The continuation school Alta Vista High School and the county school Terra Bella Academy serve as alternative options for students. Alta Vista is geared toward older students and only admits those 16 and older, while Terra Bella is able to accommodate underclassmen. These schools provide resources and alternative methods for education that suit students whose circumstances require a non-traditional learning environment.
Alta Vista is a continuation school that is part of the district. Located next to Mountain View High School, Alta Vista addresses the issue many students have of catching up with credits by using a credit system that does not depend on quarters and semesters.
“Students earn credit here based on the amount and quality of standards based work they do,” Alta Vista Principal Bill Pierce said. “The amount of time spent in class is meaningless. Semesters and quarters, we feel like they’re artificial boundaries put on student learning. Really what we’re interested in is, did you master the concept? So to earn five credits here, you need to do 75 hours worth of work, all aligned to the California content standards.”
Though the educational methods are different at Alta Vista, the educators still maintain high expectations for their students. Students are still expected to do C-level passing work. Many Alta Vista graduates go on to attend Foothill, De Anza or trade schools. As Alta Vista does not offer A through G courses, or courses that are consistent with the guidelines set out by UC and CSU standards for courses that qualify as college preparatory classes, graduates must attend a two-year college program before moving on to a university.
Meanwhile, Terra Bella provides a solution for freshman and sophomore students. Terra Bella is a county school of the Santa Clara Department of Education, and is not a part of the MVLA district. The district has a contract with the county, where it pays for seats in Terra Bella, and the county provides staff and resources. Terra Bella houses students who are in need of an alternate education environment but are not eligible to attend Alta Vista.
“Terra Bella was designed with two kinds of students in mind,” Pierce said. “One, that younger student who can’t come to Alta Vista because they’re too young. Two, that student whose credit deficiency, attendance and in some cases behavior exclude them from either AV or the traditional school.”
Over time, the system of organizing students at Terra Bella Academy has evolved due to the different scenarios that bring a student to the program.
“Terra Bella was initially this interesting blend of Alta Vista-like students who were too young to come to Alta Vista, and the students who could no longer be at Alta Vista for truancy or behavioral reasons,” Pierce said. “Since then the program at Terra Bella has really shifted. They still address the needs of those two components, but they’re separated more … there will be a freshman/sophomore group and then there will be an older student group.”
The majority of the student body at Alta Vista and Terra Bella is there because of credit deficiencies at their former schools, as well as issues with regular attendance. Other times, the transfer is completely beyond the student’s control to a point where the school will transfer the student for their safety.
“Then there are the kids where something tragic happens in their life,” Pierce said. “Whatever the issues are, we, [the staff], focus really hard on helping that student with that issue. Maybe [the student] can just be here. And, as long as [the student is] coming, that’s fine for now.”
There is also a minority of students who have been transferred to Alta Vista for neither credit deficiencies or health issues.
“And then, every once in awhile, I will take a student who is a strict discipline issue,” Pierce said. “Those are very, very rare, and that’s a student who is a higher-performing student, a student who is doing well in the traditional school, and did a dumb thing.”
For a student who is transferred to Alta Vista from feeder schools like Los Altos High School (LAHS) or Mountain View High School (MVHS), there is a choice of whether or not to attend the continuation school, but students will usually choose to attend Alta Vista.
“Well, if you stay at LAHS of MVHS, you won’t graduate from high school,” Pierce said. “… If graduation is important to you, then there’s no choice.”
Contrary to popular belief, transferring back from Alta Vista to MVHS or LAHS is not a difficult task. There are three criteria a student must meet in order to be eligible for a return transfer. The student must have above a 90 percent attendance rate, have all-around good behavior and must be on track for graduation. The third requirement is where students begin to run into trouble.
“The problem for students is, ‘Will they be on track for graduation?’” Pierce said. “And, that just depends on how far behind they were when they got here and how hard they work to get caught up. So, some students will come really far behind, and it’s not realistic that they’ll get caught up and would be eligible to go back before they would be able to graduate.”
In the continuation schools, there are very few truancy and behavior-related problems, especially at Alta Vista.
“We have a really small suspension, and a non-existent expulsion rate for the past five or six years,” Pierce said. “We just don’t have that kind of disciple stuff unlike the big schools, [MVHS and LAHS], which is kind of a big surprise to people. People think, ‘Oh Alta Vista; there must be fights and drug dealers.’ That’s just not our reality.”
A former Terra Bella student who returned to LAHS, junior Mayra Hernandez, attests to the integrity of the alternative education program.
“When I first went [to Terra Bella Academy], I was kind of scared, because I didn’t know what it was like, and I had heard that it wasn’t a good school,” Mayra said. “But when I started going, and I met people there, and I met the teachers. [And I realized that] they are actually really nice. They try to help you so that you can get out of the school faster.”
When Mayra arrived at Terra Bella Academy, she was determined to get out of the school as fast as possible and return to LAHS.
“When my mom told me she didn’t want me going there, I tried my best, and I kept doing everything I had to do,” Mayra said. “I’d stay after school and try to get as much credit as I could. I heard that it wasn’t a good school and that most people that went there weren’t going to come back to their usual high schools. I was scared, but that made me work harder because I would talk to teachers and tell them that I wanted to move back to my high school. [The teachers] really encouraged me.”
Eventually, Mayra was able to make the jump back to LAHS, but she was unhappy with her prospects after high school.
“When I came back, I realized none of my classes at Terra Bella counted for college credit,” Mayra said. “[The classes I took at Terra Bella] just stayed on my transcript, but… most classes, I would have to repeat them. [After high school] I really want to go to a university, but I feel like going to Terra Bella really messed things up. I regret it a lot, because now it’s so much harder, because [the administration is] telling me that I have to retake so many classes, but I don’t have enough time for that.”
Despite the challenges that face her, Mayra has had time to reflect on the lessons she learned from attending Terra Bella Academy.
“I think Terra Bella has helped me a lot; being there made me realize that it’s really hard to get good grades, but if you really want that then you have to try harder,” Mayra said.
From what Assistant Principal Galen Rosenberg has seen in the past, he can agree with Mr. Pierce and Mayra that the alternative education program is generally successful.
“The track record for Alta Vista is pretty good,” Rosenberg said. “Alta Vista sometimes can help a student better than we can because it’s smaller. It’s academically less challenging, so it’s a more managing situation … I do think that Alta Vista kids get a valid high school graduation education.”