To Take Action Now, or Later, on Counseling – Oct 28, 2015

 by Elena Kadvany / Palo Alto Weekly

     Wed, Oct 28, 2015

After four surveys that have yielded the same results — that there is a gap between counseling services at Palo Alto and Gunn high schools — and one committee that spent a school year analyzing how to close that gap at Gunn, with its recommendations largely languishing, some board members are wondering whether a proposal to convene yet another counseling committee is the right route to take.

The school board discussed Tuesday night a new high school counseling survey that again showed not only higher student satisfaction with counseling services at Paly, but also relatively low rates of satisfaction across the board at both high schools.

While the majority of surveyed students (64 percent) said they know there is an adult on campus who cares about them, only 32 percent of students said that school counselors are a resource for them in “dealing with the demands at school.” Twenty percent of students said counselors are not a resource for them in dealing with school demands.

And while 39 percent of Paly students reported that the school counseling staff has helped them develop problem-solving skills like balancing extracurricular activities and academics and resolving personal conflicts, at Gunn, that number is significantly lower. Only 28 percent of Gunn students said counselors have supported them in learning these skills, and 23 percent of students said that they haven’t.

Paly has long had in place a teacher-advisory model, which connects students with a teacher-advisor (TA) throughout their four years (one teacher their freshman year, and then another for the next three years). Students meet regularly with their TA around academic planning and anything else they might need support with, though freshmen meet more frequently than the other grade levels — weekly rather than monthly. Students meet regularly with their TA around academic planning and anything else they might need support with. Guidance counselors work with TAs to identify students who might need extra academic or social-emotional support, and college and career counselors provide juniors and seniors with post-graduation guidance.

Gunn, by contrast, has a traditional counseling model, with a group of staff members providing guidance counseling, college and career advice and social-emotional support. Some community members and parents have for years urged that Gunn move to a teacher-advisor model.

The survey results came with a staff recommendation to create a new counseling committee composed of students, parents, teachers, staff and administrators from both Paly and Gunn, which would be asked to issue recommendations by next December, to be potentially implemented in the fall of 2017.

Superintendent Max McGee said that “the key question before us is not if the Gunn system or Paly system is better,” but how to improve counseling services for all students.

Some school board members took issue with this extended timeline, urging McGee to instead identify short-term, “low-hanging fruit” that can be tackled this year.

“The perfect cannot be the enemy of the good,” said board member Ken Dauber, “and waiting to address the deficit that has existed at Gunn for these many years cannot wait, in my view, for deciding (on) a more perfect system.”

Dauber said many Gunn parents have asked him, “Why is it OK for my students to be receiving less effective services in this area than students at Paly?”

“I have not been able to give them a good and persuasive answer,” he said.

Dauber said he would prefer a committee structured like Gunn’s recent creative bell schedule committee, which delivered concrete, actionable recommendations (that are now in place at the school) within a timeframe of a few months.

Board President Melissa Baten Caswell, too, asked for more immediate action. She said in her eight years on the board and two years of attending board meetings as a parent leader, she has witnessed a cyclical approach in the district of “going back to see where we are.”

“Although that’s noble — and it’s not just on counseling … it seems like what happens is we just recount the chairs on the deck of the boat and we don’t come up with new ideas to go forward. I think the intent is always to count those chairs and then figure out where to build more boats and decks … but it’s frustrating for me for 10 years seeing us redo this and redo this,” she said.

Baten Caswell suggested staff start by looking to the previous Gunn Guidance Advisory Committee (GAC) report and recommendations.

“We have a list of things that the GAC committee said they’d like to see happen. Let’s do some of those things,” she said. “If some of those things are good for Paly, let’s do them there, too.”

McGee stood by staff’s initial proposal and timeline, but said he could convene a smaller group to address more immediate changes, or identify both short- and long-term goals for the joint committee. He was wary of taking on too much at once, particularly for Gunn, which just this year implemented a new bell schedule. He said that “jumping to an advisory system at Gunn would be a mistake.”

“If we try to do too much at once we are going to sink the Titanic,” he said. “We can’t afford to do that. We have to do these important things and spread them out over time.”

Philippe Rey, executive director of Adolescent Counseling Services (ACS), a nonprofit organization that provides on-site counseling for the district’s middle and high schools, told the board during public comment that his organization has seen a steady increase in demand for its on-campus services in recent years.

Last year, ACS saw a 6 percent increase over the year before; the year before that, the organization saw a 17 percent increase in demand, he said. The top reason students seek counseling support is academic stress, Rey said, followed by communication with parents, peer relationships, anxiety and self-esteem issues.

During the last school year, Paly and Gunn students and administrators frequently spoke about long waitlists to get in to see an ACS counselor — as well as external providers — because of a spike in demand during last year’s suicide cluster.

In response, the district approved the hiring last year of two new mental health therapists, one for each high school, who started this school year.

Rey said that his organization is “trying to find ways to either reduce or completely eliminate a waitlist at the sites that we serve so when a student is in need of seeing us, then they can actually access the services.”

Brenda Carrillo, the district’s director of student services, said the waitlists are also driven by a shift in the way the district delivers counseling services. The system at the high schools has evolved in recent years away from a school-based model toward a clinical one where counselors provide longer-term support to students, she said, so counselors who might be seeing students for an entire year are less available to others.

The district is working with ACS to shift back toward a school model, under which counselors meet with students for several weeks and then if necessary, connect them with external resources to continue their care.

Palo Alto Unified still offers what it calls a “3-6-9” referral model through which students can access three, six or nine sessions with a local mental health provider, and the cost is underwritten by the district.

Palo Alto Medical Foundation also started offering last year four free counseling sessions to local teens.

Paly student board representative Emma Cole attributed the increase in demand for counseling services to a decrease in stigma around seeking mental health support. But waitlists can throw a wrench in that, she said.

“It sort of goes against everything we’re saying if a student seeks help and then they say, ‘we’ll help you, but not for however many months when this waitlist clears up,'” said Cole, a senior at Paly.

The district is also planning on gathering new kinds of data around counseling that goes beyond student perceptions, such as tracking when and for what reasons students seek services, and how they’re addressed.

Editor’s note: This story was updated to correct inaccurate information about Palo Alto High School’s counseling system, which stated that Paly had a weekly teacher-advisor (TA) model through which students were connected with one TA for all four years. Students have a different TA their freshman year compared to the higher grade levels and meet regularly with their TAs, but not weekly.