Middle College an alternate academic path

October 9, 2014 — by Fiona Sequeira

Middle College is an alternative program that offers juniors and seniors the opportunity to complete their high school requirements at West Valley College.

His long jet black hair, middle-parted and resembling that of Severus Snape, flopped about his face as he sauntered through the halls during passing. Notorious for his Vibram “FiveFingers” footwear and eclectic mind, then-sophomore Cary Xiao felt out of place among the sea of peers rushing around him at Saratoga High.

But that was two years ago.

Now a much happier, more contented senior, Xiao has cut his hair to the scalp and replaced his unique shoes with mainstream plastic flip-flops. Yet despite these drastic changes to his appearance, Xiao attributes the main source of his current happiness to his enrollment in Middle College, an alternative program that offers juniors and seniors the opportunity to complete their high school requirements at West Valley College.

“Middle College is an opportunity for high school kids to explore their individual career interests through more diversified course offerings,” said Cheryl Hodgin-Marshall, Middle College guidance adviser. “Students take control of their own learning in a serious college environment.”
Xiao’s main motivation for joining Middle College is the independence it provides.

“Middle College is for those who wish to experience the college environment,” he said. “The program gives students much more responsibility as they register for their own classes and no one forces them to attend. Students [here] must properly handle their freedoms.”

Ryann Jones, another senior in Middle College, prefers the program because its flexibility allows her to shape her schoolwork around her other priorities.

“Most people have a lot of stress at Saratoga with their class schedule, and I had a really rough time dealing with the stress and was buckling,” Jones said. “The Middle College program has released quite a bit of that stress by opening up time every day and allowing me to do what’s most important at the moment, which is to be there for my family.”

Currently, nine students are in the Middle College program. Instead of walking around a high school campus and attending dances and football games, these students have chosen to join an older group of high school graduates who are working toward their degrees or adults taking specific classes for job requirements.

Xiao has found being on a college campus fits his personality better, and he likes the diversity West Valley offers.

To enroll in Middle College, prospective students must complete 110 units by the end of sophomore year at a regular high school with at least a 2.8 GPA and be at least 16. In addition to these prerequisites, an application that includes an essay and two teacher recommendations is required.

The program is considered a privilege, not a right, so it reserves the right to expel irresponsible or misbehaving students and send them back to their home high schools, though this rarely happens.

Middle College’s attraction partly lies in the dual nature of how it operates. All of the courses, which are unweighted and graded on a 4.0 scale, count for college credit while also fulfilling high school graduation requirements.

According to Xiao, West Valley College offers more advanced courses for a wider array of subjects.

For example, after the equivalent Calculus BC at Saratoga, West Valley offers three additional math courses, including Multivariable Calculus. While anything offered at Saratoga High is available at West Valley, the latter also has courses for career-specific paths, such as business. A student can take degree-relevant courses in the business field such as Administrative Management or Business Communication while also completing required high school classes such as Government/Economics.

West Valley also offers odder classes such as Film Appreciation or History of Rock and Roll, which also count for credit.

Other points of contrast between Saratoga and Middle College include the class structure and teaching style. At West Valley, instructors treat their students as adults rather than overly competitive teenagers preoccupied with their results and assume a higher level of maturity in their students.

“Last summer, I took astronomy with a professor I had taken some Calculus-based physics with before,” Xiao said. “When a friend and I asked my professor about our grades during one of the last days of the course, he told us, ‘You attended all the lectures and did all the work. Even if you somehow bomb the finals and I know you probably won't, you will still get A's. Don't sweat your A!’’’

Additionally, students’ classes may be at any time in the day, and some end as late as 10 p.m.

While Middle College substantially differs from a regular high school setting, the college admissions process is shared across the board. According to Xiao, Middle College students fill out the same applications, are required to take the SAT and other standardized tests and still list Saratoga High as their high school on forms. 

Despite the benefits that Middle College provides, there is still a skewed perception of it within the Saratoga student body. Many consider it an unconventional, somewhat “backwards” route and stereotype it as a refuge for socially inept students who cannot handle the academic rigor of Saratoga.

Xiao said the stigma surrounding Middle College is often due to lack of understanding about what it really is.

“The funny part is, Middle College actually offers students a mechanism for getting ahead, as they can earn extensive college credits while still in high school,” Xiao said.

Students from Middle College are no less successful in their college placements than students at Saratoga High, with acceptances at UC Berkeley and Brown University, to name a few.

Ultimately, Middle College can be a pragmatic path for many students, and Xiao deems it one of the most positive academic decisions he has ever made. 

“Since we’re all so focused on getting to college,” Xiao said, “why not attend an environment that grooms you for it? People here attend Middle College for the college experience as opposed to the high school immaturity.”

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