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Foothill Middle College expands to meet demand

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Megan V. Winslow/Town Crier
Foothill Middle College teacher Mike Wilson works with Emma Stayte, left, and Kimbal Williams on a project.

When Caroline Kemp was a sophomore at Mountain View High School, she felt unsatisfied socially and academically, longing for a more supportive environment and greater freedom to choose her classes. Then she found the Foothill Middle College program, which allows local high school juniors and seniors to take all of their classes on the Foothill College campus.

“It’s the best decision I’ve ever made,” said Kemp, who is now a senior. “I think it was the first time I ever really made a decision for myself.”

Soon, many more students will get to make that same decision. The middle college program will double next school year, from the roughly 65 students currently enrolled.

The Mountain View Los Altos Union High School District created the program in 1993 in partnership with the Palo Alto Unified School District. Approximately half the students come from each district.

“The demand is there and the two districts have the resources, so we want to meet the needs of the kids,” said Bill Pierce, who oversees the program.

The MVLA Board of Trustees approved the expansion last month, which is expected to cost $600,000 annually. The cost includes hiring two additional teachers.

Middle college students take English and social studies classes taught by high school district teachers but held at Foothill. The rest of their courses are community college classes.

Over the past few years, the waitlist for the program has been growing. Approximately 80 students were put on the waitlist this school year, according to Mike Wilson, the program’s English teacher.

Kemp once spoke at an information night for the program where she estimated 200 people showed up. She said she was happy to see the high interest, but that it was “heartbreaking” to know how many got turned down.

Fellow middle college student Ava Miller, who originally attended Gunn High School, said she knows quite a few people who applied but didn’t get in because of space constraints.

“It’s really sad,” Miller said. “So many people definitely could benefit from this program.”

The expansion will enable more students to experience the program. However, students and teachers both say an integral part of what makes middle college special is its small, tight-knit environment. To maintain that, the plan is to run two parallel programs rather than combining into one large group.

“It’s not like now we’re just going to have a bigger middle college – we’re going to have two middle colleges,” social studies teacher Trish Langdon said.

The district plans to hire two more teachers – one for social studies and one for English – who will lead the other half of the program. The two groups will largely operate separately, though all four teachers will work and plan together.

“The beauty of the program is the student experience, and we’re doing whatever we can to try and preserve that,” Wilson said. “Rather than just getting bigger, we’re thoughtfully doubling.”

A ‘Close-knit’ community

According to Pierce, the middle college program attracts a variety of students, but the common theme is that they want to experience education in a different way and don’t thrive in the typical daily high school routine.

Langdon and Wilson work with the students throughout their time at middle college, acting as teachers, administrators and counselors, enabling them to get to know the students in many different capacities.

“We have much closer relationships with our students than a traditional high school would allow,” Wilson said.

Middle college provides “an individualized education in a really close-knit community,” Langdon said, providing students the opportunity to take a wide variety of classes while also receiving personalized support.

“It’s a program for kids that, for one reason or another, the high school experience just wasn’t satisfying them,” Langdon said. “Either it wasn’t working socially, it wasn’t working academically or a combination of those things.”

Miller said she was looking for a chance to “personalize” her education and pick classes tailored to her interests. Last quarter, she took four English classes. Taking two classes each day with her middle college peers creates a sense of consistency, Miller said, while still allowing her to take more specialized community college courses.

“I feel really supported here and then really independent there,” Miller said. “It’s just a perfect mix for me.”

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