The 70 juniors and seniors from the Mountain View-Los Altos and Palo Alto Unified high school districts don't appear to be all that different from other kids their age. Some are outgoing, others shy, a few are sarcastic and, for the most part, they liberally pepper their sentences with the word "like."
What sets these students apart from the majority of their peers, according to Middle College teachers Mike Wilson and Trish Langdon, is that normal public high school was not working for them. Like, really not working.
And so they have enrolled in Middle College, a publicly funded alternative secondary school program that allows local students to simultaneously earn a high school diploma and college credit in community college classes. While the program has shrunk in recent years, teachers at the Foothill College campus say the program is as vital as ever. And the students seem to agree.
Lexie Scheel, a senior at Middle College, said that the classes at Mountain View High School seemed really disconnected and that there was a lot of homework she felt was unnecessary. Her solution: not do the homework.
But then Scheel found out about Middle College, where students split their time between high school classes, taught by Wilson and Langdon, and college classes taught by Foothill faculty. The high school classes run on a semester system, Monday through Friday from noon to 3 p.m.; the college classes run on a 12-week quarter system, and for every unit of a college-level course completed, the students earn two high school credits.
Scheel no longer feels like her homework is pointless, and, "I can take the same class in 12 weeks that would take in a whole year at Mountain View," she said.
Scheel's reasons for coming to Middle College are similar to those of many of her classmates, Wilson said.
"These are kids that are bright and are brave," Wilson said.
Many of his students chose Middle College because they felt the curriculum at their home schools was repetitive, not moving fast enough or was too generalized, he said.
The right course
Morgan Aozasa is a senior who came to Middle College from Los Altos High School in the second semester of her junior year. She said being able to take specific classes on art history at Foothill has inspired her to major in the subject when she graduates. At Los Altos, she would only have been able to take a very broad art history course. Now she is able to take art history courses on specific time periods.
"It's been amazing for me to be able to specialize and find out exactly what I like and why I like it," Aozasa said.
"I'm a lazy overachiever," Megan McNolty, a senior from Gunn High School in Palo Alto, said. McNolty came into Middle College as a junior and said that right away she appreciated the accelerated pace and the lighter day-to-day homework load. "I like doing the harder, faster classes."
The harder, faster track might even allow Kathryn Austin, a junior from Palo Alto High School, to leave the Middle College program with an Associate of Arts degree. "Which would be awesome," Austin said.
The school was started at Foothill College in 1993. It is funded by Mountain View-Los Altos Union High School District, Palo Alto Unified School District and the Foothill-De Anza Community College District, and while space is limited, it isn't much more expensive than going to a normal public high school. Students do not need to pay for the college courses they take, and all required books are subsidized by the three school districts.
It is one of many Middle College programs across the country. The program's roots stretch back to 1974 when the first Middle College opened at LaGuardia Community College in New York.
When the Voice last checked in with Foothill's Middle College program in 2005, the school was expanding. At the time there were two senior classes, one junior class and about 90 students total; class sizes were smaller back then, as well, and the Mountain View-Los Altos district was hiring a fourth teacher for the program.
Since then, a faltering economy, state and local budget constraints and faculty turnover have forced the program to scale back. This year, the program had to turn away about 30 prospective students, Wilson estimated. However, some students from Mountain View-Los Altos high schools who may have wanted to enroll in Middle College have instead enrolled at the Freestyle Academy, an electronic media and arts program run out of Mountain View High School.
No hall pass
Having only 70 students and two teachers makes Middle College feel like a community, Wilson said. Students call Wilson and Langdon by their first names.
"It's just more personal," said Schuyler Linn, a junior from Palo Alto High School. "I like that."
The atmosphere at Middle College is more relaxed than at a traditional public high school. One girl sat at her desk barefoot, others stepped outside to make phone calls, and as Wilson pointed out, students "don't need a hall pass to go to the bathroom."
Socially, as well as academically, he said, "they are really learning how to be a college student before they go to college."
And yet, these are still unmistakably high schoolers. Wilson had to corral the group of Middle College students who mingled outside of his and Langdon's portables on Monday, Oct. 4, waiting for the clock to strike noon. "Come on Middle College," he said, raising his voice over groans of protest.
When asked whether it was wise to trust minors with the same responsibilities and privileges as college students, Wilson said that issues seldom arise from the greater freedom Middle College students are afforded. When they do, he said, he and Langdon attempt to resolve those issues, not through punishment, but by explaining the importance of adult behavior.
As an alternative school, Wilson said, programs like Middle College may be viewed suspiciously by those who are used to the status quo.
"It's not about what's wrong with traditional high school," Wilson said. "Traditional high school has existed for so long because it works as an institution. But it doesn't work for everyone. I think recognizing that is healthy."
Wilson's main goal, he said, is "getting young people to realize their academic potential." He said he feels like he is succeeding.