It's true, Michael Aguilar ended up at Alta Vista because he was performing poorly, but it was his choice to attend the school — and looking back, he said he couldn't be happier.
"It was the best decision I ever made," Aguilar said, positively beaming in his cap and gown outside Mountain View High School's Spartan Theatre — where he and the rest of the Alta Vista class of 2013 commemorated their graduation on May 29.
It is likely that Aguilar was pleased with the scholarship he received, which he will use to attend the College of San Mateo; and he was surely pleased at being recognized as one of the most improved students in his graduating class. But Aguilar, like many in his class, seemed most pleased that he had actually graduated, and that in the process, he had discovered a love of learning he never knew he had.
When Aguilar began his high school career at Los Altos, he never expected he'd be honored come graduation time. "My grades were horrible, and so was my attendance," he said, explaining that LAHS wasn't the right place for him: the classes were large, he didn't feel supported by his teachers and he was sure his peers couldn't understand what he was dealing with in his personal life.
All that changed when he made the move to Alta Vista.
"After a week or so of attending Alta Vista, I saw that the personal struggle I was facing was not an uncommon thing," Aguilar said in a speech to his fellow graduates and the parents, family and friends gathered in Spartan Theatre for the commencement.
Aguilar said he felt he belonged at Alta Vista, where the small classes allow teachers to spend extra time with each student, and really get to know each of their pupils. "What helped me turn around was the staff and their support," he said.
Principal Bill Pierce is very familiar with stories like these. While addressing the crowd at the beginning of the school's graduation ceremony, he raised a box of tissue and said he wasn't just prepared in case he started tearing up, he expected it.
After the ceremony, Pierce said he thinks the Alta Vista graduation is "the best one." With a laugh he admitted he is biased.
"All these kids should never have made it," he said. "The deck was stacked against them — some of them for a long, long time — and yet, they persevered. The thing that makes it, for me, so special is that these kids earned it. Nobody gave them anything. And so it's much more meaningful when you understand what they've overcome."
Unlike many continuation schools throughout the state, where students get points simply for showing up and putting in hours, at Alta Vista grades are based upon a student's mastery of state standards, just like students at Mountain View and Los Altos high schools.
The difference between his school and the other district schools is the personalized attention the students get from top-notch teachers.
Positions at Alta Vista are highly sought-after, Pierce said. Recently, two slots opened up for an English teacher and a combination English-social studies teacher. Pierce ended up sifting through a pile of around 200 applications.
The teachers who look for work at Alta Vista are often seeking to land in a school where they can help kids who have struggled. In other school districts, continuation schools are sometimes places where out-of-work teachers come to teach in a subject outside of their area of accreditation — a practice that is not allowed at Alta Vista.
"The truth of the matter is, we don't look anything like most continuation schools," Pierce said.
Alta Vista certainly didn't turn out the way Marissa Mason's peers described it to her. Mason was apprehensive about transferring to Alta Vista during the second semester of her sophomore year at Mountain View High School.
"At first, I was actually really afraid to go to Alta, because I had heard of lot of thing about this school," she said. "I heard, 'Oh, if you go there, you're going to end up in a gang or they're going to beat you up.' ... That is not true."
On the contrary, according to Mason, Alta Vista's "family environment" and the individualized attention she received from teachers helped her tremendously. The foster child had been far behind in her studies and uncomfortable at Mountain View.
"It's all personalized to how you learn," she said "So, it is at your own pace. It was such a great fit for me at the time. ... Even if I had the choice to come back to Mountain View or Los Altos, I would have stayed at Alta."
In her commencement speech, graduating senior Joyce Dizon shared the sentiments of Aguilar and Mason. It was Alta Vista that had given her the courage to overcome her obstacles, she said.
"Life is full of setbacks," she declared, crediting two Alta Vista teachers with giving her the "boost I needed to follow through. ... This place gave us hope, gifted us with the power to believe in ourselves, and so it became our second chance."
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