Los Altos, Alta Vista and… Awalt? Meet the small movement to restore Mountain View High’s name

STORY BY TOMOKI CHIEN, PHOTO BY ARYA NASIKKAR

Every Mountain View High School grad between 1982 and 1984 had an unusual choice: Their diploma could read either “Mountain View” or “Chester F. Awalt.” 

That’s because until 1981, the current Mountain View campus on Truman Ave. was called “Chester F. Awalt High School,” and only got its current name when the school district shuttered the original Mountain View High on Castro St.

Nearly four decades later, some of those students are back, and with a mission: to change Mountain View’s name back to Chester F. Awalt.

HONORING HISTORY

A Change.org petition circulated by Doug Traina (Awalt ‘73) has garnered some 380 signatures — almost entirely from grads old enough to be the parents, if not grandparents, of current high schoolers — in support of the name change.

“Renaming Awalt to Mountain View High School was dissatisfying to a lot of Awalt students,” said Traina, who co-chairs the Class of ‘73’s Facebook page and quinquennial reunions. “It’s kind of taking away your high school years, which are very significant to most people.”

Traina made the case for honoring Chester Awalt himself, the influential district trustee and namesake of the school, who served on the board for multiple terms spanning the ‘20s to the late ‘60s.

“There is a plaque in the gymnasium that says ‘Chester F. Awalt memorial gymnasium,’ but we think that’s kind of a minor concession to the history of the school,” Traina said.

Doug Traina (courtesy Doug Traina)

The name restoration (Traina intentionally uses “restore” instead of “change”) has percolated within Awalt circles for years, but without any real push until now; Traina said he figured he might as well take a run at it, especially because the name restoration could coincide with the significant remodeling and construction on campus.

Traina’s ask isn’t all-or-nothing. Short of a full name change, he suggested either a hybrid name (“Mountain View–Awalt High School”), or naming some significant portion of the campus (like the work-in-progress student services center) after Awalt. 

“I’m obviously not in a position to just issue an ultimatum; it’s the district’s call,” Traina said. “But ideally, everybody would like to see the campus renamed. Anything less than that is — I don’t want to say a concession — but it’s a lesser change.”

THE COST

A full name change could come with a hefty price tag. Mountain View High School Athletic Director Shelley Smith estimated that replacing sports uniforms alone would cost a minimum of $60,000 or $70,000. 

Mike Mathiesen, the district’s associate superintendent of business services, said — while it’d be hard for him to come up with a ballpark estimate — the cost would include signage, the football field, basketball court, letterheads, business cards, envelopes and so forth (although, Awalt’s mascot was also the black and gold Spartan, so anything that doesn’t explicitly say “Mountain View High” wouldn’t need to be replaced).

“If you’re familiar with what’s going on in the reconstruction of the campus right now, I would tend to think that signage would be a drop-in-the-bucket-type thing — not to disparage or minimize the impact of the added cost,” Traina said.

He tentatively suggested that donations from Awalt grads in support of the rename could help cover some of the costs.

“This is a very high interest and very passionate subject to a lot of people,” he said. “You know, 20 years of alunni, and our class was 400 people.”

“Changing the name of a school is a big ask, … I agree,” Traina said. “But it was changed once already for frankly no good reason that we agree with. It was named Chester F. Awalt after an individual that was very key in the district. … It honored him, and having the name taken away frankly somewhat arbitrarily, we just don’t believe was warranted.”

“MOUNTAIN VIEW”: HISTORY IN ITSELF

In some ways, the name “Mountain View High” itself also honors history. Newspaper clips archived by the Mountain View History Center paint a picture of a contentious debate spanning as far back as ‘74, when the district first noted that declining enrollment on the Castro St. campus could necessitate closure.

But it wasn’t until the fall of 1980 that serious public discussion of school closure began. Stories in the Mercury News, Town Crier, and the now-defunct Mountain View Sun and Peninsula Times Tribune tell of students — who knew that one of the district’s three schools would close because of tight finances and declining enrollment the next year — hoping that their school wouldn’t be the one.

Mountain View students, whose student body consisted of 54% minority enrollment as opposed to Los Altos and Awalt’s 10%, fretted about integrating with far whiter campuses; the newspaper clips imply a (reportedly untrue) perception of violence and rowdiness at Mountain View on the part of other students in the district. At one point, students on the Awalt campus spread rumors that theirs would be the one to go. 

Mountain View, though, seemed to have been the obvious choice for then-superintendent Paul Sakamoto and the board of trustees, because it was the smallest campus, least adaptable to modernization, had the worst parking situation, would balance the district’s demographics and would have the highest sale or lease value.

A story in the Times Tribune documents the Mountain View High School closure. (courtesy Mountain View History Center)

So in November of that year, despite protests and overflowing lines of speakers at board meetings, the trustees voted to shut down Mountain View High, transfer its students to the remaining two schools and give Awalt the closed school’s name — as detailed in a report from the Times Tribune, headlined “Mtn. View High School to close but the name will live on.”

Sakamoto was quoted saying that he felt that the two remaining schools “should have names that reflect the two communities they serve.”

PRESENT DAY

In September, Traina brought his petition before the board of trustees during public comment of a meeting, making his case for the rename.

Superintendent Dr. Nellie Meyer, speaking on behalf of the board, said that the district hasn’t formally addressed the name change and doesn’t currently have any plans to do so.

Nonetheless, any complete overhaul of Mountain View High’s name would likely need much more community support, and would be a months-long process of public hearings and board deliberations; changing the name of a school that’s been called “Mountain View” for 40 years — twice the length it was called “Awalt” — would be no expedient process.

When asked if he could imagine current Mountain View students feeling the same way he did about a name change, Traina conceded that there might be similar feelings.

“My feeling is, Mountain View High School in a lot of people’s minds was the original one on Castro St.,” he said. “I’m not trying to take anything away from anybody. … Could that sentiment happen? Yeah, I can’t in good faith say it wouldn’t, for the same reason I’m approaching this.”

Ava Keshavarzi, Mountain View’s student board representative, said she thinks the school’s current name “makes sense” considering the fact that Los Altos High is named after Los Altos, and instead suggested naming one of the new buildings after Awalt or creating a memorial as alternatives to honoring the school’s history.

“For me, changing the name of the school [wouldn’t] have a significant effect on me,” Keshavarzi said. “I would not be particularly upset, it’s just that I don’t think it will be a practical route to go down.”

“I believe in tradition,” wrote one signatory of Traina’s petition. “And once a building or a site is named that’s how it should remain. It will always be Awalt to me.”

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