Cover Story - October 15, 2008

Woodside High at 50: Principal's focus is staying nimble as a big school in a complex world

by Dave Boyce

In 1958, telephones had dials, milk came in glass bottles, kids delivered newspapers and, in September of that year, Woodside High School opened its doors to its first freshman class.

High school back then prepared some teens for college and many for blue collar jobs, and a future that often included a one-income family with a stay-at-home mom and a union job that offered a career and good pay without a college degree.

Fifty years on, as Woodside High prepares to celebrate its anniversary, the school is the same, and it is different. There are graduates who eschew college and who can still find technical careers with decent wages. The campus layout has hardly changed, so visiting alumni should be able to locate a classroom or playing field.

But Woodside must now prepare students for a truly global job market, highly competitive college admissions, and a society that is increasingly diverse.

"Being a teenager in today's world, I think, is much more complex than it ever was," Woodside High Principal David Reilly says in a recent interview. For a high school to meet current needs, he says, it must go beyond informing students to teaching them to synthesize, analyze and use that information.

Such goals are hardly made easier in an environment in which students must negotiate a hormone-complicated transition from the comforting landscape of middle school to, some four years later, a college campus that may be the size and population of a small city.

"It's quite a task to be that transitional piece," Mr. Reilly says. "It's the most complex period of anyone's life."

The Almanac spoke with Mr. Reilly in the run up to Woodside High's 50th anniversary celebration on Saturday, Oct. 25, the day after the homecoming football game.

Two events are scheduled for that Saturday: between 2 and 4 p.m., an open house, tour and retrospective video on the campus; and between 4 and 6 p.m., an alumni cocktail party/reception sponsored by the Woodside High School Foundation at the Woodside Village Church.

Emphasis on writing

The transition to college for Mr. Reilly was a surprising one, he says, particularly as it concerned English composition. (He is now 35 and graduated with honors from the University of California, Los Angeles, in 1995 with a degree in English.

Coming from a high school in upstate New York where he says he "did well," he got some bad news in his freshman composition class: He wrote in the passive voice — a clumsy and tiresome style of writing, as in, "Huck and Jim were transported on a raft down the Mississippi River."

"I got a big taste of humble pie at UCLA," he says, adding that he spent part of his first year teaching himself the elements of academic style. "That's not something that Woodside High School students are going to have to do."

Seniors at Woodside can't say that they aren't exposed to proper technique. The required senior project includes a 10- to 12-page essay that, among other things, should demonstrate familiarity with Modern Language Association guidelines, he says.

Doing well in high school counts. UCLA, Mr. Reilly notes, used to accept a 2.7 grade point average and one or two advanced-placement courses from incoming freshmen. "That's unheard of these days," he says, when a GPA of above 4.0 and three or four AP classes are more typical.

Social consciousness

If academic skills are one key to success in college, getting along in an increasingly complex culture is another, Mr. Reilly says.

As part of the Sequoia Union High School District, Woodside High's ethnic mix among its 1,900 students is as diverse as the district's, including a Hispanic population at 48 percent; Caucasians at 38 percent; African Americans at 5 percent; and Pacific Islanders, Asians, and all others at or below 3 percent.

The school draws students from 13 elementary school districts, including those in upscale communities such as Portola Valley and Woodside, and towns that have belts of poverty such as Redwood City and East Palo Alto.

"I think Woodside High School has consistently risen to the challenge of preparing students for this global economy, this brave new world, if you will," Mr. Reilly says. "It's more important than ever for students to have a social consciousness, to have an understanding, a real understanding, of other cultures and belief systems."

Asked if Woodside had racial tension or gang members on campus, Mr. Reilly replies that he has seen no sign of racial issues and that if gang members are there, they're not allowed to identify themselves. "Do I have kids on campus that demonstrate at-risk behavior? Sure," he says.

"The term 'gang' is a really strong buzzword that excites a lot of people," he says. "Kids are kids and I have a real problem with people labeling juveniles as gang members. They can't do anything about where they live and who is raising them" and a popular media saturated with violence.

"We're after the whole child. We're after the whole student," he says. "My job as an educator is to make intellectual pursuits and healthy endeavors more attractive than what they see in the media. The bottom line is that Woodside High School is extremely safe."

His biggest challenge this year has been the length of skirts and shorts, he says.

The number of Woodside students with "socio-economic challenges" has been rising. Students receiving free or reduced-price lunches rose to 36 percent in 2007-08 from 25 percent in 2003-04, according to state records. Twenty-four percent of Woodside students' parents lacked a high school diploma in 2007-08, up from 20 percent in 2003-04.

At the same time, graduation rates have risen to 98 percent in 2007 from 92 percent in 2004.

"We're getting smarter on how to meet the challenges," Mr. Reilly says. "I think the purpose of high school is going to completely transform in this century."

Leveraging success

Within the next decade, Mr. Reilly says, he expects high schools to be graduating kids with at least some of the skills expected of 20th century college graduates.

To that end, Woodside will be setting up a pre-med, pre-nursing and medical technician program that includes a facility with hospital beds and medical equipment, he says.

The school will also leverage the success of its robotics club in setting up an engineering program. Student robot designers over the past 12 years have conferred significant status on Woodside, including a national championship in 1996. The team took home three regional titles and two corporate awards in the 2007 games.

Robotics is ideal, Mr. Reilly says, because it challenges students, through hands-on experience and annual competitions, to synthesize and analyze concepts taught in the classroom.

Designing and building a functional machine is a virtuous enterprise in that it's unforgiving, he says. "Either the robot works or it doesn't work."

Robotics, he says, also draws in the community: The robots can't be built and the team can't participate in contests without the help of corporate sponsors. Total costs can run $15,000 to $20,000 plus travel expenses, but it brings industry and the academy together, Mr. Reilly says.

He courts the deep-pocketed in the community and local industry in trying to improve Woodside's offerings. "The school can't do it alone," he says.

Indeed, he has already gotten started on a tutoring/intramural sports program. His hopes were to raise the funds to help kids who fritter away their time after school, who weren't doing well academically and who didn't have the grade-point average to allow them to play team sports.

Mr. Reilly says he had a brief talk about his plans with Philanthropic Ventures Foundation president Bill Somerville, a former executive with the Peninsula Community Foundation, and on a handshake, got a check for $10,000 in seed money the next day.

His overarching goal: boost Woodside's endowment to $10 million to $15 million from the current $1 million so as to reduce all class sizes to 20 to 24 students. "Then we'll really be able to compete with private schools," he says. "This is very, very possible."


Woodside High's 50th anniversary celebration happens Saturday, Oct. 25. The events begin at 2 p.m. with an open house, campus tour and retrospective video on the campus at 199 Churchill Ave., off Woodside Road.

At 4 p.m., alumni and friends are invited to a cocktail party/reception sponsored by the Woodside High School Foundation at the Woodside Village Church at 3154 Woodside Road.

On Nov. 26, the alumni battle the WHS varsity basketball team.

In May, the school inaugurates a new "community hall of fame," to include teachers, alumni and "significant contributors" to the Woodside High School Foundation.


Posted by the students of woodside, a resident of Woodside High School
on Nov 6, 2008 at 11:15 am

our school imprisons us, babys us and has no real grip on reality. they just think we dont know it

Posted by the students of woodside, a resident of Woodside High School
on Nov 6, 2008 at 11:16 am

our school imprisons us, babys us and has no real grip on reality. they just think we dont know it

Don't miss out on the discussion!
Sign up to be notified of new comments on this topic.


Post a comment

Posting an item on Town Square is simple and requires no registration. Just complete this form and hit "submit" and your topic will appear online. Please be respectful and truthful in your postings so Town Square will continue to be a thoughtful gathering place for sharing community information and opinion. All postings are subject to our TERMS OF USE, and may be deleted if deemed inappropriate by our staff.

We prefer that you use your real name, but you may use any "member" name you wish.

Name: *

Select your neighborhood or school community: * Not sure?

Comment: *

Verification code: *
Enter the verification code exactly as shown, using capital and lowercase letters, in the multi-colored box.

*Required Fields