Like many Alta Vista students donning a cap and gown this year, graduating senior Timothy Martinez said his diploma was never a guarantee -- just a few years ago, he was convinced that the day would never come.
Growing up in a house of 12, Martinez said he remembers being told to go in another room and "block it out" when family arguments would bubble over into shouting matches; he remembers moving into six different homes and having to adjust to a new community each time.
When he finally landed at Alta Vista, he felt like that was it: he had been relegated to a continuation high school where he was doomed to fail.
But an extraordinary cast of supportive teachers and staff at the school had put him on the right path and helped him turn his life around. He and many of the 17 other graduates at the June 5 graduation say Alta Vista marked a turning point because of unrelenting support from the school, and belief in each student's ability to succeed.
Alta Vista's graduation ceremony is a cozy and intimate environment. Instead of 450 graduating seniors, it's 18; instead of a football field turf, it's a small multipurpose room packed to the brim with proud parents and family members. Each name announced at the ceremony comes with a story on where each student is going -- mostly Foothill College -- and who helped them along the way.
Kicking off the ceremony in style was graduating senior Christopher Moreno, who played the national anthem on an electric guitar he made himself at Alta Vista. The school has a maker space with a 3D printer, which he used over the course of a semester to build and assemble the components of the guitar.
Turning his back to the crowd to address the grads, Superintendent Jeff Harding told the seniors that success in life is never a straight shot -- nothing could be further from the truth. In reality, he said, each one of them is guaranteed to face unexpected obstacles and challenges in order to meet their goals, and that they will have to persevere through adversity.
"Achieving lofty goals is never easy," he said. "It's always difficult."
It's during those turbulent times that Alta Vista grads say they leaned on the help and support of teachers at the school, whose confident-building inspiration helped them make it to graduation day. Martinez said he had been told growing up that he would never graduate because of his terrible work ethic, but that changed completely when he transferred to the continuation high school.
"Alta Vista was different from the rumors, I was told there were bad people here and that the teachers wouldn't care," he said. "The teachers surprised me -- whenever I fell they were always there to pick me back up."
Support from teachers like Wendy Dowling made him feel a sense of belonging, he said, which completely transformed his work ethic. He started turning in assignments, his test scores improved and the idea of graduating started to become a reality.
"I felt motivated to make (Dowling) and my family proud," he said.
Alta Vista Principal Bill Pierce told the Voice after the ceremony that Martinez made it to graduation through grit and determination, and that students like him are able to achieve so much more when they are in a place where they feel "unconditional support and love."
Repeatedly ranked among the top continuation schools in the state, Alta Vista High School acts as a safety net for students who struggle to succeed in a traditional high school environment. Many of the students who transfer to the school from Mountain View, Los Altos or Palo Alto high schools are behind on credits and are at risk of not graduating.
The school has what Pierce describes as an unusual level of commitment from the teachers -- particularly compared to other continuation high schools -- many of whom see teaching at Alta Vista as a destination. Instructional aides like Lisa Falsetti put in long hours, stay late into the evening and even spend weekends at the school for that final push to help seniors reach their math requirements.
"It's that kind of commitment to the kids that, frankly, sometimes baffles them. I've had some students ask 'Why do you care so much?'" Pierce said. "They could work anywhere, they could teach anywhere, but they've chosen to stay here."