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."