Previous LAHS Students Return as Teachers

Los Altos High School has been been around since 1954, nearly six decades. In that time, it has served as a learning institution for countless thousands of students, including many of the teachers on staff now.

Stephanie Downey

While most second graders mill about their elementary school classrooms, history teacher Stephanie Downey, as a young child, had already made a conscious commitment to a career path: teaching.

Downey, now a World History and AP European History teacher, attended LAHS from 1993 to 1997. Downey was a track and field athlete. She ran track all four years at the school and set the school record in the 100 and 300 meter hurdles. She reached the pinnacle of her high school track career when she qualified for CCS in four events. Downey was also a part of the color guard.

She went to school under the tutelage of teachers like Todd Wangsness and Margaret Bennett, Downey’s history and English teachers respectively, and track coaches. It further fueled her already decade-long aspiration of becoming an instructor.

“[They] were my inspirations,” Downey said. “I saw them both in the classroom and on the track, and seeing them really encouraged me. They were my mentors.”

It was also in these formative high school years that Downey sharpened her teaching focus and decided to hone in on teaching high school students.

“I worked at a summer bridge program working to give AVID students a head-start and help make sure their transition [into high school] would be less rough,” Downey said. “That’s when I really decided that I wanted to teach teenagers.”

Though she had already nominally committed herself to teaching high schoolers, Downey, after attending college at Brown University, decided to experiment with teaching other age groups. She worked in second grade and adult education classroom settings and also taught at an all-girls school in San Jose after returning to the Bay Area post-grad school. Thus, Downey, fresh out of grad school and in her twenties, already had a wealth of teaching experience under her belt.

Preferring high school teaching, Downey jumped at the chance to fill the position of social studies teacher at Los Altos in 2005. Since then, she’s taught such classes as World Studies, World Studies Bilingual, AP European History and Civics.

“I really like [high schoolers’] energy, especially the freshmen and sophomores,” Downey said. “At [that] level, the verbal filter is not as developed and students are willing to ask any and all questions. It’s great to see students’ intellectual level advance, I love the spastic energy of the freshmen and sophomores, that kind of goofiness.”

In regards to the school as a whole, Downey has also found a certain sense of uniqueness.

“We have a very dedicated learning community,” Downey said. “I have many students who give up a lunch period just to make their presentations even better. The stories that kids bring in and share, whether it’s family background, immigration, anything, are just amazing.”

Pete Bjorklund

History teacher Pete Bjorklund ‘99 is perhaps the youngest LAHS teacher who attended the school.

Bjorklund was a highly involved student, a three-sport athlete who dominated the high school athletics scene. Standing at 6’4’ and weighing over 240 pounds his senior year, Bjorklund’s athletic endeavors ranged from being an offensive and defensive player for football, the center for basketball and a competitor in both shot put and discus.

A phenom on the field, Bjorklund not only took the CCS shot put title three years in a row (and the discus title his senior year), but also qualified for states all three of those years. He was named the school’s “Athlete of the Year” his senior year.

Bjorklund was also a part of NHS and did community service four days a week. While this and his athletic involvement took up a majority of his free time, they were also why Bjorklund found himself at Dartmouth College after his senior year, where he majored in history. A cracked vertebrae in his back, however, derailed his collegiate athletic careers. It was after this injury when Bjorklund discovered his passion for teaching.

“I…came home and I coached the football team here [at LAHS] for awhile and that’s when I was like, ‘This is awesome,’” Bjorklund said. “I really enjoyed working with that age group and I could see how this would translate into teaching. I went back [to college] and had a goal, I knew exactly what I wanted to do. That really guided me…in the direction of being a teacher.”

His stint as one of the school’s football coaches and his major in history were the things that initially steered Bjorklund toward teaching history at the school, but a number of other factors helped win him over as well.

“I had a wonderful time and experience here,” Bjorklund said. “Personally, I like this area, I like living here, my family is here and it’s a cool school to teach at. That’s why I wanted to come back home.”

Since he began teaching seven years ago, Bjorklund has found the student body of the school to be a unique demographic to teach.

“You get a real mix of students and abilities [at the school], which I enjoy,” Bjorklund said. “I think it’s a challenge as a teacher, there’s this real culture here of excellence; we do a lot of stuff that other schools aren’t able to do…there’s a great environment here, and the kids are awesome.”

Michael Messner

When United States History teacher Michael Messner graduated from the school in 1990, he knew he was going to teach history. But when he headed off to UC Davis for college, he never thought he’d be back 14 years later teaching in the very room he had taken AP U.S. History.

As a Main Street member and student manager of the track and field team, Messner was heavily involved in a range of activities on campus.

An avid history student who always managed to sit in the front row, Messner positively recalls his experience as a student at the school.

“When I had Mr. [Dave] Squellati [for U.S. History] …there was no looking back,” Messner said. “I knew I was going to major in history in some form.”
Squellati, a well known member of the school’s history department for several decades, retired in 2006.

Though his major path was clearly defined, Messner said he always assumed he would be teaching college students, not high school. When given a chance to return to his former school as a U.S. History teacher, however, he couldn’t refuse.

Messner started as a student teacher in spring 2004, and was offered a full-time job the following fall.

“You realize that these people know you so well; there’s a certain comfort about working with people that have known you since you were 14 years old,” Messner said.

Though he enjoys it now, Messner said that working at his former high school was a little strange at first.

“For a few years, I had to get used to the idea that I could call [colleagues] by their first name,” Messner said.

According to Messner, the school has changed a lot both physically and internally since his high school years.

“There’s been a lot of student organizations that have come and gone [over the years] but I think that’s healthy…that’s something that is a generational thing,” Messner said.

Despite the changes, Messner says that LAHS has always been and continues to be a great educational institution.

“I loved being a student here,” Messner said. “And I love working here…what’s not to like?”

Anne Battle

Teacher-aid Anne Battle graduated from LAHS in 1971, just when the MVLA school district merged together the original Mountain View High School and Los Altos High School. But the differences between the school’s student body then and now go further than an intermingling of students. The school that Battle knew was much different than the cultural pool that LAHS is today.

“It was pretty much all students living in Los Altos [who went to LAHS], not many students living in Mountain View,” Battle said. “So, it was very white. We had some blacks, who were bussed in. The diversity [now] is much better. I think that’s real valuable, what we have now.”

Also different in the ‘70s was student involvement in sports—there was a much more palpable discrepancy between male and female involvement in athletics at the time. While girls’ sports were allotted two pages in yearbooks, Battle recalls the boys’ sports pages taking up nearly 20. Nonetheless, in the face of the gender-based disparity that so permeated the athletics of the time, sports occupied an important niche in Battle’s life as a student.

“I did almost all of the sports: I did tennis, some softball, some basketball, volleyball,” Battle said. “I was like ‘Queen of the Gym’, it was my little kingdom over there.”

Battle’s other involvements included being a part of ASB, which was similar in both purpose and value to today’s.

But Battle’s high school activities weren’t indicative of what she was interested in becoming. In the next few decades, Battle studied brain research, received a teaching credential (as a P.E. teacher), held a basketball and volleyball coaching position at Foothill college and ultimately became a programmer.

“I was a computer operator, then I got a programming job at Hewlett Packard and stayed until I had my second kid,” Battle said. “Then, I started volunteering at schools a lot.”

Having children offered Battle the opportunity for her to follow her dream of becoming a teacher, after she found herself heavily involved in her childrens’ schools, particularly with students struggling in school.

“I had a job briefly, working with kids [in lower math] in elementary school, and I liked that,” Battle said. “I liked the kids who struggle, every class I’ve been in, I’ve been targeting kids who traditionally don’t do well.”

Years after, with her children nearing high school graduation, Battle attended a teacher workshop called Beyond Diversity. Here she met current English Department Head Keren Robertson, in need of help in her Pre-Survey English class, and so, she began working at the school.

In the past 15 years, Battle has been a teacher aide. She has worked with Robertson, and now works with history teacher Christa Wemmer. But unlike most other aides, Battle plays a much more active role in the classroom, helping to write tests and develop curriculum—essentially acting as a second teacher. She finds the cooperative work environment the one most comfortable for her.

“I always liked being a part of a team, so being a solo teacher is not nearly as satisfying to me as being a partner teacher,” Battle said. I really like it. I’m not excited when it’s vacation. What I like about it is the connections to kids that last.”

Todd Wangsness

AP Modern European History teacher Todd Wangsness reminisces his time as a student at the school, noting changes that have taken place since his time as a student here.

A former member of both the football and track and field teams, Wangsness’ experience on the school’s athletic teams is one of the aspects of his high school experience he remembers most fondly.

Outside of athletics, though, he doesn’t remember there being as many school-sponsored activities for students to participate in.

There are a lot more options today, he added, citing an increase in student-run clubs, athletics, and class choices.

“There were clubs… but it wasn’t a big deal back then,” Wangsness said. “There are a lot more clubs now.”

He recalls a dramatic difference in demographics at the school. MVLA district restructuring in the last decade, including the closure of the old Mountain View High School, has resulted in a much more diverse school population.

“Most of the kids were Caucasian… some Asians… and a handful of African Americans… it was pretty much your typical Los Altos middle class kind of people.”

He remembers the school, and the city of Los Altos, as being a smaller place, closer to its roots as a small town filled with apricot orchards than the wired, busy Silicon Valley suburb it has become today.

“We [kids] all went to school together from kindergarten all the way through high school,” Wangsness said. “It was all the same people.”