.

That said, the PSN study I referred to found that the degree to which students formed personal relationships with faculty had a profound impact on their feelings of overwhelm and hopelessness on campus. Since I don't buy into the narrative that Gunn high school - the shining pinnacle of public education - lacks the resources to feasibly put 45 faculty in a room full of students once a month to check up on their administrative items, I am in favor of a TA program. Maybe it doesn't save any lives, and maybe it prevents a particularly despairing student from experiencing the "nudge" they need to actually kill themselves. We can't predict, so I tend to opt for the conservative approach when it comes to things like teenage suicide.

In the worst case scenario, Gunn students will forego 45 mins of lecture each month to feel marginally less stressed about high school logistics. Regardless of suicide rates, removing this hurdle from an already tumultuous educational experience is a great action to take on behalf of our kids.

I'm proud of your son for handling the various challenges of high school in stride. I had a good friend who was never late to class or turning in homework from age 11 through college graduation. I also knew a lot of kids, myself included, that really benefited from having support systems as they tackled the challenge of academic achievement. I think it's a fallacy to claim that students like the two who responded to your comment don't deserve a cost-effective and proven nod from a PAUSD policy change just because some kids happen to be thriving. Especially given the recent history.

So. It's like Pasquale's Wager...doesn't cost a tremendous amount to build the TA program at Gunn. If we're right, we save lives. If we're wrong, at least the kids feel more supported and we're no worse for wear.

Anyway, thank you again for weighing in. It's crucial that we are able to have these types of discussions in the PAUSD community in a respectful forum, please continue to contribute to the debate. As for everyone else who responded, I've got your back! Let's keep it going!

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