High school graduation looked different this year in the Mountain View-Los Altos High School District.
Each high school adopted programs to make up for the restrictions imposed on large gatherings due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Traditional graduation ceremonies, with lots of hugs and more than a few grandparents in attendance, were out of the question.
So the schools stepped up to develop other alternatives. Staff members staged elaborate car parades through the streets to greet their students from a safe distance. Administrators arranged for graduates to be filmed in their caps and gowns, and those clips will be spliced together into a video. Some schools have postponed their grad nights or proms to the late summer and early fall in the hopes of students being able to meet in-person then.
Los Altos High School
At Los Altos High School, staff spent three afternoons driving through students' streets in Los Altos, Los Altos Hills and Mountain View in a car parade, with vehicles decorated with streamers, balloons and posters.
Teachers and staff waved eagerly, shouted hellos, and pumped their car horns in greeting as students and community members alike waved back and cheered as the cars passed.
"It's been a long time since March 13," said Sarah Alvarado, who teaches leadership and other subjects at the high school. "We all miss our kids."
Alvarado and Mike Messner, a social studies teacher, helped to organize the parade partly out of sympathy for the class of 2020.
Messner said he was sorry to see the class cheated out of the usual rites of passage like prom and grad night. While the staff parade won't replace those experiences, he said, the goal was to acknowledge the students and express appreciation for what they're going through.
Senior English teacher Michael Kanda said the seniors in the class of 2020 are adaptable and resilient. Even though they're second-semester seniors whose classes switched to being credit/no credit – a perfect recipe for senioritis to take hold – students tried to stay positive, work hard and support each other, he said.
"They have more energy and grace than I expected," said math teacher Adam Anderson. "They continued to show up, even though they could quit with an easy excuse."
Several Los Altos High School students who graduated in the class of 2020 organized another kind of gathering last week. Instead of marching to "Pomp and Circumstance," they led a march against police violence in downtown Mountain View.
Anna Fletcher picked up her cap and gown on June 3, and, on June 4, worked with civics teacher Seth Donnelly and 2020 graduates Greg Corn and Elena Mujica to rally protesters in a march that ultimately took over both sides of El Camino Real for blocks as they marched to Mountain View City Hall. The two events made her feel more adult, and more empowered. "When everybody comes together you can do so much," she said.
Graduates are listed below.
At Mountain View High School, teachers were trying to figure out how to say goodbye to their seniors. Jim McGuirk, a math teacher, said he'd organized a last class session over Zoom to say goodbye, and an email farewell to the students he's coached in soccer. But losing out on the annual tradition of participating in graduation to give his students that final sendoff was hard for him, too.
He's also hearing a lot of graduating seniors deal with the uncertainty of not knowing whether they'll be taking college classes on campus or online come the fall.
Whether students jump into a four-year college experience that may start online, or opt to save money taking community college classes for the time being, he's telling students, "Whatever happens will be great."
The graduating seniors at Mountain View High School are:
At Alta Vista High School, a handful of staff members gathered in the air-conditioned auditorium to guide students through an abbreviated graduation ceremony. At appointed times throughout the afternoon, students entered, picked up their cap, gown and diploma cover, took a photo with Principal Bill Pierce and moved the tassel from one side to the other for the camera. They sat for a portrait and were informed their diplomas would be coming in the mail.
Staff members said they were impressed with the diligence of the students who graduated.
"They've done a great job. This hasn't been easy," said Wendy Dowling, who teaches art, health and math. "At every turn, (we've asked) students to be resilient and flexible, and they have lived up to that challenge."
"They've had the most to overcome of any class," said Lisa Falsetti, an instructional aide at the high school. "Each individual kid had their own huge challenges."
The 2020 graduates of Alta Vista High School are:
Miguel Barajas Varela, Isis Ceballos, Andrew Cervantes, Alejandro Cigarrero-Salas, Leonel Cruz-Cruz, Nayeli Gomez, Jorge Antonio Gonzalez, Anete Grube, Edgar Hernandez Carbajal, Heejae Kang, Bruce Leiva, Jasmine Martinez Canseco, Reynaldo Medina Jimenez, Eleanor O'Brien, Frida Olvera, Alejandro Saldana, Erick Sandoval, Ethan Seto, Jalen Wall, and Mildred Zertuche Carrizoza.
Here are the stories of five students whose journeys through high school at Mountain View, Los Altos and Alta Vista high schools may have ended with less fanfare than they expected. They shared some of their experiences, what they've learned and offered some wisdom for other high school students.
High School: Mountain View High School
Future Plans: University of Pennsylvania
Erik Zhang has been coding since sixth grade.
He started taking free lessons from Coder Dojo. By eighth grade, he was teaching there. In high school, he deepened his skills by taking AP computer science and starting a computer science club, called Ignition. As part of that club, he initiated an ambitious project to create a speaker system and video livestreaming setup for his calculus teacher, McGuirk.
The effort took eight months' worth of lunches and free time, but by the end, Zhang and his colleagues had 3D printed a camera with sound boxes, coded specific software and ultimately, created tools to amplify McGuirk's voice and enable him to easily make video recordings of his lessons.
"I miss going into Mr. McGuirk's classroom and tinkering with his stuff. For eight months, that's all I did at lunch," Zhang said. Those small routines, he said, "I wish I got to appreciate one more time."
McGuirk said that the project has helped him as a teacher. Often, students come to him after missing a class, asking for lunchtime help to get caught up. Now, they no longer have to do that – he can just point to a previous lecture he's streamed and uploaded to YouTube.
That gave him a head start on the transition to online teaching when the pandemic struck, and he expressed heartfelt gratitude to Zhang and other students for their work on the project.
After showing the project to Principal Dave Grissom, they were asked to create another livestreaming system for a different classroom, which they did.
The club participates in three or four hackathons a year and is focused on building useful apps and other projects. Zhang has also taught coding classes at the Saratoga Library.
He said another huge part of his high school experience was participating on the school's debate team. One highlight was being captain of Public Forum and attending the national championships in Kentucky. A favorite memory was staying up late to see the movie "Avengers: Endgame" instead of sleeping.
The shutdowns have taken away a number of activities Zhang was looking forward to – trips to San Francisco with friends to get dim sum; having cool parties; prom. Even just seeing friends in person has been largely taken away, he said.
One thing he really misses about school is interacting with other students who he was friends with but not close enough to hang out with; saying hi to them or talking in the hallways.
"I remember wanting to get out of school ASAP," he said. "It makes me really sad that my last day of high school I didn't get to appreciate it at all, notice the small things again or anything like that," he said.
Staying focused has been harder the longer the shutdown has gone on, he said. Some teachers are more engaged than others, but the end of the year homework had been pretty mellow, especially in the aftermath of AP tests.
He's spending his extra time learning how to cook and working with a business to improve its search engine optimization.
Looking ahead to the fall, it's not yet clear whether he'll be taking classes in-person. He's considering taking a gap year.
Looking back on high school, when asked what advice he'd share with an incoming freshman, he said, "Try new things. Little things you think you may not like, at the end of the day, are fine after you stick with them. You never know what you're going to find. Don't be afraid to try to connect with teachers. They took this job to deal with kids like you."
High School: Mountain View High School
Future Plans: Northeastern University
At the end of freshman year, Amy Tey got a concussion playing soccer. At first she thought it was fine, but when she went to a doctor, it turned out to be a lot worse than she thought.
Dealing with its fallout would be a far longer journey than she anticipated, and shaped a lot of her high school experience.
Because of the injury, she was unable to finish her freshman year assignments.
Coming back for sophomore year, she still didn't feel back to normal, and had to drop two of her classes.
Things she'd taken for granted, like being able to write, focus, read and say the word she was thinking of were very hard, she said.
She worked hard at physical therapy to improve her academic abilities, and by the time she finished sophomore year, she had made up for the incomplete classes.
"I felt like myself again," she recalled.
Even when studying was incredibly difficult, she enjoyed the difficulty, because it meant she could study, she said.
"Hard things for me were that much more enjoyable because I could do them again," she said.
The recovery process brought with it other lessons she plans to take with her to Northeastern University next year.
Recovering meant spending a lot of time sitting alone and not watching TV, reading or being active.
"I learned to hang out with myself and be present in my own life," she said. "I got to know myself again as I recovered."
Still, the extroverted badminton team captain and former yearbook editor admitted that the school shutdown stole things she'd hoped to experience her senior year.
On the badminton team, one of the big traditions is to organize a "Senior Night" to recognize the accomplishments of its graduating seniors. As a junior, she'd poured a lot of energy into making sure each senior was recognized. She lost her own Senior Night, since the season was canceled only two weeks in.
She said she recalled making an announcement at their last game ever as team captain, telling people not to high-five to avoid spreading germs. In the middle of that match, the team was alerted by email that all spring sports were canceled for the season.
"It was so surreal," she said.
With her extra time, she helped the understaffed yearbook crew design the senior portrait pages. It felt like a way to honor her class, she added. She's also been playing online games and checking in with friends she's used to seeing regularly.
The advice she'd share with an incoming student, she said, is, "Anything that comes at you, whatever it is, it's OK to be upset. You'll be able to turn that into something greater in the future."
High School: Los Altos High School
Future Plans: University of Southern California
When Mia started at Los Altos High School, she struggled to find her identity. She'd gone to Egan Middle School, where students are predominantly white and Asian. As an African American, she was part of a small minority there and at Los Altos High School. As a student whose parents went to college, and as a high achiever herself, she said she still has a lot of privilege compared to other students.
"For a long time I would say I failed in trying to find a community," she said.
Angela Price, a college counselor at the high school, took her under her wing, Fagin said. She recommended getting involved with AVID as a tutor. AVID stands for Achievement via Individual Determination, and is aimed at low-income students. The program offers tutoring and college readiness education.
It was there that she found one of her most important high school communities.
As a tutor in AP language, she said, she helped students who were struggling in the class. For a number of the students she tutored, English was not their first language, and she not only discouraged them from dropping the class, but helped them succeed.
"Getting tutored by other people of color is a completely different experience," she said. "It makes (the students) feel like they can do it if we did it, too."
Sometimes, she said, the AVID classroom can be the only place where students of color may feel safe and comfortable sharing their ideas.
Even as a student who's always had a 4.0 GPA, Fagin said, she didn't always feel like she was doing as well as some of her classmates in her schoolwork.
"When they're in AVID, they don't have to feel that way. … It helps foster a safe community for them."
Fagin said she's excited to take some the things she's learned about economic disparities and privilege, and about being part of a small community of people of color, into her studies at USC, following a pre-law track.
Another important community for her was the cheer team, which she joined sophomore year, she said. She got to know more people, including more students of color, and attended parades, games and rallies she would not have participated in otherwise. The program also gave her a chance to mentor other students.
Having to switch to learning from home this spring has triggered some sadness – not experiencing the usual rites of passage and feeling less connected to her teachers – but also some good things. She's become more efficient at managing her time, and has more time than ever to pursue her own passions: exercising, reading things she wants to read and spending more time with family. Lately, she's been working on cooking recipes that imitate foods she really likes from restaurants, she said. Her latest success was recreating the Popeye's sandwich.
Her advice: Get involved as soon as you can. Put yourself out there. If you don't have a community, get involved in a club or a class, start tutoring, do anything you think you'll enjoy. "And it'll make such a difference," she said.
"I had tutoring and cheer, and those made all the difference in the world for me. It taught me leadership skills. … You will regret it if you don't. Now that corona has come around, I regret not getting more involved," she said.
High School: Los Altos High School
Future plans: UC Berkeley
Jaquelin Angeles, a student at Los Altos High School, participated in the AVID program. The four-year program helped her prepare for college. The program taught her how to save money, ask for help from teachers and "make better decisions for myself in the future."
It provided her critical information because her parents are immigrants from Mexico and weren't familiar with the American education system, she said.
She's now planning to attend UC Berkeley in the fall.
"Being in AVID, I was surrounded by people of color who had experiences as I did," she said.
Along the way, teachers also helped, like Mr. Randall, her calculus teacher. "I could tell he really cared about his students, he showed that in class," she said. "I felt like a lot of teachers were like that. They really cared about students' mental health."
Even though graduation wasn't how she'd imagined it, going through the June 1 ceremony – wearing a cap and gown, taking pictures, and walking across the stage – was still her favorite moment of high school, she said.
"It was a last farewell," she said.
Her family stayed in the car at the school's parking lot and took pictures with her afterward.
Angeles said she'll miss the spirit of the school – the student government worked to create an open environment, and people were nice and inclusive, she said.
When asked what advice she'd offer, she shared a tip she herself wasn't able to follow: Join clubs and get involved in things that interest you.
Her circumstances, she said, didn't allow for many extracurriculars. Throughout high school, Angeles had to work to help her family.
"We were really struggling financially," she said. "It was really hard to handle school and work and my home life. I felt like I never had time for myself."
She started working one summer at an escape room before switching to working at a retirement residence in Mountain View, serving meals.
Since the pandemic started, her dad lost one of his two jobs, so money has been even tighter.
And when she hasn't been working, she's been helping her family other ways. While her mom works as a babysitter for children from other families, Angeles has helped take care of her two little sisters, aiding with their homework and driving them places. She also helps her parents as a translator.
Having more family responsibilities than many high school students has helped her become a responsible young adult, she said.
"I think about my actions a lot, and their consequences," she said. "I've always had people depending on me. … I really care about how people will react to my actions. I feel it's prepared me for adulthood."
High School: Alta Vista High School
Future Plans: Trade school in Canada to become an electrician
Antonio Gonzalez describes his high school experience as "bumpy."
The recent graduate started at Midpeninsula High School in Menlo Park, but fell behind in classes. By the end of his freshman year, he had fallen behind in credits and and he transferred to Alta Vista.
At Alta Vista, aided by teachers who worked with him and pushed him to make sure he did his assignments, he not only caught up with his classes but got ahead. When he didn't to an assignment, his teachers would ask him why. That attention, plus knowing he had support and that he could do the work, helped him through.
Last week, he drove himself to his graduation and became the first person on his dad's side of the family to graduate high school.
Later that day, he planned to report for a shift at his new job working at an Amazon warehouse in San Francisco. He plans to take a gap year before moving to Canada with a friend to attend trade school to become an electrician.
He picked up a white shell rose, which has become a tradition at Alta Vista. Bill Pierce, the principal, has a collection of at least 23, one for each year he's been at the school.
Pierce said Gonzalez is a special student because, "If he saw a need, he would jump to it."
Pierce recalled that Gonzalez was one of the high school's students who thrived under the switch to online learning and ended up finishing his schoolwork several weeks early.
Gonzalez also worked as a science camp counselor for fifth graders through a partnership that Alta Vista High School has with a school in Santa Clara. Staff who led the camp had raved about how patient and helpful with children Gonzalez was, Pierce said.
Gonzalez's parting advice is to avoid procrastination. "Procrastination is your biggest enemy. Make a plan, then stick to that plan," he said.