Breaking the mold with Middle College

Local high school students find salvation in alternative program

High school isn't a great fit for everyone, with its 50-minute periods, hours of daily homework and smattering of school spirit at rallies and football games. Rather than tough it out for four years, some 60 students in Mountain View, Palo Alto, Los Altos have found in alternative in Middle College.

The program, run by the Mountain View-Los Altos Union High School District and operated on the Foothill College campus, has been around for decades. But in a recent forum on teen mental health held earlier this month, two students lauded Middle College as a way for students to "opt out" if they feel disconnected from their high school's academic work or fellow students.

Simon Leak, a junior at Middle College, spent two years at Los Altos High School and said he wasn't a big fan. It wasn't so much the academics, he said, but the school climate and social scene there felt a little superficial. He applied for Middle College with the support of his family and made it in.

"My parents saw that I wasn't enjoying (Los Altos)," Leak said. "Ultimately, it was my decision but my parents were on board."

Before school kicked off last year, Leak and the rest of the junior class starting out at Middle College went on a trip to Yosemite as a way to get to know each other. Right away he noticed a big difference, he said, in the way he got along with everyone else.

"Within the first 15 minutes of being there, I was talking to someone you would actually have a real conversation with," Leak said. "It was really different for me."

Middle College is made up of about 60 juniors and seniors from Mountain View, Los Altos and Alta Vista high schools as well as Gunn and Palo Alto high schools.

Students spend a few hours each day doing core high school coursework with the two teachers, Trish Langdon and Mike Wilson, and spend the rest of the school day taking Foothill's community college classes.

Former Mountain View High School Principal Patricia Hyland is a dean at Foothill College, and said the kinds of students who enroll in Middle College are incredibly intelligent and motivated, but don't feel like they fit in the "standard construct" that is high school.

"Sometimes you get a student who's kinda on the margins," Hyland said. "They're not bad kids, but you can tell they can't stand the concept of doing a school cheer. They hate rallies, they hate, conceptually, those kinds of things."

The biggest hurdle for most students is getting the parents to agree to switching away from a traditional high school setting, Hyland said. The parents' concept of what "should" happen during those four years of development is very different from what's being proposed through Middle College.

"Convincing them it's a good opportunity is a little bit of a sales job," she said.

Leak, along with Middle College senior Alicia Holland, spoke at a teen mental health forum in Mountain View on May 7, and explained that they had a close-knit relationship with both teachers at Middle College. Always referring to them as "Mike and Trish," Holland said both are very receptive to whether students are feeling down.

"If you come in really quiet or they notice you've been crying, they'll pull you aside the second you come through the door," Holland said.

Wilson described the classroom as a "very personal environment" with loads of team-building activities and a lengthy orientation process that includes setting up the class structure for the rest of the year.

"We start from a point where we say, 'Hey, what kind of school rules (and) what kind of school culture do we need in order for all of us to be successful, happy and fulfilled here?'" Wilson said.

Other differences include negotiable deadlines, later start times, a greater emphasis on large projects and exams more similar to those of a college course than a high school class.

Wilson described his job as one-third teacher, one-third administrator and one-third counselor, and said he establishes early on in the year that his role is very different from a traditional high school teacher. He said that he and Langdon should be the "first stop" for students with a problem if it relates to social problems or educational problems.

"Students should seek out a teacher rather than hide from them when they have a problem," he said.

While it's a little challenging -- and time consuming -- to take on such an extensive role for students at Middle College, Wilson said it's gratifying work that he's been doing for decades.

"It keeps things exciting," Wilson said. "There's never a dull day at Middle College."

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2 people like this
Posted by Bunyip
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on May 28, 2015 at 7:45 am

But how does my kid get to Stanford? That's all that counts in the valley. When Stanford accepts a number of these students, every helicopter parent and tiger mom in town will be enrolling little jimmy or Sally.

Like this comment
Posted by palo alto parent
a resident of Downtown North
on May 28, 2015 at 9:17 am

As a parent of a former Middle College (Paly before that) student, I can't say enough good things about Trish and Mike and this program. They are smart, caring teachers who build a community out of students who were often feeling disconnected from their current school. Middle College also provides students the opportunity to take more classes in a subject than is offered by a high school because the students take 2 or 3 college classes each semester. BTW - you get double high school credit for a Foothill class, so a 5 credit class (a quarter) gives you a whole year of the subject.

@Bunyip - parents can't just "enroll" their kids in the program, the students have to apply. The year my child went, about 50% of the students got in. And many of the kids go on to attend wonderful schools.

3 people like this
Posted by A parent
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 28, 2015 at 9:54 am

I really don't know why everyone is so stressed out about college applications. From what I have read, the chances of a qualified applicant getting it a good school are just as high today. They may not get into all the schools they apply to, but chances are pretty close to a sure bet that they'll get in somewhere on the list. Schools like Stanford like to claim a really low acceptance rate for bragging rights, but kids have dramatically increased the number of schools they apply for today.

Also, why are kids so worried about high school? If you go on to community college for a year or two, it's really not that hard, you learn a lot, and you can apply for a 4-year off of that GPA, no one cares if you didn't do well before.

Good article, Kevin - some contact info would be helpful. Thanks.

Like this comment
Posted by A parent
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 28, 2015 at 10:05 am

Also, linking to the last article about middle college might be helpful.

It's not for 9th or 10th graders, though. sigh.

5 people like this
Posted by palo alto parent
a resident of Downtown North
on May 28, 2015 at 10:46 am

@ A parent - kids are so "stressed about college applications in high school" because A) school in PAUSD is perceived to be all about building your college resume (grades, extracurriculars, elite level sports, exemplary test scores) B) if you go to a Community College you are perceived to be either a "slacker" or too poor to afford a four year school. Admitting you are going to a CC says you are a loser. Oh yeah, the college your kid is going to is perceived to be a parental badge of honor too! If your kids is going to a CC, you must be lacking something as a parent.

I don't at all believe the above, but many/most kids and parents do.

5 people like this
Posted by TimH
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on May 28, 2015 at 11:17 am

This reminds me of Paly's "Apple Pie High" experiment in the mid-1970's. Keeping in mind the climate of the era, outspoken students would disappear into the old wing of the school and resurface later as "Apple Pie High" in the yearbook. They seemed to have all of their "classes" in one room with one group, without mundane things like P.E. or shop, and showed up at graduation. It was really strange to see, but perhaps if any Paly APH alumni are reading this post, tell all how it worked for you.

6 people like this
Posted by Ferdinand
a resident of Barron Park
on May 28, 2015 at 11:18 am

Here is the link to MIddle College:
Web Link

Also want to thank Kevin Forestiere for his thoughtful article. Sometimes it does not pay to listen to the static that comes from other students and parents. There is so much fear of failure around here that it is no wonder that kids can't make their own choices and learn from mistakes. As Sal Khan [roughly] said at the recent "Most LIkely to Succeed" documentary viewing, "90% of our applicants are generic/identical." That is not a compliment to the current academic factory pumping out 4.3 GPAs.

MIddle College and community college are excellent choices for many young people, and an excellent fallback even for those whose path--whether it is a high achieving high school or a 4 year university--is a bad fit or meets with obstacles. Since when does anyone have a monopoly on knowledge? Denigrating the #1 [DeAnza, large cc] and #2 [Foothill, medium cc] community colleges in California is ludicrous. Small classes, closer relationships with professors, a slower entry into social/drug/sex pressures, and high transfer rates are not liabilities, they are choices.

Isn't it a good time for parents to open up to the possibilities and support their young ones getting out of the race?

7 people like this
Posted by But, but....
a resident of Southgate
on May 28, 2015 at 2:31 pm

My son did not go to the Middle College, but his girlfriend at the time did. So did several of her friends.

However, this girl and her friends were not allowed to " walk with their friends" on graduation day. Instead, they sadly watched their other friends from the bleachers with the parents!

There was also a problem with getting their diplomas-/they had theirs mailed separately at a later date.

5 people like this
Posted by palo alto parent
a resident of Downtown North
on May 28, 2015 at 4:11 pm

@But, but... - Middle College students don't "walk with their class" at their "home" school graduation because they haven't completed high school yet. The Middle College school year finishes in late June (when Foothill's quarter is done) and that's when they graduate. Middle College has their own ceremony. The diploma is from their home school and they are still allowed to participate in school activities, including clubs and sports, but you can't graduate until you are done with classes!

9 people like this
Posted by Former Paly Parent
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on May 28, 2015 at 5:53 pm

My god, so many opinions with so little knowledge of the program! Surprise, surprise, not every program works for every kid, and Middle College is a wonderful alternative for some kids. I wish they would expand it so there was more room. There are a number of reasons students choose this program, but gaming the system is not one of them. It's an alternative to the system, that's the point. If anything, I want to see way more alternatives for teenagers.

4 people like this
Posted by MC grad
a resident of Crescent Park
on May 31, 2015 at 3:53 pm

I graduated from Middle College in 2013. I currently attend NYU and so I feel like I can speak well about MC and debunk some of these "myths".

1) the students have to apply to be in the program. If Mike and Trish see that you're a good fit for it, you'll be accepted. They accept all kinds of students who share one common trait: traditional high school just doesn't work for them. You can be a straight A student or you can be someone struggling to pass high school, but in the end, Mike and Trish help you achieve your goals and graduate high school and end up in a great college.
2) about getting into Stanford: even if you got straight A's, did 200 hours of community service, had three internships at the same time and you're essentially a super human, there's still a very high likelihood of not being accepted to Stanford. It's not a school that everyone can get accepted into. Please don't expect your child to get into Stanford and for gods sake don't put the huge pressure on him/her. Paly, Gunn, Mountain View or Los Altos high schools certainly don't guarantee admission to Stanford and neither should Middle College.
3) about walking with graduation class: I walked my graduation and got my diploma with the rest of Paly's graduating class in May. I honestly don't know what happened with that situation, maybe Paly's administration just went south. But everyone has the choice of walking graduation and they definitely get their diploma after doing so.
4) college apps are a pain in the rear for everyone, but Mike and Trish do a lot of work on their end to relieve the tension for students. They not only act as teacher, but they act as high school and college counselor and they give great advice and help when it comes to colleges. They'll sit down with you and walk you through the process and suggest which schools would be a good fit for you. They'll even read over your college essays if you ask them nicely, and I honestly cannot thank them enough for their help when I was applying to colleges. It was stressful, but without their work it would've been amplified astronomically.

I'm really happy to see middle college getting more attention from Palo Alto. It's a huge thing in the MVLA district and PAUSD honestly needs to suggest MC more to its students.

2 people like this
Posted by Paly Parent
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on May 31, 2015 at 10:51 pm

So what is listed on the transcript? How can they have a diploma from their school if they did not attend their school for the last two years? And why should they walk with their Paly class if they were MIA for two years? I'm guessing it states they attended college classes on the transcript? And yes, that does seem like something Tiger parents would want to game.

As far as admittance to Stanford, for Palo Alto, the students need a connection, usually a professor parent or a parent or grandparent with an even greater reputation at Stanford, and at the minimum, a parent who is an alum. There are just too many Palo Altans with connections that no one else has a chance. If no connection, one has to be recruited by the Stanford athletic department.

4 people like this
Posted by Middle College parent
a resident of Barron Park
on Jun 1, 2015 at 7:42 am

I am proud to be a parent of a Gunn student who selected Middle College. This was entirely her decision and provided an amazing opportunity for her to take ownership of problem-solving a very difficult situation; traditional HS was definitely not the fit for her. No convincing was needed for us (her parents) as this was clearly the right path; our only concern was what would we do if she was not selected for admission... The program offers individualized support as well as requiring substantial independence on the part of the student although the balance may be different for each student and allows a lot of room for growth. It is neither high school nor college but a true alternative. The student is hardly "MIA" as one parent wrote but rather enrolled in a program - not unlike a year (or two) abroad. The student fulfills all the HS requirements including specific classes taught by the multi-talented Mike and Trish as well as access to selections for the Foothill College curriculum. Perhaps in the future there will be more choices for students for whom traditional HS is a poor fit. I am so thankful to have had this option for my student; it was a real life-saver.

1 person likes this
Posted by Middle College parent
a resident of Barron Park
on Jun 1, 2015 at 9:41 am

PS - To address the very first comment on this thread... Thankfully, there are plenty of sensible people in the valley who understand that there are many more important things in life than "getting into Stanford." Inner strength, self-confidence, and ability to make one's own choices come to mind. Externally apparent success without internal happiness is an unfortunate legacy.

3 people like this
Posted by Another Middle College Parent
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Jun 1, 2015 at 3:37 pm

Middle College was the best choice for my student (who has chosen to walk with the Paly class this year). It provided the opportunity to bypass the AP rat race and take interesting college courses.

The Foothill courses are merged into and appear on the Paly transcript. My student, who was accepted and given merit scholarships at five carefully selected universities, sent both Paly and Foothill transcripts with all the applications.

I don't think this is a system that can be "gamed". The Middle College classes are small. There is a limit to the number of Foothill units a student can take per quarter (11, I think, which worked out to two academic classes and maybe a 1- or 2-unit PE class).

Like this comment
Posted by Paly Mom
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jun 1, 2015 at 3:41 pm

I was just wondering how these students got up to Foothill, since most don't drive.
We live over by Paly.

Like this comment
Posted by palo alto parent
a resident of Downtown North
on Jun 1, 2015 at 4:36 pm

@paly mom - Kids get to middle college in a number of ways, they drive themselves, parents drive them, they car pool or take the bus.

2 people like this
Posted by Another Middle College Parent
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Jun 1, 2015 at 5:26 pm

For a very low price ($5 or $10, I think) they can buy (or add to) an "Owl Card" (which I believe is their Foothill student body card). This can be used as a VTA bus pass. The buses (at least the one that goes up San Antonio to Foothill) were well-scheduled and convenient.

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

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