Compensation issues lead to restructured SELF, Study Hall format

Compensation issues lead to restructured SELF, Study Hall format

Disparities in teacher compensation between Gunn and Palo Alto High School (Paly) resulted in changes to the Social Emotional Literacy and Functionality (SELF) mentoring structure, so students now only attend SELF biweekly. On the off weeks, they will instead participate in Study Hall, a time designated for completing homework, studying and doing other quiet activities.

Although there has never been an abundance of staff members willing to teach SELF, there have always been enough to fill the necessary spots—until this year. Last spring, several SELF mentors were reluctant to return to the program, mostly due to a realization that Paly’s teacher advisors—analogous, at least superficially, to SELF mentors—were being compensated at higher rates than the SELF mentors at Gunn.

According to SELF Mentor and former SELF Coordinator Tara Firenzi, the pandemic created difficulties in maintaining communication with Paly around their respective programs. “We had been coordinating quite a bit with Paly in terms of knowing what they were doing, and then 2020 broke down that communication in a lot of ways,” she said. “Then, [after the pandemic,] we found out that there was a very different [compensation] model in place at Paly.”

SELF Coordinator Kathryn Catalano noted that Gunn’s compensation rate reflected an estimated 71 hours annually for SELF mentor duties—mentors were not being paid for teaching during the SELF period itself, but rather for other duties they were expected to perform, such as attending meetings about the program. However, as the SELF coordinators and Gunn administration found out in May, the rates of compensation across both campuses were vastly different: During the 2021–2022 school year, Paly teacher advisors for grades 9 and 10 were paid $10,000 a year, while advisors for grades 11 and 12 were compensated at one-fifth of their salary. These advisors taught four periods, but were paid as if they taught five, with their Advisory period constituting this “fifth” class. At the same time, all Gunn SELF mentors were paid $4,500 a year.

The disparities in compensation between the two campuses originate, in part, from the differences between their respective programs. Paly students participate in Advisory, an older program more strongly connected to academic counseling than social-emotional learning. On the other hand, Gunn’s SELF program—launched in 2017—was created specifically to address California’s social-emotional learning standards and to place an emphasis on student wellness, according to Assistant Principal Courtney Carlomagno, who helped set up the program. “California was adopting [social emotional learning] standards, and we had to show we had a place where we were meeting these standards,” she said. “SELF was [also] a response to the fact that we needed more community and we needed to make sure that all students had access to a trusted adult.”

Given that the two programs were created to fulfill separate needs, staff members’ roles for SELF and Advisory differ. Teacher advisors at Paly for example, write letters of recommendation for their students and advise them throughout the college admissions process. In essence, they perform many of the tasks that guidance counselors usually perform, and this explains part of the funding gap. Because teacher advisors function similarly to counselors, Paly has fewer guidance counselors than Gunn and is thus able to compensate its advisors at a higher rate. Catalano found that this disparity played into some SELF mentors’ decisions about returning for the 2022–2023 school year. “As soon as we knew about [the discrepancy], we immediately went to our mentors,” she said. “It became clear very quickly that the majority of our mentors were not comfortable continuing to meet every week at the $4,500 yearly compensation.”

At the end of the day, I want our program to be one that serves the needs of our students and balances the need for social and emotional wellness [while] also helping them find some balance in their coursework and in their school life.”

— SELF Coordinator Kathryn Catalano

Given the paucity of people available to staff the program, administrators and SELF coordinators at Gunn made the decision to transition to a biweekly model, with mentors doubling up on SELF cohorts in order to cover the shortage. With a lower number of mentors, it was possible for each to be compensated at twice the original rate, reducing the pay gap between the two campuses and alleviating the mentor shortage—in fact, after adopting this model, there were more than enough SELF mentors willing to continue with the program, according to Firenzi. “[We didn’t] have enough teachers who agreed to be compensated at half or less of the rate of Paly, so we increased our rate,” she said. “[Then] we had enough teachers.”

According to Firenzi, mentors who double up on cohorts alternate, seeing their freshman or sophomore cohort one week and their junior or senior cohort the next. Teachers with only one SELF cohort see that cohort every other week, and teach the newly added Study Hall for at least part of the year in order to fulfill their obligation of teaching for five-sevenths of instructional minutes. They will be compensated at the same rate as the previous year. All teachers not acting as SELF mentors have a Study Hall period as well. This is in contrast to last year, when teachers who weren’t SELF mentors were not teaching at all during the time designated for SELF, and were thus actually receiving more than their allotted two-sevenths prep period time for the PRIME and SELF periods. (Last year, SELF mentors taught full periods of SELF and PRIME, voluntarily putting themselves above the five-sevenths required teaching time). Teachers and SELF mentors working part-time have had their duties adjusted proportionally.

This schedule change is likely to have a vast array of consequences, both positive and negative. Catalano noted that having a SELF program with a smaller pool of mentors could be beneficial. “This new setup means that we have a smaller group of mentors who are really, really dedicated to the program, which is exciting,” she said.

However, there are some potential drawbacks to the change—most notably, the fact that students will be meeting with their mentors half as often in a program which works to establish student relationships with a trusted adult. Social Studies Instructional Lead Jeff Patrick was among the teachers voicing this concern. “What we’re going to lose is the time to develop the individual relationships with students, which is unfortunate,” he said.

Some students, including SELF Advisory Board member senior Elliot Grant, considered the change to be a good move. “Especially as a senior, I think it’s smart that we only do [SELF] every two weeks now because I think it helps students become more productive,” he said.

According to Principal Wendy Stratton, throughout the process, feedback will be solicited from students regarding the changes to the program. There is also a district ad hoc committee composed of teachers, students, school administrators, members of the Board of Education and other members of the community.

Ultimately, Catalano hopes to maintain a robust SELF program. “At the end of the day, I want our program to be one that serves the needs of our students and balances the need for social and emotional wellness [while] also helping them find some balance in their coursework and in their school life,” she said.