The Palo Alto Unified School District Board of Education turned its focus Tuesday night to a report on school counseling services, a grim update on Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposed cuts to the state’s education budget and the awarding of tenure to 41 probationary teachers from several campuses across the district.
Improvements to School Counseling Services
A large portion of Tuesday night’s school board meeting was spent discussing progress that has been made toward strategic goals set by the district in 2008 for improvements to counseling services on middle and high school campuses.
“This is an important item for us; it’s part of our focus goals for the year," said Superintendent Kevin Skelly. "We had a lot of discussions about it on our [board] retreat, and it’s very near and dear to our hearts.”
The panel of representatives that presented the progress report included Amy Drolette, PAUSD’s coordinator of student services; Kim Diorio, assistant principal of ; and Kim Cowell, assistant principal at .
Diorio started out by summarizing the goals of the committee that is working on implementing plans to achieve the district’s strategic goals, which were adopted in May 2008.
“We want to make sure students are prepared to transition to the high school environment," she said. "We want to make sure students are getting the level of support they need and, above all, we’re committed to learning in the classroom. We’re educators, we’re teachers, and we want students to be successful while they’re on our campuses. That’s what calls us to this work.”
The elephant in the room that no one addressed directly was that of in the Palo Alto area and the focus it has brought to the issues of student stress and the pressure to succeed.
Cowell spent a significant amount of time in her report touching upon additional training that district guidance counselors have undertaken in the areas of crisis counseling, and identifying students who may be experiencing personal crises.
She said the recent suicides are tragic but that if one positive thing could be drawn from them, it is that school counseling services have significantly bolstered their skills relevant to the matter.
“What do we do when kids are having issues, or when there’s a crisis in our schools?" Cowell said. "Unfortunately, we’ve had the opportunity to get a lot better at this. If anything positive can be said, that is the one silver lining in all of this. I think a positive in all of this is that we’re now a more alert community, a more caring community, and I think that’s important, so that is a positive. Unfortunately though, we are finding a lot more students with issues.”
Cowell said that being alert to students’ social and emotional health essentially starts with the teachers.
“Straight up, the teacher is there with the student in the classroom on a daily basis, working with the student,” she explained. Therefore, if a teacher notices a student who may be in personal turmoil, be it from academic stress or social problems, there's a plan the teacher can follow to get that student the help he or she needs.
“That teacher then has a support system, which would start with the guidance counselor,” she said, describing a plan the school will follow in such a situation to help contact the student’s family or assist with getting the student whatever help is needed most. “Sometimes it’s a little liaison matter; sometimes it’s more than that.”
Cowell said PAUSD counselors have undergone significant skills-building training recently to work toward the district’s goals, and says they are all well versed in crisis counseling, small group counseling and peer conflict resolution, which she said seems to be especially crucial at the middle-school level.
“Overall, I think our guidance counselors do [all of this] very well,” she said.
Diorio summarized the priorities focused district-wide at the middle-school level, which include cyber safety, such as online interactions with peers and protecting students’ cyber identities; social kindness, such as matters like bullying and being sensitive to cultural or physical differences between students; stress and coping skills; academic planning and college preparedness; easing academic transitions between grade levels; and resiliency and peer support.
Cowell summarized priorities at the high school level, which included academic planning and college preparedness, stress reduction, social and emotional health and making healthy choices.
Cowell added that counselors are making an effort to engage students in the matter of preparing for college. She said that when a counselor asks a student why he or she wants to go to college, and the student replies, “because that’s what I’m supposed to do,” that can be a cause for concern. So, the counselor will attempt to dive deeper into the underlying issue with that student.
The matters of student stress and the pressure to succeed, which have been ongoing themes in the district and the community over the past few years, certainly did not go ignored in Tuesday night’s discussion.
Cowell stressed that the matters are high on the list of priorities and in the skills-building for the district’s school counselors.
“Even Stanford has said they don’t want kids who are ‘overcooked,’” she said. “They have said, if a kid looks ‘overcooked,’ they’re not going to take them, because their mental health bills are through the roof. They conducted a survey recently, and 57 percent of incoming freshman reported being depressed. So, we are taking this issue very, very seriously.”
Emergency Contingency Plans Underway in Anticipation of State Budget Cuts
Also at Tuesday night’s school board meeting, Cathy Mak, a chief business officer for PAUSD, presented an update on the status of proposed cuts to state education budgets. She said the district budget office is busy preparing several different budgets for the 2011-12 school year, as an emergency contingency plan of sorts, in anticipation of billions of dollars worth of cuts to California schools.
As Skelly introduced Mak to present her report, he prefaced it by saying, “We are in a state of tremendous flux. In previous board meetings, we kind of felt like there was a greater uncertainty than ever. I think our uncertainty has diminished over the past month or two, but our concerns have certainly grown, I think.”
Mak reconfirmed what had become known earlier this year—that there is a state deficit of $26 billion going into the 2011-12 school year.
She also announced a new bit of information, which was met with grim faces—the proposed special election that many had hoped would take place in June is essentially off the table.
The special election would have given voters the opportunity to vote on extending expiring taxes, which would create additional revenue for California schools.
“Last week, the governor’s negotiations with Republicans broke down,” Mak explained. “The June election is now, essentially, dead.”
Without the special election, Mak said, either $12 billion of revenue needs to be found, or $12 billion in cuts will have to be made—several billion of which will have to come from education.
“The governor himself has mentioned that education budgets may take an additional $2-$5 billion in cuts, if the tax scenario [that would have been voted on in the special election] is not successful,” she explained.
Basically, the district budget office has been in a panic mode of sorts over the past couple of months, preparing several different budget scenarios that PAUSD may be faced with, depending on how much is cut from school budgets when all is said and done in Sacramento and the final state budget is announced.
Mak presented several possible budget summaries to the board on Tuesday night, based on either $2 billion, $4 billion or $5 billion in cuts to state education funding. She said, in her expert opinion, the most likely scenario will be $4 billion in cuts, if the special election either does not take place, or if it does, but the measure to extend expiring taxes does not pass with voters.
She said that scenario is most likely what they will be faced with, because, by law, the minimum amount of funding the state must give to public schools is $120 per student per school year, and cuts cannot exceed excess property taxes. According to the budget office’s math, that would put the final numbers at around $4 billion in cuts to state education funding, guaranteeing PAUSD around $660 per student per school year, a significant reduction from funding in past years.
Mak said she does not expect the final numbers from Sacramento to be announced before May, as the governor said he needs more time to examine the situation.
Skelly said the board of education will also continue to examine the situation over the coming months.
“I’m not sure what our next step will be,” he admitted. “The staff will be working on it over the next few weeks. We will certainly try to keep [the community] abreast as we work on this. I believe that is very important.”
41 Teachers Awarded Tenure
Forty-one probationary teachers from several Palo Alto schools were awarded tenure on Tuesday night.
Though it was not officially approved by the school board until the meeting later that night, a special celebration was held for the teachers at 5 p.m. Tuesday at the district offices, including refreshments, a receiving line and a presenting of roses to teachers by representatives from their respective campuses.
Board members expressed their happiness over welcoming the 41 new “members of the family.”
“Everyone is excited to have them as part of the team,” said Scott Bowers, associate superintendent.
“This is always one of the most fun nights we have each year, when this entire room is filled with joy and pride, and we get a future glimpse at our district,” said board member Dana Tom.
Though some criticism has been expressed in the community recently over the fact that so many teachers were being awarded tenure, despite what many are calling an evaluation period that is too short—in essence, around a year and a half—board president Melissa Baten-Caswell said that regardless of the length of the time period, the evaluation system for a teacher’s qualifications is quite thorough and rigorous.
“It’s a lovely thing to be able to welcome new teachers who have done such a wonderful job for our district so far,” she said Tuesday night, briefly touching upon the process that leads to offering a teacher tenure, including satisfying 13 identified standards, three written assessments, parent and fellow-teacher evaluations, evaluations by the superintendent and other members of administrative staff, and much more.
“I don’t think it’s apparent to everybody the lengthy process these teachers go through to be made a permanent part of our district,” Baten-Caswell added. "So I congratulate these teachers."