Middle College Offers Alternative Opportunities


Graphic by Anne Schill.

For nearly two decades, the Middle College program at Foothill Community College in Los Altos Hills has created an environment for students who may not fit the mold of the traditional high school student. Middle College aims to provide students with a new dimension: a taste of the college life that so many crave, but two years earlier than expected.

The program, open to upperclassmen from Los Altos High School (LAHS), Mountain View High School, Palo Alto High School and Gunn High School, has an extremely diverse schedule in comparison to the rather uniform courses offered at most high schools. From noon to 3 p.m. each weekday, students take classes to fulfill requirements for both English and Social Studies, as well as a community-based elective, at the Foothill College campus. At that point, however, they are free to pack their schedule with any Foothill College class they want in order to complete high school graduation and UC requirements.

LAHS history teacher Seth Donnelly began his teaching career at Middle College. At the time, only three teachers taught in the program, but since then, Middle College enrollment has grown, and by the time Donnelly made the move to LAHS in 2006, he was an avid champion of Middle College, calling it one of the hidden wonders within the local school system.

“Somebody might be getting science credit by taking Astronomy at night, or someone might be taking Marine Biology,” Donnelly said. “There are a lot more choices. Someone may be taking ceramics… Some kids may never have a morning class. They may only start at noon and go later in the evening. It’s a much more flexible, exciting schedule in that regard.”

Students can also reap many academic benefits from the program. Not only is the program free, but one quarter of a Middle College class equates to an entire year of regular high-school coursework. In a way, each course allows for a double-advantage. While the classes taken through Middle College are acknowledged on a student’s transcript as fulfilling necessary graduation requirements, the courses are UC-approved as college classes, meaning that students could also receive college credit for their chosen syllabuses.

Because the program is so versatile and open-ended in its structure, Donnelly believes that its main pull lies in the overall thrill of experiencing a college environment earlier on than usual.

“Middle College appeals to students that are independent-minded, who are feeling restless and not fully connected [at regular high school], and who want to be in a more college-level setting right away,” Donnelly said. “You may be in a class with somebody who is twice your age.”

Senior Amanda Bauer, who joined Middle College her junior year, credits Middle College with much of her academic success and confidence. In her sophomore year, Amanda began to feel less satisfied with her high school experiences, and so she openly accepted the opportunity to apply to Middle College when she learned of it in her classes. Amanda’s schedule currently consists of, along with her noon to 3 p.m. Middle College Classes, Foothill College courses that sometimes start as late as 10 a.m.

Most apprehension regarding applying to Middle College revolves around fear in a lack of proper social life. Middle College students do agree that the adaptability of the schedule is a true shift from their old high schools, both in the sense of academics and social life, but that with the variance comes true benefit. Junior Helen Lauterbach, who transferred from Kehillah High School into the Middle College program and now participates in LAHS athletics, remarks that while the change was sudden, teachers at Middle College ensure that each student finds comfort in their decision to make the switch.

“The Middle College teachers make a huge effort to create a community among the Middle College students,” Helen said. “I think it’s one of their main priorities. We have a two-week orientation and a Yosemite trip before the year starts to get to know each other. For most people I think the Middle College community is a lot stronger than what they had at regular high school.”

Both students and teachers insist that those who are considering applying to Middle College should not feel deterred by the lack of communal warmth within the program. Amanda also acknowledges the tremendous sentiment of community within Middle College as one of the main aspects of her continual enjoyment of the program.

“There are a lot of bonding opportunities, and we are all like a huge family,” Amanda said. “I feel like our two teachers are like second parents for us and the rest of us are the kids in a big family… they are so open about talking about anything. If you have an issue with any college class you run to them, and they are really great teachers, they are really great people… they [feel] like advisors.”

Donnelly believes that the most vital characteristic of Middle College is that students are automatically treated as mature and capable adults. This sort of relationship between the students and Middle College teachers harvests a sense of comfort. He believes that his own teaching style is a product of his initial work at Middle College, and that he emanates the influence of Middle College interactions.

“You’re treated a lot more like an adult [at Middle College],” Donnelly said. “In Middle College, teachers are on a first-name basis with the students. It’s much more [of] a dialogue.”

The Middle College program has been and will continue to be an outlet for students who are searching for a fast-paced environment from the get-go. Its abundance of educational value and its intricate balance of self-governance and family-oriented community has made it immensely popular among its students, who believe in its merits wholeheartedly.

“You grow as an individual a lot more than [if you were] sheltered in high school,” Amanda said. “Middle College has given me wings, and if anyone forced me to go back to high school, it would be like [taking away my ability] to fly… [Middle College has helped me] learn how to fly.”