In a rare gathering of all five Palo Alto high school and middle school principals at Tuesday night's PAUSD Board meeting, the community at large had the opportunity to listen to significant structural changes the schools have made to increase student connectedness.
Principals at the high schools reported more teacher interaction during lunch hours, “green zones” in the library, check-out laptops and iPads, and hot chocolate on Wednesdays. Middle school principals said they started “team” efforts in which students collaborated on projects. These changes to improve student connectedness have come after several years of intense public debate and scrutiny on student social and emotional well-being following a .
Lunch hours at the high schools can become a vulnerable time for many students who do not have a place to go, Superintendent Kevin Skelly said. “One of the most terrifying times for kids is at lunch, because that’s the one time they don’t have to be somewhere and they have to figure out where to sit,” Skelly said. “My kids will stay in the same seat all year,” he added. Creating connectedness during “transition times” such as lunch is “very important,” he said.
principal Phil Winston agreed. “There is no better way to connect students than before school, brunch, and at lunch,” Winston said. He assembled a team of teachers and counselors to simply walk around during lunch and interact with those kids who sat alone.
“At brunch a lunch, some of them are wandering around like Kevin suggested,” Winston said. “We talked with students that didn’t have anybody to talk to,” he added. “We encouraged them to walk with us,” he said. By the end of the year, a teacher from almost every department participated, he said.
Just for walking around and talking with students during an unstructured time period like lunch, the response from parents, students, and teachers has been overwhelmingly positive. “Students felt more connected and so did staff,” he said. It is “a significant change,” he said. You get a lot of data just by talking with the kids, he said.
has totally “revitalized” and made the library the “center of campus,” said Gunn Principal Katya Villalobos. The Gunn library now has an Acorn lounge where students can check out laptops and eat lunch, she said. The school’s activity center has three ping-pong tables and now offers hot chocolate on Wednesdays, she said.
At , Principal Sharon Ofek said she brought in someone from to lead talks with groups of sixth, seventh, and eighth graders about the adults they connect with and what characteristics those adults exhibit. The eighth graders particularly commented on how some of their teachers were shy and others were more out-going, but that the teachers all had their unique way of reaching out to the students, Ofek said. “They appreciate that,” she said.
New to JLS this year are “team activities,” Ofek said. The school reduced the number of members on each team to ensure every team member had the opportunity to get to know their team members, she said. Kids collaborated on projects such as celebrating Galileo’s birthday, and would call themselves “team Galileo,” she said. At the end of the year, it seemed the team activities made an impact as Ofek reported students wrote in their year books saying “Go Team Galileo!” “They realy appreciated being connected to a team,” she said.
The increased student-connectedness efforts seem to have paid off as principals said they received much positive feedback from both parents, students, and teachers. School board members and attendees at the meeting also seemed pleased to hear about the new programs.
“It’s really, really encouraging to hear the principals talk about these real stories of connectedness,” said Palo Alto resident Matthew McDermott.
Despite the new-and-improved programs, Skelly admitted there was more work to do. Project Cornerstone which looked into the connectedness of PAUSD’s middle and high school students. While Palo Alto scored higher than the average Santa Clara County school, only less than 50 percent of middle and high school students felt their school provided a caring and encouraging environment.
At Gunn High School in particular, 89 percent of students “rated themselves strongly connected or connected to Gunn High School,” according to a 2008 study. “This gives us a sense that we’re doing well, but we still have 11 percent of the kids that aren’t connected,” he said. “There’s still work to be done on this,” he said.
The school board discussed encouraging the principals to continue reporting to the community about on-going connectedness efforts.