By Elizabeth Sloan
The alarm goes off at 7:15 a.m., w-a-a-a-y too early. Samantha Rodriguez-Velasquez drags out of bed roughly six hours after she crawled into it. After dropping her sister at work, the high school senior heads to Cañada College. Mornings are devoted to college classes (The Psychology of Prejudice and Discrimination is her current favorite); afternoons she is completing her high school graduation requirements.
Several days a week, she works in tech support for Cañada students and staff, and twice a month she’s at board meetings of the Sequoia Union High School District (SUHSD) as a student trustee. Late afternoons, it’s on to swim practice with her Carlmont High School team. She gets home around 8:30 pm, bolts some dinner and studies until about 1 a.m. Lately, Rodriguez-Velasquez says, her sleep has been further threatened by a guilty pleasure: “I’ve been watching The Crown,” she confesses with a laugh.
Rodriguez-Velasquez is in Middle College. She is finishing high school and starting college at the same time.
Most public high school students in San Mateo County attend “comprehensive” high schools—student bodies of up to 2,000 or more, seven periods a day, extracurriculars like sports, theater and clubs. Most of those students do really well, says Stephen Redmond, executive director of Middle College/College & Career Executive Director for the Sequoia District. “But some benefit from a smaller learning environment,” he adds. “We want to give them options … set them up for success after high school. That could be college, or employment, or the military.”
Carrie DuBois, board member and past president of the SUHSD, puts it this way. “High school should be a banquet of opportunity.” She attributes the “banquet” quote to Tom Mohr, a respected San Mateo educator who died in 2020, but she passionately shares the sentiment: Different kids need different things. “One size does not fit all,” she says. One other thing she and other educators insist: “Alternative” does not equal “inferior.”
For students who need something beyond conventional public high school, two local districts—Sequoia and San Mateo Union High School District (SMUHSD)—are serving up that banquet.
Here’s a roundup of the possibilities.
In both districts, Middle College is operationally similar. High school juniors and seniors attend their classes on the college campus—Cañada for the Sequoia district and the College of San Mateo or Skyline in San Bruno for the San Mateo district. College courses are in the morning, with high school courses in the afternoon. Students meet frequently with advisors, and college and career readiness are baked into the curriculum. Some students participate in sports, theater, prom, graduation or other activities at their home high school.
Middle College students like this option’s flexibility, independence and early start on college credits. Rodriguez-Velasquez says the quality of discussion is better in her college classes (“The professors are great at drawing you out”); classes average 10 to 15 students rather than the 30 or more often found in the comprehensive schools. With a love of English and writing, and applications in at several Ivy League and UC schools, Rodriguez-Velasquez has academic ambitions. But she also likes the program’s emphasis on the whole person. “Middle College is great for finding out who you are outside the classroom,” she says.
Tia Chan, another Middle College student, has mapped a different but equally ambitious path. With career aspirations in law enforcement or perhaps firefighting, she will join the Marine Corps when she graduates this spring. She’ll continue her college education while on active duty (100-percent covered by the military) and after her service “I’ll have the post-9/11 GI bill to finish college.” She hopes to serve in the airwing division as a wing chief.
“The wing chief is responsible for everything in that helicopter besides flying it,” she says, eyes lighting up. “The guns, the cargo, the lines with people jumping. You manage all of that. I am really good at figuring out logistics and planning things. I like to be physically active.”
Chan chose Middle College because she is juggling four part-time jobs and “it just fits who I am. I have always been independent.” She takes her college courses “asynchronously”—listening to pre-recorded lectures on her own time.
Middle College is funded jointly by the high school and community college districts. The Sequoia district’s program currently serves about 89 students, a bit of a dip because of the pandemic. San Mateo’s program is fully enrolled at 205.
Dual enrollment, sometimes called “concurrent enrollment,” is an option that joins advanced placement (AP) and International Baccalaureate (IB) programs as a way to earn college credits early. In dual enrollment, students take college-level classes at their home high school, taught by teachers credentialed for college instruction.
“It’s a great pathway to community college especially,” says Don Scatena, director of student services and principal of Middle College for the San Mateo district. “Students who take at least one college course while in high school significantly increase their chances of not just attending college, but graduating from college.” That’s not just happy talk; Scatena’s comments are supported by studies from the Center for Community College Leadership at UC Davis and the Public Policy Institute of California, which recently published an article titled, “Is College Worth It?”
Students in these programs seem to think so. They often sample across the early credit smorgasbord, taking dual enrollment, AP, and/or IB classes. Scatena says about 600 students in his district are enrolled in dozens of dual enrollment courses, in offerings that range from architecture to video production.
How do these college credit options differ? Mostly, in how credits are earned. AP and IB students must sit for an exam at the end of the term (and pay for it, although aid is sometimes available to cover fees). Dual enrollment students must pass the class with a C grade or better.
Nationwide, some educators have become uneasy about the AP system, voicing objections that range from testing bias to lack of cultural context. In the U.S., the AP tests dominate; nearly 1.8 million high school students took at least one AP test in 2021, compared with 87,206 students who sat for the IB exam in 2022. (Globally, both organizations serve around 2 million students.) Education professionals also worry about the market dominance—some call it a monopoly—of AP’s parent organization, The College Board, whose comprehensive and almost universally used product line greatly influences university admissions.
“The College Board also controls the SATs, ACTs and some of the prep programs,” Scatena observes. “They have become the gatekeepers to college.” Beyond that, he objects to AP classes’ one-size-fits-all approach. “There’s no reference to jurisdiction, where you are, what the political climate is,” he says.
During the pandemic, educators got a crash course in how to offer online learning. It forced an important realization, says Randall Booker, superintendent of the San Mateo district. “What we learned during Covid is that parents have more choices than ever before when it comes to educating their child,” he says. “We needed to respond. The school districts had to evolve quickly.”
Evolve they did, scrambling to address disparities in internet access, mental health challenges and the pedagogies of digital learning. Booker thinks his colleagues did a good job with the pivot; he is particularly proud of his district’s increased support of students’ mental health needs.
The number of online learners has dropped dramatically since the peak of the pandemic. Each district now enrolls fewer than 100 students in such programs. But it can still be a necessity for some—those with serious health risks, challenging home situations or outside pursuits that make structured high school impossible. (Think world-class athletes, working actors, teens who work to support their families.).
Sometimes, online learning is used for academic credit recovery if the student has fallen behind. There’s a lot of overlap between online learning and independent study—another educational option that allows students to complete their requirements outside the classroom.
Absent special circumstances, many educators are wary of both online learning and independent study, because they lack the socialization so important to teenagers. “It matters a lot; that sense of place—the relationships, the connections,” says Brian Simmons, director of curriculum and assessment for the San Mateo district. “We had to have an absence of it before we realized how much. We are trying to encourage students to be on campus as much as possible.”
“Online learning can be a great option for students who have the right temperament and the right circumstances,” says Greg Stein, a teacher at Sequoia High School in the Sequoia district. “But these are things that cannot be taken for granted.”
Career and Technical Education
Career and technical education—CTE—has come a long way since the era of “Vocational Education.” The old days of “tracking”—sending some kids off to trades and others off to college—are largely gone. Today’s programs are designed to expose high schoolers to an industry, and develop skills needed for any industry—all within the rubric of college preparation.
Sequoia High School offers two official California Partnership Academies: Digital Arts and Health Careers. The state-funded programs offer smaller “school-within-a school” learning environments, along with career themes. Enrollment is targeted at 150 per school for each program; about half of the students are identified as “underserved”—low-income, first-generation college-bound; or English language learners.
Stein, who teaches in the Digital Arts Academy, says “there’s a much closer-knit sense of community. They take classes together during their 10th, 11th and 12th years with the same teachers, the same students. It’s a very supportive, collaborative environment.” One of its most popular components, he says, is a mentoring program that matches students with professionals in the community.
Beyond the official state partnerships, the Sequoia district has other programs and “pathways” (sequential, ascending courses in 10th, 11th and 12th grades) in green technology, biotechnology, computer science, culinary arts, media arts, industrial arts and more. If students are interested in programs at campuses other than their home schools, transfers are relatively easy.
The San Mateo district has CTE programs in arts, media and entertainment; building and construction; education and child development; engineering and architecture; hospitality, tourism and recreation; health sciences and medical technology; and information and communication technology. The point of the programs, says Scatena, is not to track students toward a specific career, but to prepare them for the working world they will inhabit for six or seven decades.
“They are only 16 years old,” Scatena says. “They’re likely going to change their career decision five or six times before they end up in a certain industry. The idea is to build skills around any career they pursue.”
One example is the Biotechnology Pathway, which operates summer internships at San Mateo and Aragon high schools. The program’s experiences often lead students to entry-level jobs, and the science they pursue is anything but lightweight. “I go to these presentations, and I don’t understand half of what they are talking about,” Scatena laughs.
James Bender, an industrial arts teacher at Redwood High School in San Carlos, believes there is a stigma around choosing trades instead of higher education—and he wishes it would go away. “What I do is project-based learning,” he says. “My students use the Pythagorean theorem to set stringlines for building structures; I use construction projects to teach math skills, problem solving and critical thinking.”
It’s real-life learning that this self-described high school dropout wishes he had had in high school. Bender, who ended up with a Ph.D in cultural studies/critical theory and analysis, has traveled the world, traversing stints in education, shipbuilding and nonprofit management. “I have had many careers,” he reflects. “Trades have always been a part of my ability to survive in the world.”
Simmons of the San Mateo district echoes this impatience with the stigma he sees. “We do not value the trades, the military and the other options like we should,” he says. “That is a failure.”
Charter High Schools
Charter high schools are free, publicly funded schools that operate quasi-independently from the districts that sponsor them. Guided by legal charters granted by the state, they often have more autonomy in matters of curriculum, personnel and budgeting than conventional high schools. Open through lotteries to all students in a district, they are usually smaller in size, and sometimes organize around a curricular theme.
In California, charter teachers must be credentialed, and graduation requirements are the same as for comprehensive high schools. In lieu of property taxes, charters are eligible for a transfer of funds from their sponsoring districts; they often also seek supplemental funding through grants, awards and private donations.
Most students (and parents) report opting for charters because of their smaller size. Others cite the greater independence of learning that comes with the operational autonomy. Some educators worry that the charters siphon off resources from the comprehensive high schools. But the model is clearly here to stay. Except for a dip in enrollment growth during the past seven years, charters have grown steadily since their inception in the 1970s. Their growth rebounded robustly during the pandemic.
The Sequoia district administers two charter high schools: East Palo Alto Academy and the STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, math)-oriented TIDE Academy. Sequoia is also the sponsoring district of Summit Prep and Everest High School. The San Mateo district has one charter high school: Design Tech High, on the campus of Oracle Corporation, enrolls about 550 students.
Continuation High Schools
Flexibility is the hallmark of the continuation high school. The first in the country launched in 1909 to get working teenagers to a diploma. Graduation requirements are the same as for conventional high schools, but instructional time and methods of collecting credits may differ.
Students find their way to this model because they are behind academically, carry special family obligations or have other critical needs that makes a conventional schedule impossible. The campuses in San Mateo County tend to offer robust guidance, counseling, career and health services. The county has two continuation high schools—Redwood High in the Sequoia District and Peninsula High in the San Mateo District.
In the past, continuation high school has sometimes been seen as a place of last resort for troubled kids. That thinking is now being called out as inaccurate, outdated and badly flawed from a learning science perspective.
“We have so much more understanding of how trauma and poverty impact learning,” says DuBois of the Sequoia district board. “Disruptive behaviors may be related not to ‘what’s wrong with them’ but ‘what happened to them.’ The emphasis now is trauma-informed education and restorative practices.” DuBois focuses on the long game, and the most disadvantaged students. “My eye is on the neediest kids—foster kids, homeless kids. Are we getting them to graduation? Are they enrolling in community college? Are they persisting there?”
“Kids get more attention at the continuation high school,” says Scatena, who points to a staff-to-student ratio of 10:1, versus the 25:1 typical of the comprehensive high school. “Some students say it’s the first time since elementary school that they have felt like an academic success. And it is not less of a diploma,” he says. “That’s a perception problem.”
Students in the continuation programs echo this. “There’s lot of support and it’s genuine,” says Nicole Martinez, a senior who enrolled at Peninsula High School after Covid-induced “Zoom school” killed her motivation. “I’m a different person here,” says Martinez, who is thinking about business administration or veterinary medicine as a career. “I feel like I do have a chance to go to college.”
“Some people say it’s a bad school,” says Leonardo Ortega, another Peninsula senior. “I’d say it’s a more supportive school. It will get you to the same point as your other school—and maybe even farther. There are more opportunities here. And if you are going through something outside of school, the teachers understand.” Like the other Peninsula High students featured in this article, Ortega works significant hours after school and takes a dual enrollment course in career exploration.
Lopini Vaka, a Peninsula High junior, credits the continuation program with restoring his motivation and his future dream: Playing football in college and maybe beyond. “When Covid hit and school was on Zoom, I didn’t want to do any work,” Vaka says. Peninsula’s smaller learning environment and supportive teachers now have him on track to graduate.
He plays football with his old Mills High School team and is in conversation with a coach at the College of San Mateo. Plan B is construction: He works in the family concrete business. Vaka is also savoring the experience of mentoring grade school students in Tanzania, via video. “It’s pretty nice to talk to people from another country,” he says.
The program’s goal, says Lorenzo Hockaday, Peninsula’s college and career coordinator, is “for every student to leave here with at least an idea of a career, and three other things: A resume, completed paperwork for college financial aid and work or community service experience.” Peninsula, which enrolls about 150 students, relocated to its Burlingame campus in 2021. It features a culinary arts center and—designed to take advantage of its proximity to SFO—a career pathway in aviation.
Redwood High, in San Carlos, also has a new facility. Named a California Model Continuation High School in 2022 (Peninsula received the same award in 2006), Redwood High features an expansive garden, culinary arts, a video/recording studio and industrial arts. It enrolls approximately 275 students.
“These schools should be the jewels of the district,” says Booker, “with the best teachers, the best opportunities and programs that meet the academic, social and wellness needs of the most at-risk kids.”
The Cost of Choice
Isn’t this banquet of educational choices expensive? Yes and no. Thanks to a multiplicity of funding sources and efficient operation, some of the educational alternatives cost less for the districts to offer than the conventional model.
For the high school district, “Middle College is cheaper than the regular program,” says Scatena. “The community college is getting money from the state in order to instruct that high school student.” Independent study, he says, is also more affordable than the conventional setup because of staff-to-student ratios; instead of two or three teachers, just one independent study coordinator may be working full time with 70 students.
Besides co-ventures with the community college districts, other sources of funding include the state, the county and—especially in CTE—industry partners who provide dollars, in-kind contributions, mentors and other personnel. Meta (Facebook) was a prominent funder of the TIDE charter school in East Menlo Park. SAP Corporation is working with Sequoia’s Digital Arts Academy, including helping to track educational outcomes. The San Mateo district taps more than a dozen industry partners for guest speakers, field trips, mentoring and work-based learning projects in its CTE programs.
Educators in both districts feel fortunate to be a part of “Basic Aid,” a school financing mode in which property taxes from relatively wealthy communities provide more than the minimum per-pupil funding set by the state. Those excess tax revenues flow into local schools.
“We’re lucky,” says Booker. “We’re a school district that can offer these options.” Echoes Stein of Sequoia High School, “I have worked at a number of schools in my career. Many had formidable challenges and not enough resources to address them. We are very fortunate to be able to have all these different programs.”
A Challenge That Remains
If these educational alternatives for serving the students of San Mateo County are appropriate, feasible and fundable, what challenges remain? Equity is the biggest one, say teachers and administrators in both districts.
“We provide a ton of options,” says Simmons. “But it is still a pretty self-serve system. Those in the know, those with cultural capital, they take advantage. … We’ve got to build a better runway in terms of information, communications and support.”
Stephen Redmond of the Sequoia district is also mulling over access and equity issues. “We need to get out into the community and talk to these families early, when the students are in eighth grade,” he says. “We need to overcome the impediments for families who are struggling. Do we offer a free shuttle? Are classes at a certain time more convenient to the students?”
Awareness is growing, and so are practices aimed at inclusion. The career academies in the Sequoia district target enrollment of at least 50 percent underserved communities. A pilot program this year with SamTrans offers a free unlimited bus pass to any youth who qualifies for Title 1, the federal funding designed to improve educational equity for low-income families. To put an associate’s degree within reach, a recent state senate bill makes community college free for all San Mateo County residents for the first two years.
In a quest to meet the educational needs of every learner, there’s a lot to consider: Learning profile, certainly, but also family life, language, legal status, transportation, health care, housing, food security and more. San Mateo County, say many observers, deserves high marks for grappling with the complexities.
“San Mateo County is an extraordinary place,” says Alan Sarver, a 13-year member of the Sequoia district board who left the post in December. “There is a uniform sense that wherever those lines exist, our job doesn’t stop at those lines. Our job is to make sure that kids who come in with the largest hill to climb are served equally to those who have had every opportunity.” Sarver cites the pandemic meetings convened by County Manager Michael Callagy that brought together school districts, industry, city councils and health districts to address everything from education to vaccines to mental health to the survival of businesses.
“The intensity with which our broad community came together for the benefit of our broad community was astonishing,” Sarver says. “It was the most heartwarming and fulfilling experience of my adult life.”
How To Decide
If a student is struggling in the comprehensive high school, what should a family do? Start with a conversation, say educators. Schedule a talk with current teachers and counselors. Come ready to discuss both concerns and objectives—and be aware that the solutions may very well reside within the current school. “I don’t want parents to feel like the outcome of the meeting is always going to be a different program,” says Booker. “That’s an option, but never our first option. We want to make it work at the comprehensive high school.”
And if it looks like something else is called for? “Then we start tailoring,” says Booker. “What do the family and child want? Do they want college as an option? What kind of college? How fast do they want to graduate? How are they doing in the social setting of their current high school?”
DuBois recognizes how hard it is for parents when their kids struggle: “Those are some of the hardest calls I get.” Don’t be afraid to push, she says. And to make the most of the collaboration with a child’s educators, “Go to the meetings armed with some information about the options.”
Chan, the Middle College senior and soon-to-be member of the Marine Corps, is even more direct in her advice. “Be brave,” she says. “Put yourself out there. The things that you think are uncomfortable are probably really good for you. For you to become better in every sense, embrace it all.”