Despite schools’ best efforts, students who have difficulty fitting into traditional high schools can slip through the cracks. Even as their peers find success through the school support systems, a small population of students struggle to succeed at comprehensive high schools like Los Altos and even programs like Alta Vista.
Until this school year, students who dropped out or were expelled from Alta Vista had the option of attending the county-run Terra Bella Academy. But when the program became financially inefficient and was shut down, Associate Superintendent Brigitte Sarraf launched the Alta Vista Opportunity Program year to replace Terra Bella for students in the district.
Sarraf enlisted teachers already in the district to help her develop, teach and support the 11 students enrolled. The resulting program incorporates individualized services into an evolving curriculum with in-class discussions, field trips to local community groups, construction classes and physical education.
The limited resources at comprehensive schools often mean that students whose academic skills fall behind are left playing catch-up with their peers — and many of the students at the program have felt discouraged about their own ability to learn.
“These students have… been treated like traditional students and put into traditional classes, and traditional classes don’t work for these students,” Sarraf said. “We have to figure out how to re-engage them in learning to make them think of themselves as being capable of learning… That’s not going to happen overnight.”
The program requires the staff to assess each student individually and determine how the needs of students can be addressed within the daily schedule.
“We can create whatever curriculum we want to in a vacuum, but it may not work with these kids,” Sarraf said. “So we need to get to know the students and we need to get a better sense of what their ability level is [and] what their interest level is.”
Lead Teacher Seth Donnelly, who divides his time between the Opportunity Program and teaching social studies at Los Altos, said the approach is one of the program’s strengths.
“This is not Terra Bella,” Donnelly said. “And that’s not just in name only. We wanted to create a new program that would engage students in learning about the real world, changing that world and not having students simply sitting at desks.”
To that end, Sarraf worked with the staff to create a schedule that differs from that of a comprehensive high school. On Mondays and Fridays, students receive counseling, individualized services and life skills training at the Adult Education Center before heading to Alta Vista’s campus to learn about construction. On Tuesday and Thursday afternoons, they go to a local YMCA, where they use the gym and play sports with their instructors.
The replacement for traditional academic courses comes in the form of Integrated Academics. The class runs Tuesdays through Thursdays and ties English, civics, economics and field trips into larger themes.
“In the classroom you watch videos and read,” Sarraf said. “Then you find an experience in the community that allows you to see what you just learned in action. For example, there may be a civics lesson. Then you take the students to city hall and have them observe civics in action.”
The students’ first unit, immigration, provided students with an opportunity to learn about governmental structure, political conflict and the economic impact of labor laws. Students then visited the Mountain View Day Workers’ Center to see the concepts in action.
According to Behavior Specialist Thienan Banh, such complex material can present challenges for students who have fallen years behind in their reading and comprehension skills. Banh works with students throughout the day to help fulfill specific needs outlined in their Individualized Education Programs.
“You learn about the struggles of people who are economically [disadvantaged] and who are undocumented,” Donnelly said. “You have the students practice being mini-journalists, interviewing people in the community and learning to tell their stories. They also read literature… by people who’ve been through it.”
In the long term, that means helping students set goals to resolve issues of self-regulation. For some students, this could involve improving their attendance. To Banh, one of the most pressing issues for students is improving their relationship with technology.
“[If] every two minutes you’re checking on your cell phone, you’re not really going to process information doing that,” Banh said. “I figure out what’s generally happening in their life, and from there I make suggestions on what they could do better.”
On a day-to-day basis, Banh works with students to build skills that help break down the curriculum and scaffold it into manageable parts.
“Let’s say I’m working with Student A, [who] is reading at a third grade level,” Banh said. “I have to make the lesson plan more easily digestible for that student to understand… My role is to motivate the child to stay on track and process the information given.”
Over time, the staff at the program will help students identify long-term life and career goals. Their primary goal is to help students fulfill academic requirements and navigate the complexities of the job market.
“I have one student who wants to become an automechanic, so we’re trying to help him get into the De Anza automechanics program,” Sarraf said. “But he first has to meet his graduation requirements, because otherwise the program is not going to accept him.”
In the short term, however, Donnelly and Banh are focused on forming closer connections with students, a process which both agreed was only possible through the program’s small classroom environment.
“There’s the capacity now after three weeks to relate as individuals and begin to know the goals, hopes and aspirations of the students,” Donnelly said. “I think we’re all more comfortable with each other and we’re starting to build that community.”
The result is a tight-knit community that no comprehensive high school can imitate.
Banh described a student who acted shy from the start of the year.
“He never really said anything,” Banh said. “He literally had his hood on and the straps pulled really tight over his head since day one.”
When his teachers asked him if he wanted to go to the YMCA, he said no. But Banh felt that every student should attend at least once.
“I knew that every kid should at least attempt to go, so I dedicated a little more time with this child, and when we got to the YMCA, he impressed me because he really likes basketball,” Banh said. “He and I played a lot of basketball together, and slowly he’s showing other interests too.”
Since then, the student has stopped wearing his hood in class. Banh attributes the student’s change to the program’s ability for individualized support.
“He initially gave up, but with a constant supportive environment, he slowly started to open up and show what he’s capable of doing,” Banh said. “To me, it was a good surprise to see a student who was always denying help gradually open up.”