Alta Vista High School Principal Bill Pierce always dreamed of hiring a former student. Last year that dream came to fruition when Pierce hired Alba Garza, who graduated from Alta Vista in 2003, to be a social worker at the school.
When Garza interviewed for the position, formally called the community resources coordinator, Pierce said it was immediately clear to him that she had the demeanor for the job and that students would be able to connect with her.
“Of course, the fact that she had actually been one of our kids and had experienced some of the things that our kids still experience was huge for us,” Pierce said.
Students are able to see themselves in Garza, Pierce noted, and envision the kind of success it is possible to achieve. That sense of connection goes both ways.
“When I see the students, there’s a part of me that I see,” Garza said. “I see myself in all of them in different ways, even though they all have different life histories and stories.”
Catching up at Alta Vista
When Garza transferred to Alta Vista from Gunn High School in 2003 for her last semester of senior year, she was behind in her classes and short on the credits needed to graduate, a situation many Alta Vista students find themselves in.
However, Garza was determined to graduate on time and make her parents and siblings proud. Even though she was far behind in math, she worked hard to catch up.
The way Alta Vista is structured makes it possible for students to make up work quickly. Rather than using a standard semester schedule, students can work at their own pace.
Alta Vista is an alternative high school that serves students from the Mountain View Los Altos Union High School District, as well as the Palo Alto Unified School District. To graduate, students must meet all of the MVLA district’s graduation requirements.
Because Alta Vista’s courses don’t meet the specifications of the UC and CSU systems, after graduating, students must attend a community college first and then transfer to a four-year university.
That’s just what Garza did. She went to De Anza College before transferring to San Jose State University, where she graduated with a degree in social work. She later returned to San Jose State to earn her master’s.
Long path to success
Despite where she is today, Garza’s path wasn’t always an easy one. Before coming to Alta Vista, Garza had bounced between schools as her parents struggled to find a stable and affordable place to live.
At one point during elementary school, her family was renting a single room in San Jose, where Garza shared a mattress with her two younger brothers and their parents.
“Every day my mom was trying to find clothing for us, trying to find food for us,” Garza recalled.
Eventually they moved to a garage in Sunnyvale, but Garza said it wasn’t a suitable place to live. The space was infested with pincher bugs and the roof leaked when it rained, forcing the family to put out buckets to catch the water.
When Garza was in the middle of seventh grade, her family moved into the apartment complex in Palo Alto where her grandmother was living. The family qualified for government assistance to help cover the cost of rent, which enabled them to afford a three-bedroom apartment near Gunn High.
“We thought, ‘OK, things are going to get better, it’s going to work out,’” Garza said. “But everything that perpetuates poverty doesn’t just leave you.”
Her family still struggled to pay rent and afford food on the wages her father made as a limo driver and her mom earned working at a day care center.
Garza and her siblings were also still behind academically. At Jane Lathrop Stanford Middle School and then Gunn High, Garza saw the gap between her and her affluent peers.
Neither of her parents spoke English fluently and both worked long hours, making it hard to get help with schoolwork. She also began working at a local restaurant at age 14 to help support her family, which made it difficult to focus on school.
At the time, Garza said she was making some “pretty horrible decisions,” including cutting school and experimenting with drugs. She was also struggling with what she would later identify as anxiety.
However, when she got to Alta Vista, she committed herself to catching up, earning a diploma and attending college. She had struggled in math and was still taking geometry, but she was able to pass the class at Alta Vista.
“If I hadn’t passed math here and gotten the support that I needed, I wouldn’t have graduated high school,” Garza said.
After Alta Vista, Garza moved on to De Anza College. Math was still a challenge and tests caused her to experience anxiety and panic attacks. However, she received tutoring and support to get through her classes.
“I worked really hard. I would stay up until four in the morning studying for exams,” Garza said. “It just didn’t come easy to me.”
Ultimately, though, she succeeded and transferred to San Jose State, where she earned her bachelor’s in social work. After graduation, she was hired at West Valley Community Services, where she had been interning.
She later got a job at Gardner Family Care Corp., a San Jose nonprofit that provides health care to vulnerable community members. While working there, Garza went back to graduate school and got her master’s degree in social work.
The ‘perfect fit’
After becoming a licensed clinical social worker in 2017, Garza saw the job at Alta Vista and immediately jumped at the opportunity.
“When I got the job, I was stoked, I was so excited,” she said. “It’s an amazing team that Bill (Pierce) has created here.”
She started the job near the beginning of 2018 and said it has turned out to be the perfect fit. When new students come to Alta Vista, she does intake interviews with the student and his or her family, working to understand what roadblocks have been standing in the way of success. She frequently connects families with resources in the community that can help with housing, food and other needs.
Garza also provides crisis counseling for students, as well as meeting with some students on an ongoing basis.
Finding someone who could fulfill all of these roles is difficult, Pierce said. The person in Garza’s position must be someone students feel comfortable talking openly with, often sharing the most painful parts of their lives. Pierce said Garza has the personality and experience for the job.
“Seeing the kids react to her – they run up to her, they want hugs, if they’re weeping, they don’t want anybody but Alba,” Pierce said. “She clearly made an impact right off the bat.”
For Alta Vista junior Mishell Alarcon, Garza has been a continual source of support, always willing to listen without judgment.
“She’s helped me out with a lot. Anytime I’m struggling, she’s always here for me,” Alarcon said. “I was always able to come here and talk to her. It felt really comfortable.”
When meeting with students, Garza said she focuses on coming from a place of empathy and compassion to help them meet their goals.
“We’re human and we’re all feeling pain, but what I can do is bring hope to our everyday interactions,” she said.
In the nearly two years Garza has been at Alta Vista, she said she has seen again and again how supportive the school community is, willing to support every student regardless of his or her current circumstances.
“This is the perfect place to be,” she said. “I can’t think of being anywhere else now.”