Alta Vista High School is getting smaller, as enrollment at the continuation high school shrinks. But officials at the Mountain View-Los Altos High School District aren't too worried, and say the declining enrollment is actually a positive sign.
The continuation high school saw enrollment decline this year, in line with a four-year trend that is likely to continue into next year. The total number of students at the school is a little tricky to track, as enrollment changes throughout the school year, but on any given day the school has about 100 students on campus.
By comparison, the school had over 130 students on campus in the 2011-12 school year.
To Superintendent Jeff Harding, this is great news. Most students transfer to Alta Vista because they are low on class credits or have attendance or behavioral problems. Statewide, about 7 to 10 percent of students are in alternative education programs like Alta Vista, Harding said. But the schools that feed into Alta Vista, including the district's Mountain View and Los Altos high schools, as well as Palo Alto Unified's Gunn and Palo Alto high schools, have done a good job at keeping students from falling through the cracks, he said.
"With 8,000 high school students, we can't even fill 120 seats. It's really a testament to how we engage our students at the larger schools," Harding.
Dwindling numbers of students can spell trouble for schools that rely on steady enrollment for funding, but that won't be a problem for Alta Vista, Harding said. The district receives enough property tax revenue that is does not have to rely on daily attendance funding, so big fluctuations in enrollment won't cause the school to shut down.
The loss of students has taken its toll on the school, though. At the Dec. 7 district board meeting, Alta Vista Principal Bill Pierce said a top priority is rebuilding a strong campus culture at Alta Vista, which has been "diffuse" lately. Pierce said the recent dip in enrollment has caused the school to lose a lot of the spunk around campus, in part because the school's sports teams have vanished.
Alta Vista helped to create the South Bay Athletic League, and has competed with other continuation high schools in the Bay Area in volleyball, basketball and softball for 20 years. But there just haven't been enough students to pull together any teams for the very league they created.
"Two years ago, for the first time, we weren't able to field a basketball team," Pierce said.
Sports had been a source of school spirit for Alta Vista. After a big game, Pierce said, students would look forward to hearing about the latest victory over a rival school on the loudspeaker.
Alta Vista also recently adopted a full, six-period school day that would have conflicted with the early games, which were strategically timed so students with jobs could get to work.
The potential scheduling conflict wouldn't deter school officials from bringing back sports if they could, Pierce said, and there's a chance the school has enough students to field a softball team for 2016.
At the board meeting, Pierce said administrators at other, nearby continuation high schools are seeing the same decrease in enrollment. The continuation high schools in the state that are full tend to have lax graduation requirements, meaning students can transfer to the school and avoid the more rigorous standards at typical high schools.
"Kids want to transfer to those continuation schools because it's easier," he said. "We're not interested in going there."
Ninth grade gets dropped
The number of students at Alta Vista might also continue its downward trend into next year, when the school plans to end its policy of enrolling students straight out of eighth grade.
Starting three years ago, Alta Vista High School took the unusual step of accepting ninth-grade students. The idea was that it would provide a small, nurturing setting for incoming freshman who had not been successful in middle school, with the goal of readying them for the world of college preparation and a traditional high school environment.
Following the Dec. 7 board meeting, however, Pierce told the Voice that the school will be dropping ninth grade. It's not that it wasn't an effective program, he said, but it was probably better in the end to allow students to give the regular high school environment a try before transitioning into a continuation high school.
Harding said he agreed with the decision, and said enrolling ninth-graders deprives them of an opportunity to be successful at the traditional schools. At the same time, he said, the district will make sure to keep an eye on the freshman and offer support for students who struggle early on.
At the board meeting, board member Phil Faillace asked whether, after three years, the goals of including ninth-grade students at Alta Vista had panned out -- whether students with a high likelihood of having a "failing experience" in high school were rightfully diverted to Alta Vista.
Pierce said it's still tough to say. During the first year, only two of the 16 freshmen students at Alta Vista later moved to the traditional high schools, whereas 15 of the 20 freshmen last year made the quick transition into Mountain View or Los Altos high schools. In the case of last year's class, Pierce said, it doesn't appear as though Alta Vista was needed.
"We gave them a boost (and) we feel like we helped," Pierce said. "But they probably would've been just fine at Mountain View and Los Altos."
Trying to figure out which students need the additional support from the outset remains a seemingly impossible challenge. Pierce told the board that even though he watches incoming students closely in intervention programs prior to high school, he still couldn't tell whether a student would be better off attending Alta Vista in ninth grade.