photos by: Jonathan Yong
Unlike the typical high school students, seniors Ami Pienknagura, Ty Mayer and Ethan Hausser are able to structure their school hours based on whatever they think is best. Want to sleep in every morning? No problem, classes don’t start until 10 a.m., maybe even later. Drowsy in the afternoons? That’s okay, they can opt to take night classes instead. Not a people person or too lazy to drive to school? Online classes are a solution too. “I definitely don’t miss the extreme rigidity of the school and how you felt like you were trapped on campus from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m.,” Pienknagura said. “[One of the many reasons] I decided to go the middle college route was because I had the ability to carve out my classes to fit my own agenda.”
Middle College is an approach to learning that first appeared in the 1970s, where students are allowed to take a different academic path that best fits their learning style. School administrators and teachers noticed that students who typically performed well in school were under-served or bored in the traditional high school setting, a trend that did not go unnoticed among Palo Alto students. The presidents of Alta Vista and Foothill then decided to found what came to be Foothill Middle College. It serves Gunn, Palo Alto Senior High School, Los Altos High and Mountain View High.
“For me, middle college was a way to get your high school requirements while still taking interesting college classes,” Mayer said. “I wanted to go to a school with more mature peers, different classroom styles and a lack of pointless school tradition and school spirit.”
The numbers of juniors versus seniors accepted each year vary based on the number of spots available. To apply for this selective program, a student must fill out a five-page application regarding why he or she wants an alternative academic path and how he or she will contribute to the program.
In addition to this, prospective students must also write two essays and have two letters of recommendation from their guidance counselor and a teacher. Applicants must also send a transcript, and may be called in for a personal interview.
Once a student is accepted as a Middle College student, he or she must also partake in the core Middle College curriculum. Juniors take American Literature and United States History, whereas seniors would take Government, Economics and Literature. Besides these core classes, students are free to pursue any of the other classes offered in the Foothill curriculum.
However, applying to colleges from Middle College is much the same as applying from a traditional high school, if not better since they come from a unique situation. According to English teacher and Department Coordinator Michael Wilson, the advantage of a student coming from Middle College is the admissions office can see a student’s academic ability in a college environment, rather than a high school environment. His or her application and transcript will reflect that the student has taken college courses and can handle the courseload versus someone who has never taken a college course before.
“The thing that most interested me about Middle College was the opportunity to basically enter college a year early,” Hausser said. “Even though I still have to live with my parents, I get to take college classes from some really great, qualified teachers. They do everything and anything to make their classes interesting and fun, even though it’s still school, I don’t dread showing up to class [like I did at Gunn].”
In addition to taking his core Middle College classes, Hausser is also taking General Psychology and Principles of Business. He will be taking Statistics and Pop Culture during the winter quarter, something he is very excited about. “I’m not really a person who gets excited about learning,” he said. “But the course selection at Foothill is just awesome. For example, Principles of Business isn’t offered at Gunn, but it’s a been a really fun and fascinating class to take.”
Pienknagura’s experience with Middle College has also been very positive. “I don’t think I could fully describe how many differences there are [between Foothill and Gunn],” she said. “One of the biggest things, I guess, is that Foothill treats me as an adult, basically. They may be more blunt about deadlines, but they respect you more and think you’re more capable. [This kind of attitude] does wonders for what you think you can do and then seeing what you actually do. I enjoy the responsibility and freedom.”
Despite all of the benefits Pienknagura has received at Foothill, she still misses Gunn’s school spirit. “My senior class is one of the most spirited, united classes I have ever seen,” she said. “And while I’ve been happy and lucky to be a part of it for the past three years, this year seemed like the icing on the cake and I’m sad I missed out on that. But on the bright side, I have decided I’m definitely going to go to prom this year.” Hausser also regrets not being able to cheer on his class during Homecoming this year.
Pienknagura misses being involved in choir and theatre and wanted to remain a part of both departments, but neither worked out in the end for her. “I still go to all of the shows and concerts,” she said. “It’s the best way I can stay involved at this point.”
Hausser, on the other hand, has remained attached to Gunn through the Speech and Debate club. “I really wanted to stay connected to Gunn somehow,” he said. “And initially I wanted to be apart of the theatre department, but I had heard that Middle College students weren’t very welcome in theatre. I decided to do debate instead, and it’s actually been pretty fun. I’m glad I’m doing it, because it turn out, I enjoy arguing with people.” It is his first year participating in an extracurricular that is related to Gunn, something he might not have even bothered participating in if he had stayed at Gunn this year.
Hausser admits that he does not miss the academic pressure at Gunn, as the rigor of Gunn was one of the main reasons he chose to switch Middle College. “Funny story: Gunn is as hard as college, I swear I am not kidding. I’m working basically as hard as I was at Gunn and I’m doing marginally better at Middle College, which is sure to shock everyone who knows me,” he said. “I don’t tend to do very well when I’m measuring my success against a school where a 3.5 grade point average is in the bottom 50 percent and where kids consider [top-ranked colleges] their back-up school. I know that a lot of students do really well at Gunn, and mazel tov to you if you’re one of them, but I’m definitely not and it was a tough three years of trying to pretend that I was.”
Mayer maintains that he is also happy to leave Gunn, though he does miss seeing many of his friends on a daily basis. Due to time constraints, he has not been able to stay in consistent contact with them.
Unlike Mayer, senior Enzo Marc decided to come back to Gunn after one year of Middle College. “I decided to go to Middle College so that I could try something new,” he said. “I came back to Gunn though, because I realized having all of my friends around me at school was more important to me than what I had originally thought when I had left.”
Marc also prefers Gunn to Middle College because of Gunn’s supportive environment. “You really need to be able to stay on top of you schoolwork [at Middle College],” he said. “Especially in college classes, where the professors don’t care if you fail. No one calls your house if you don’t show up. You need to be able to motivate yourself.”
An example of the setting of one of the classes Marc took, was a huge lecture hall with over 150 students, versus the average 30-student classroom at Gunn. However, he does miss his flexible schedule at Middle College.
In contrast to Marc, Hausser embraces the independence and responsibilities of Middle College. “Here, they treat us like adults, whereas Gunn treats us like children,” he said. “[My college professors] expect us to come to class, learn, take the tests and conduct ourselves respectably. I’m proud to say that I now know what it feels like to take notes in class. I feel like I am an adult at Middle College, and I feel like my voice is recognized and heard, something I’m not sure I could say at Gunn.”