Take out your highlighters and get ready to delve into the history of our very own American High School!
“Instead of dank classrooms of institutional green and brown, relaxed students move casually about large, pleasant rooms covered with carpets and materials of bright green, orange, blue, and yellow. High windows display graceful white seagulls, swooping in playful dives against an expansive background of brilliant blue.”
This idyllic description from a 1970’s newspaper article sounds like something out of a utopia. But this scene is in fact much closer to home.
At its founding in 1972, AHS was one-of-a-kind. A distinctive system of wall-free classrooms and interdisciplinary teaching methods made our school stand out within Fremont. The easygoing attitude of teachers and administrators, coupled with the unique layout of the school, contributed to an atmosphere that many believe fostered expression and collaboration.
“A talk with American [High’s] Principal, Joe Tranchina revealed that the feeling at the 1 ½-year-old school is no accident,” said journalist Pamela Strandberg’s article “No Longer Cooped Up,” published in The Argus in December 1973.
“‘People are affected by their environment,’ he explained. ‘If you put them in a cubicle environment, they will act that way. The intent was to create a feeling of openness, spaciousness, and maximum exposure to other kids.’”
Mr. Tranchina’s words ring true even today. Like the rings on a tree, each class of students that has gone through our school is unique. From having no walls to seeing an influx of immigrants, each factor at AHS has affected the growth of its students and the character of the rings. Let’s peel back the layers.
Act 1: Divided We Learn
“The open space idea came from the first principal, Mr. Joe Tranchina,” said Mr. John Di Paola, one of AHS’s first assistant principals. “[The school] had three wings plus a central rotunda … [and] the gym was the only separate building.”
Mr. Tranchina had worked with the architects in planning the school, implementing the concept of the rotunda and open classrooms in the design. At that time, the school career center was located in the rotunda itself, with the library in the Eagle’s Nest above SAC. Since there were no walls between classrooms, the only division in the school came from the separate wings.
“The open space was a prep for students to go into the real world of work, [since] most businesses work in open space cubicles,” said Mr. Di Paola. “The hidden agenda for teachers was that they had to be prepared to teach. They could not pass out papers and sit at their desk and read the morning paper! Other teachers would not tolerate that since they could see their neighbors’ classes.”
Another benefit to the open classrooms was that it enabled teachers to combine classrooms and watch movies in the theaters in each wing or to hold collaborative lessons involving multiple subjects, such as English and history.
“When I first came to American High School, that was the norm,” reminisced English teacher Mr. Creger. “The sophomore program was called Backgrounds and it was run by [original English and history teachers]. They had another version for juniors, called Traditions. The classes actually won a state award, the Golden Bell Award, for innovative curriculum.”
Today, he and Mr. Noori, a history teacher, run a class called Global Studies, where they share a group of students and teach them their respective subjects in a thematic way. It is a remnant of the collaboration between teachers that died away when the walls went up in the 1994-1995 school year.
There were a variety of reasons for this change, but the most significant one is that AHS’s population was growing too much and it became impractical to have open classrooms with so many students. People were unable to focus on their work and lessons in some classes would disturb tests in others; the increase in students only augmented the problem. Ultimately, the district passed a bond to fund the project to build walls between each classroom.
“Frequently, school districts hire architects that have little to no experience in school settings, and that can often cause a problem,” said Mr. Benn, a physics teacher and AHS alumnus. “[At AHS,] some of the rooms are a little weirdly shaped, mainly because the exterior walls aren’t square. Overall they did a pretty good job but they ran way over budget and that kept everything from being finished.”
There were a few mishaps in the construction process, with the builders getting off schedule by starting work a year later than they were supposed to and doing work in the wrong location.
“I came back to do some work over the summer and they started demolishing the science wing by ripping off the white boards and breaking everything up,” said Mr. Benn. “That was never part of the schedule so I stopped them when they got through to this half of the wing and I said, ‘I don’t think you guys are supposed to be doing this.’ And they said ‘Oh yeah, we’re supposed to take down the whole thing.’ But I didn’t think so, so we had them check and their supervisor said, ‘No, no! You’re not supposed to do that.’”
Right now, the science wing is still very similar to when it was first built. The classes in this section of the 500 wing have partitioned walls and shared lab space, the only part of the school that continues to maintain the open layout.
“I actually loved the open space. As a teacher, I have a lot of physical space, which is great, but I’m also not isolated and I have the ability to help and get help from other teachers,” Mr. Benn explained. “It makes for a very tight spirit of camaraderie.”
Act 2: Diversity and AP For All
In the late 1990’s, the enrollment at AHS dropped to just over a thousand students. The school district was facing competition from local private schools as parents wanted their children to attend a school with a better reputation. To combat this, it encouraged high schools to introduce AP classes into the curriculum.
“At the time, I was department chair in social studies [and] I would say that over the course of a few years, there were 1 or 2 AP offerings, and all of a sudden, there were a lot more,” said history teacher Mr. Johnson. “After the district’s push to add AP classes, I piloted AP US History and I got that up and going for a year or two. Then I decided to pilot AP Government and I let another teacher take over AP US. Over time, we added AP Macro instead of regular Econ.”
With a rapidly expanding student body, American’s demographic has greatly changed as a result of increased housing prices and immigration. This evolution can be seen in the various ethnic and race-based clubs at our school.
Afghan Student Association (ASA) has been around since the 1990’s. Through the years, it has hosted numerous popular events, including potlucks and field trips. Its biggest event was the Donation Celebration, where the club would give a plate of Afghan food to anyone who donated supplies to children in Afghanistan. However, overall participation has been decreasing over time.
“A lot of it has to do with the declining number of Afghans in this school,” said the club’s advisor, Mr. Creger. “The peak was right around 2005. Fremont has always had the largest number of Afghans in the U.S. but it’s harder and harder to afford to live in Fremont, so the Afghan population in Fremont is one of the groups that’s going to … places where it’s cheaper.
“The other group that I’m familiar with is BSU, Black Student Union,” he continued. “I was advisor for BSU for about ten years. And we had roughly the same period, 2002 to 2003, where we had larger numbers of black students on campus. We had a larger BSU, a larger turnout, and our biggest event in those days was the rally. Every year, the BSU put that on—it was kind of an expectation. And it was a huge responsibility school-wide, organizing, planning.”
Today, the number of African-American students at AHS is lower than it has been in years, making up just 3.3 percent of the school’s population according to data from the California Department of Education. On the other hand, there has been a rise in the number of students of Asian descent, increasing from nearly 20 percent to 60 percent of the population over twenty-five years.
“The demographics have changed a lot,” said Mr. Benn. “The number of students of different backgrounds has changed. There was a decent mixture of different ethnicities when I was a student but not to the extent which it is now. To some extent, the socioeconomics have changed, like most teachers probably don’t live in Fremont because we can’t afford to.”
The wealth of AHS’s families has also changed for this reason. On average, Fremont residents are making more money and the socioeconomic status has increased. This has resulted in a shift in expectations for university and the future as well.
“We were always middle-class in Fremont, but I would say we’ve become more upper-middle than we used to be,” said English teacher and alumnus Mrs. Thorsen. “The push that you must go to a UC, that’s a little different. It was very respected that I wasn’t going to a UC because I couldn’t afford it and now I don’t think it’s the same mindset.”
Act 3: The School of Opportunities
Spirit week, rallies, concerts—all these make up the most essential part of the high school experience: social life. From showing off class pride to making new friends on field trips, this is a time where people take advantage of what high school has to offer to discover themselves and make memories that last a lifetime.
“Our trip to the expo in Canada 1986 was probably my most memorable marching band experience,” said alumnus Irene Advincula. “It was the first time a lot of us were away from home, so of course we had to behave but it was nice to be able to bond with my band-mates and depend on each other and basically be far away from our home. We just had a lot of fun.
“Not that our teachers knew,” she added, “but we snuck into each other’s rooms and stayed up all night talking instead of getting rest before the performance.
“At the time, I think we were up to sixty-two kids … We were the first year in marching band,” she said. “When I was a freshman our band was only twenty-five people and it was only a marching band. Then it got bigger and we were able to do other things.”
Her daughter, Trinity Advincula-De Los Angeles, participates in band today. She pointed out several differences in the band between then and now.
“There are over 100 hundred students in the band now, and ever-growing by the year,” she explained. Band trips like the one her mother went on are also less popular. “We do have voluntary stuff, but not many people usually go. Last year, we went to Six Flags, but like I said, I don’t think even half of our band went.”
Spirit week is one of the biggest events of the year and has been so at American for a very long time. However, the annual event has changed drastically since the school’s beginning, in both the rallies and the sets.
“The rallies were toned down, way down from where they are now!” said alumnus Brian Martin. “We had dress up days, each class with a different theme and then a little rally, but that was it … The rallies you have now with all the students out there dancing … there was nothing like that.”
Though the growth in our school has resulted in more vibrant rallies, it has also been a drawback in other aspects of spirit week.
“Back then, because of the relatively low number of students, we were able to do things that could never be done today,” recalled Mr. Benn. “My senior year we brought a sailboat into the rotunda and had it set up for a while. It was great, and we actually had the space to do that since there weren’t that many students. But I think just having a fun time and being crazy was the most memorable part.”
One of the quintessential parts of going through high school is prom. From having fun with friends to a night of glitzy glamour, prom means different things to different people. Mrs. Thorsen remembers her prom experience being relatively simple compared to others’.
“I didn’t go and spend a lot of money on a dress or have my hair professionally done,” she said. “I just got together with a group of friends and we did each other’s hair and we found our dresses inexpensively. It was mellow but we still had a good time with it.
“A big difference is that we weren’t combined,” Mrs. Thorsen continued. “We used to have a separate junior and senior prom. Junior prom was at a racetrack, and we had dinner at the prom before the dance. Our senior prom was in San Francisco at the Fairmont Hotel.”
One long-standing AHS tradition is the annual trip to Disneyland for Grad Night. Every year, seniors board a bus that drives them down to Anaheim, California where they spend a day riding roller coasters and attending shows at the amusement park. However, it was not always like that in the past.
“For my senior year, we had Grad Night here at the school,” said Mrs. Thorsen. “We had a casino and also a hypnotist. I fell asleep on the floor of the rotunda. It was great.”
As each class of seniors graduates and moves on, new students take their places and rings are added to our tree. From the walls in every wing to the rose garden by the English portables, history emanates from every corner of our school, a remnant of the past and a reminder for the future.
Caption: An image of American High School today layered with one from the 1980’s. “From ‘72 to ‘94 it was open space,” said Mr. Creger. “The whole 300 wing was open classrooms. And the rooms in the middle used to be Theater 30 and 31.”