Middle College engages restless teens' minds

Alternative public high school remains true to core values

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.

Funding shrinks

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.

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Like this comment
Posted by john
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Oct 11, 2010 at 1:39 pm

Thanks for an excellent article. I'm glad to see the recent articles about alternative high schools past and present.

The one-size-fits-all philosophy of Palo Alto's public schools doesn't work for all kids. But neither does an all or nothing approach either, and I for one would love to see such alternative programs implemented in the public schools as well.

Like this comment
Posted by palo alto mom
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Oct 11, 2010 at 5:37 pm

John - Middle College is a public school program, the one at Foothill is for PAUSD and Mountain View/Los Altos students.

1 person likes this
Posted by Happy Parent
a resident of Midtown
on Oct 11, 2010 at 6:23 pm

My child is in the Middle College. He did fine all the way to middle school, bu he lost interest in his education, when he arrived to Gunn. He did not liked the administration, the rules (closing the lockers before they got change for PE), sarcastic teachers (who sometimes call not so smart students name etc. Surprising,middle college gives some college courses, but they are a lot lighter in work than Gunn. No wonder Gunn, and Paly students are under a lot of stress and competition,and anything goes, in order to succeed. Thanks God for Middle College. I hope PAUSD learns something from Foothill Middle College.

Like this comment
Posted by Happy Parent
a resident of Midtown
on Oct 11, 2010 at 7:15 pm

I love how the teacher get at the students level to talk to them. This tells me that he is really trying to connect with students. This is really what students want and need.

Like this comment
Posted by Christa
a resident of Barron Park
on Oct 11, 2010 at 8:16 pm

I also have a child at Middle College. He was a Gunn student and the pressure, stress, and the mindset of "succeed at any cost" was too much for him.
Middle College has been a godsend. He is thriving and looks forward to going to school. That never happened at Gunn.

Like this comment
Posted by Public School for the Public
a resident of Gunn High School
on Oct 11, 2010 at 10:30 pm

Our public schools are here to serve the public as that public presents from all walks of life. They are not private schools that can define their mission to serve a narrowly-defined exclusive population. That kids have to seek alternative schools should reflect as a failing of the public schools to serve all its constituents.

1 person likes this
Posted by CrunchyCookie
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Oct 11, 2010 at 11:28 pm

Just asking an honest question here: don't the invitations for Middle College pretty much go only to kids who are failing? I remember Foothill sending me a letter after getting a D+ in a 9th grade class, while none of my Straight A peers heard a thing.

I met a Los Altos girl who did the Middle College thing (class of 97, so probably in Foothill's very first class) and told me most of her former classmates were pretty much still drifting aimlessly throughout their 20s, working in cafes and such. Would be very interested in hearing some stats on how these kids turn out. Kinda wish I'd done it myself, knowing how unpleasant Gunn turned out.

Also, does the timeline of the program mean you can basically do high school and an Associate's in the same 4 years, then transfer to a UC like anyone else and have a fresh Bachelor's at age 20?

Like this comment
Posted by palo alto teacher
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Oct 12, 2010 at 6:56 am

My son graduated from middle college after transferring with a 3.8, so it's not just for the failing student. He is now a junior at a major New York university with a 4.0. As for an "aimless" drift through life, the graduates I know of, some of whom were my elementary students, are in 4 yr. colleges, graduate school, working as a cinematographer on a major TV show, promising professional musician, starting his own business, and other pursuits. The difference is that they were ready to make the decision of what they wanted to do, rather than lockstep into college because the culture says that's what you do when you're 18!

Like this comment
Posted by Barron Park Parent
a resident of Barron Park
on Oct 12, 2010 at 2:28 pm

Great Article, please continue to write more about alternative programs inside and outside of PAUSD.

Like this comment
Posted by jb
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Oct 12, 2010 at 4:57 pm

My son did Middle College, though he didn't enter it until the beginning of his senior year. He was doing very well with his grades; he had taken advanced placement Spanish with exam. He was floundering at Paly, i.e. forcing himself to do every shred of work and hating it, friendships going nowhere, some of the harsh, sarcastic teacher flack.

The conditions of entry into the program included his having taken and passed all the requirements for each year of high school. A friend who had not finished some requirements in the year they were required was unable to enter the program. I'm not sure a student who has flunked everything so far would be able to get in.

What he was surprised to like about Middle College was going to school with people of all ages. People the age of his parents were taking English with him. And to his astonishment, he earned the highest A in the class. That English class also counted for the Eng. Ia requirement at Cal State.

A lot of kids run aground dealing with PE teachers in high school. He was astonished that he could take a PE class in stretching and strengthening—again with a few people his parents' age. No drill sergeant hazing by the PE teacher here. Another choice was a class in conditioning for running with the goal of running a scheduled community race as the last effort of the class. A young woman led this class.

This son is in graduate school now. He still struggles with what looks like ADDish behavior, although he was never diagnosed. He has made huge strides in maturity, and I find myself thinking, "I could depend on him. He has been turning into a man, and I couldn't be prouder."

I would encourage young people and their parents to investigate Middle College. It has mentors and a much wider spectrum of fellow students and courses. For the kid who needs to see the world a little wider it offeres that vista.

Like this comment
Posted by Why Middle College is Better
a resident of Gunn High School
on Oct 12, 2010 at 10:09 pm

Middle College is better because they value the students, they don't treat them like useless statistics, only liking the best of the best.

I don't go there but I have a friend who goes there. He was never a good student at gunn at all, but now he is getting great grades because he actually feels like trying hard will get him somewhere, rather than at gunn where trying hard once the teachers form an opinion on you is pointless.

Like this comment
Posted by palo alto mom
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on May 15, 2013 at 11:23 am

I know this is an old article, but are people still having a good experience with Middle College? It might be a good fit for my son who is a freshman this year.

Like this comment
Posted by reply to paly mom
a resident of Los Altos
on Nov 7, 2014 at 2:56 pm

-MC senior

Like this comment
Posted by Huh?
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Nov 7, 2014 at 3:55 pm

Sounds fantastic, but what about the reputation of Middle College vs. PAUSD? Are these kids gaining admission into UCs, CalState, elites, privates?

1 person likes this
Posted by midtown parent
a resident of Midtown
on Nov 7, 2014 at 7:58 pm


As others have mentioned, the kids do gain entrance to a range of colleges. However, if your primary concern is Middle College's reputation with the "elites," then this school may not be for you. The real question is: is this school for your child?

Kids talk and generally have a good idea as to whether this alternative would be a better option for them. Some parents want their child to go to Middle College for some sort of edge because there are colleges who see kids already succeeding at the community college level as more of a sure thing. This is NOT who the program is geared towards.

There appear to be two groups who go to Middle College: those who are doing well academically at their local school but not socially, and those who are doing well socially but not academically, for a variety of reasons but especially those who are different drummer kids in some regard. My daughter, for instance, has a strong artistic bent that wasn't being served where she was, and she's a bit atypical in other ways, as well. She attended last year and loved it.

The same two teachers have been running the school for years, so the quality is consistent.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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