I had the opportunity to spend a morning at Alta Vista High School in Mountain View, California, last Friday, October 24. That’s an easy, local visit for me, and one that I hope to repeat later this year. The school was previously a continuation school, which means it used to serve only juniors and seniors at risk of not completing high school. The relatively new designation as an alternative school reflects that the school now enrolls freshmen and sophomores as well.
I’m not sure what images come to mind for you when you think of such a school; my first associations are negative, as I picture students who are hostile or disengaged, teachers who are either harsh disciplinarians or trying in vain to transfer their own caring to their apathetic students. Of course, the whole point of my project is to deflate those stereotypes, and while I don’t really harbor them about traditional comprehensive high schools, alternative schools are less familiar to me.
I had heard good things about Alta Vista, however; the school serves students who would otherwise attend high schools in the same district (Mountain View-Los Altos High School District), and it also occasionally accepts students from my school district, Palo Alto Unified, just to the north. In addition to having a good reputation, Alta Vista has Marciano Gutierrez, a teacher I’ve met a few times as a result of his work for the U.S. Department of Education as a Teaching Ambassador Fellow (TAF). He and I are also both graduates of the Stanford Teacher Education Program (STEP) – and unless I’ve made a mistake, this is the first time in my project that I’ve observed a fellow STEP alumnus in the classroom.
On the day I visited, Alta Vista was celebrating the end of the first quarter of instruction, and students ended the school day all gathered together for a ceremony in which teachers gave out certificates for a variety of students successes and accomplishments. Some were more academic than others, but all reflected important ways for students to get on track or stay on track to complete high school. The overall atmosphere of the event was relaxed, positive, and supportive. When students applauded for each other, I detected very little of the irony that sometimes inflects adolescent interactions in such situations. The teachers were uniformly positive, if not enthusiastic about their part in the event. Their relationships with students seemed positive and authentic, and in a small school, it really crosses over in a significant way. That is to say, when a student earned a certificate in one class, certainly all of the other teachers would have a good idea who that individual was, which helps ensure that progress and good news are reinforced.
If the description sounds a bit rosy and idyllic, make no mistake: the students at Alta Vista are there because they have faced, and continue to face serious challenges and struggles in their personal and academic lives. It’s not an easy road through Alta Vista, but one that offers necessary supports and a caring environment. I’m hoping to go back and perhaps that will be an opportunity to write more about Marciano’s classes as well. For now, I recommend a listen to this news story about Alta Vista.
But wait, there’s more!
My writing project involves traveling all over California. Since I’m not teaching this year, and I’m incurring travel expenses for the project, I’m using Kickstarter to crowdfund the project. Please take a look at the information and video on my Kickstarter campaign page.