Alta Vista High School in Mountain View has a reputation as a "bad" school, one with failing students and lower-quality teachers.
Alta Vista students and teachers alike said they had this impression of the continuation school, which serves students from both the Palo Alto Unified and Mountain View-Los Altos Union school districts, until they actually got there.
"I was kind of afraid to come here," said senior Isaiah Harrison, who transferred to Alta Vista from Palo Alto High School during his junior year. "But once I started ... getting to know everybody and the teachers and the people around here it's not a bad school at all. It's actually a really good school. They help you out a lot; they push you to reach your goals. They want to help you graduate."
That is the primary goal of Alta Vista: to help students who fall through the cracks at a traditional high school get back on track through a smaller, more structured school environment that also aims to challenge traditional notions of success.
Alta Vista is housed on a tiny, closed campus, tucked behind the vast-in-comparison Mountain View High School. Two wings of classrooms and an administrative building surround an enclosed area with small hills of grass and picnic tables the school's smaller-scale version of a quad.
A small staff of 11 teachers (including two for special education), one case manager, three instructional aides and one principal serve up to 170 high school students at a time, with 25 slots available for Palo Alto students who are referred to the alternative school by their school counselor, typically because they're credit deficient, have low attendance and/or are at risk of dropping out. Alta Vista's student population fluctuates slightly with open enrollment as students can come and leave at any time during the school year. It sits at about 110 right now with eight students from Palo Alto, according to Principal Bill Pierce, who has led the school for 19 years.
Alta Vista's case manager takes care of counseling and other non-academic issues, from probation to health care or housing needs; Pierce himself provides academic counseling and puts together new students' schedules.
Alta Vista also contracts with Mountain View nonprofit Community Health Awareness Council; there are always two interns on the campus daily to provide counseling and therapy support. Case Manager Ric Escobedo said that many Palo Alto students seek counseling to deal with the transition to Alta Vista, anxiety or ongoing issues at home, though very few ask for counseling right away. The other primary issue he helps students with is housing assistance. He regularly contacts the Community Services Agency in Mountain View, which among other services provides emergency financial assistance for rent and utilities.
"Students have a lot of 'noise' happening in their lives and that noise is interfering with their success in school," said Marciano Gutierrez, who teaches economics, U.S. history and world history at Alta Vista. "We do a good job trying to limit that noise by trying to serve the whole child."
Harrison tall, athletic and friendly was one of those students. He described Paly as a "very good school" with supportive, engaging teachers and interesting classes. But he was unfocused and unmotivated, an "OK student" who didn't do his homework and frequently cut class.
"I was kind of off track a lot," he said. "I was slacking off or I wasn't focusing in class so I wouldn't go."
Harrison said he had trouble being as proactive or independent as he needed to be in a large school like Paly. So he came to Alta Vista the first semester of his junior year to catch up on credits. Determined to get back to Paly by the time baseball season started in the spring he had played football and baseball every year of high school so far Harrison did what he had to do as quickly as possible. Alta Vista has no sports teams, student government, clubs or school dances.
"I didn't want to stay," Harrison said. "I had a plan to go back to Paly, so I made sure I did that."
He stayed at Paly through his last season of football senior year but started slacking off again, he said. He realized he wouldn't graduate if he stayed, so he came back to Alta Vista at the beginning of his second semester this year.
"Every once and in a while I miss (Paly) but at the end of the day, you have to have school to get further in life," Harrison said.
Alta Vista provided Harrison with the structure and attention he needed to be on track to graduate, which he's set to do this June. He said his Alta Vista teachers constantly push him to stay on top of his classwork and remind him of steps he needs to complete to get to college.
"They have a plan for you, and they make sure that you're on top of it," he said.
The teachers at Alta Vista who have to apply to teach there, debunking the reputation of continuation schools as dumping grounds for bad teachers say they feel personally responsible for and tied to their students in ways they wouldn't in a traditional, large school.
"I'm teaching 20 or so kids who are at an intersection of their lives where they can choose one path or the other," Gutierrez said, "and one path can be one that leads to a successful life where they're contributing citizens and perhaps one where they're lost. I need to guide those 20 students on the path that's going to be the best for them. I think knowing the students that I serve and the level of need that they have and the fact that for many of them, for whatever reason, they haven't experienced academic success, I feel more of a duty to have them experience that in my class than I think I would if I taught at a traditional high school."
Gutierrez sees himself in his students, and that is what has long drawn him to alternative education, he said. Gutierrez is a first-generation college student from Fresno who later moved to the Bay Area to attend the Stanford University Graduate School of Education on a full scholarship and in 2012 was one of five teachers selected for a year-long fellowship with the U.S. Department of Education. He credits caring, passionate teachers with changing the course of his life.
"Education, quite literally, saved my life," Gutierrez wrote in a Department of Education profile for the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics.
When he first got an offer to work at Alta Vista, he, like many Palo Alto students, was skeptical. He found out it was a continuation school and lost interest, he said. But Pierce convinced him to visit, and he "fell in love with what he saw" so much so that when U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan asked him to stay in Washington, D.C., after his fellowship, he said "No," eager to return to his students in Mountain View.
"There is this counter-narrative that exists about what Alta Vista is. Let me be clear there are some students who are very high needs who need a significant amount of assistance. But on the other side of that, there are kids who are amazingly brilliant who just need the arena to help them realize their potential."
Alta Vista espouses a different academic culture than Palo Alto's two public high schools.
"At other high schools, if you're not taking the most AP classes, if your GPA isn't above 4.0, you're not doing something right. What we celebrate at Alta Vista is academic growth," Gutierrez said.
The school's small classes, capped at about 22 students but often smaller, offer more individualized instruction. Classwork is due every two weeks; students can work at their own pace to complete it and are not penalized if they don't meet deadlines.
In Alta Vista's mathematics class, one teacher and an instructional aide work one-on-one with students. They've helped to boost the 50 percent of students who haven't passed their high school math exit exam such that 97 percent of all students pass it by the end of the year, Pierce said.
There are no Advanced Placement (AP) courses at Alta Vista, and coursework is not UC-CSU approved, meaning students who graduate from Alta Vista are likely on their way to a community college as a sort of stepping stone before going to a four-year school. On a wall in the school office, college flags for Foothill and De Anza colleges are hung next to universities like the University of California, Davis; UC Berkeley; and Chico State.
"Part of the reason for that is that most students who come here, their grades are already such that they're not going to qualify to go to a four-year school right out of high school," Pierce explained.
Harrison's plan, for example, is to attend Foothill this fall before heading to Arizona State University, where he plans to major in psychology (a class at Paly piqued his interest in the subject).
Many seniors graduate early, as soon as they get enough credits, and Alta Vista helps them transition to the next phase, whether it be community college, a job or something else.
The school is "entering more of the alternative school realm," Pierce said, by developing three career technical-education tracks to provide a strong professional pathway for students: construction/trades, early childhood development and health sciences. Los Altos High School science teacher Shannon Wernette was brought to Alta Vista this year to teach a health science course that will be the foundation of what she calls a "medical academy" that exposes students to careers like nursing, dentistry, medical imaging or emergency medicine. The class involves hands-on activities (learning how to cast a broken arm, draw blood or resuscitate a dummy dog) and field trips to local hospitals and companies.
Alta Vista students who want to take college-level courses, however, can do so at Foothill or De Anza College. Some Alta Vista seniors, as they finish up their coursework, are taking a lesser load and head to one of the local community colleges in the afternoon or evenings for additional classes, Pierce said. (The Palo Alto district also runs a separate program, Middle College, for juniors and seniors who want to take college-level courses and also might not fit into the mold of a traditional high school setting.)
Alta Vista students who want to can also take foreign language classes or participate in things like dance, marching band or choir next door at Mountain View High School.
Despite the benefits of Alta Vista, many students still head to the continuation school every day with the goal of making their stay temporary.
Paly junior Andrew Shepherd came to Alta Vista about two months ago for the second time. He had been struggling since he arrived at Paly, with a love of video games and similar hobbies taking away his focus from schoolwork, he said. He said he also felt a pressure to keep up with the "standards" at Paly, which he wasn't able to do.
Shepherd's father, Clay, said that Alta Vista was initially considered an "undesirable option" Paly is a high-quality school, and logistically, Alta Vista would be a far commute, he said. But after numerous meetings with his son's counselor and the vice principal and failed efforts to get Andrew back on track, they decided to try it.
"It's turned out to be a good option for him. It's been dramatic, the improvements since he transferred to Alta Vista," Clay said. Shepherd went from D's and F's to all A's and one B, his father said.
Shepherd said Alta Vista's self-paced environment allows him to "get work done at a pace that suits me and helps me learn more, rather than being rushed to learn things."
It's also motivated him to work hard to catch up on credits so he can get back to Paly for his senior year. He's still very connected to his Paly friends and is at the school every Tuesday for meetings of the Warhammer Club, he said.
"I think that the structure and guidance that Alta Vista provides and staying connected socially has been key to Andy's recent improvement," his father said.
Gutierrez said when students talk to him about making the decision to return to their original school, he tells them: "I want for them what I'd want for my own child and that would be as much opportunity as possible.
"If more opportunity is going to come from staying at Alta Vista, that's what I want them to do. If more opportunity is going to arise from going back to your home high school, that's what I want you to do. The caveat is that if it's not working, if you go back, be vocal. Advocate for yourself and make sure you understand that if it's not working out, you can come back here if that's what's best for you."
Harrison is a prime example of that. It took him returning to Paly to understand the longer-term opportunities Alta Vista would bring.
"I guarantee if I would have never come to Alta Vista or knew about it, I would never be graduating this June," he said.