"I felt stuck," she said of the first several weeks after she was transferred from the neighboring Mountain View High School to the district's continuation school last year. Her parents' disappointment didn't help assuage her apprehension.
"I thought it was just a school for dummies, druggies and thugs."
Her preconception of the school was mostly wrong, she said. While there is a contingent of gang members and drug users at Alta Vista, it is easy enough to steer clear of all that. Now, a year after she left Mountain View High, the senior said she is happy at Alta Vista. "Actually, I really like it."
For Koongaika, a senior, there are many things to like about her school. To begin with, the school day at Alta Vista ends earlier than both Mountain View and Los Altos high schools — between 12:45 p.m. and 1:05 p.m. Also, most assignments are finished in class, which means there isn't much homework; and smaller class sizes (the school only accepts up to 170 students each school year) mean she gets more attention from her teachers.
The experience is a far cry from the one she had at Mountain View High School, where she said the enormity of the student body and multitude of cliques made her feel like an outsider.
Bill Pierce, principal of Alta Vista, said many of his students come to the school hesitant, like Koongaika. However, he said, kids "bloom" at Alta Vista for the exact reasons Koongaika said she ultimately came around.
"We have an amazingly dedicated group of people," Pierce said, referring to Alta Vista's teaching staff. "They could work anywhere but this is where they have chosen to work."
Doreen Bracamontes, who teaches English at Alta Vista, began her career teaching at-risk teens in a rough Oakland neighborhood. Bracamontes deliberately chose to work at that school, and to come to Alta Vista, because each campus gave her an opportunity to help "students who lack support."
It might be surprising to some living in more affluent neighborhoods of Los Altos and Mountain View, Bracamontes said, but there are areas within the local school district that are just as "dire" as what she saw teaching in Oakland.
"Anywhere you have a pocket of socioeconomic need, you have those students that require a teacher who really cares about serving the whole student," she said.
By "teaching the whole student," Bracamontes means going beyond the textbook and incorporating life skills into her lesson plans — skills that some students are not fortunate enough to learn at home.
Bracamontes also leads an advisory program, where she goes over the basics of household management, writing a college admission essay, and templates for cover letters and resumes.
The kids Bracamontes teaches come from a wide variety of circumstances. Some are from poor families, some didn't fit in at the larger schools, and others may have been derailed by an unfortunate personal event.
"For whatever reason, school got put on hold," she said of the students at Alta Vista.
Students at Alta Vista do not earn the necessary requirements to be accepted into a state-run university. Alta Vista graduates must go through a community college before transferring into the University of California or California State University systems.
Pierce, the school's principal, said he doesn't believe he has put off any students or parents by not offering classes that satisfy what are known as "A-G requirements." He said that students come to Alta Vista because they are deficient in credits and likely wouldn't qualify for a four-year college.
He reasoned that students often get behind at Mountain View and Los Altos high schools because the "college prep setting didn't work for them. I don't want to duplicate what wasn't working for the students."
Viridiana Arenas transferred to Alta Vista as a sophomore. She had fallen behind because her family needed her to help care for her two younger brothers, both of whom have learning disabilities. She is happy to have been able to get into Alta Vista. "They are very helpful and supportive, and they won't let you fall further behind," she said.
Arenas doesn't mind not being able to go straight to a UC or CSU. "It doesn't bother me at all," she said. "I like to take my time."
According to Bracamontes, most students at Alta Vista share Arenas' sentiment. "Often it is a relief when they find out that they can still go to college."
She said that showing the students that they do have such options is empowering. She has seen many kids that were on the verge of giving up on school altogether and are now in community college and even in four-year schools.