From Directing Choir to Directing College Bound Students

High school academic counselor and UPA founder Dorothy Westerhoff dreamt of pursuing a career in education since her childhood, but took a break from her academics to focus on her growing family. Fortunately, she had an associates of arts degree—or AA degree—prior to her familial commitments, and later returned to school to fulfill her dream of being an educator.

“Growing up, school was very important to me and was a safe space where I felt perfectly comfortable being myself,” Westerhoff said, “so when I was in 6th grade, I figured out I wanted to pursue a career in education to be able to provide that for others.”

While a student at San Jose State University, Westerhoff did her student teaching at Silver Creek High school in the East Side Union High School District. After earning her degree, she got a full time job as a choir teacher and music director at Silver Creek—leading their choir, singing and handbells group. Westerhoff considered music alone as a career, but decided against it because she wanted to continue on the education track to fulfill her childhood dream.

To this day, music continues to be a very important part of her life. After a few years of teaching choir, Westerhoff decided to branch out and explore the education field further. She was the dean of discipline, activities director and photography teacher for Silver Creek’s yearbook class when she reconnected with friends from San Jose State and her work experiences: Jackie Guevara and Daniel Ordaz, two other founding members of UPA. 

A board in front of the counseling office displays the four founders’ names and their respective positions prior to UPA’s establishment.

Westerhoff, Guevara and Ordaz all had a common goal: to form a school that adequately prepared students for the rigor of college academics. While working with the Cathedral of Faith to brainstorm a school location, the trio met Kurt Foreman, the fourth founding member and current chairman of the UPA board. 

Westerhoff mentions that founding UPA was a group effort, working together to draft all the important documents and the appeal to the San Jose Unified School District to allow UPA to be a recognized school. 

“We had to write a grant to the county and the district to give us the funding to start a school and organize the financial side such as teacher salaries, the type of school we wanted to have in the area and why we wanted to establish the school,” Westerhoff said. 

Founding UPA was no easy task as the group faced many challenges and setbacks, as the first charter to the San Jose Unified School District was rejected. Westerhoff and the other founders decided to rewrite the charter as a county charter, and was met with approval from the county. 

Following UPA’s inauguration in 2007, Westerhoff has taken on different roles over the years. Between 2007 and 2012, she worked in the administrative branch, conducting teacher evaluations while overseeing the academic counseling department until 2013. In 2013, she earned her counseling credential and switched full time to counseling and has been an academic counselor for the past decade. 

In her 15 years of experience at UPA, Westerhoff has seen UPA grow and change for the better. She recollected how UPA started out and expressed awe at the institute UPA has become, a nationally recognized, high performing school.

UPA initially started out with seventh, eighth and ninth-grade only, then added one more grade each year. By 2010, UPA had grade levels starting from seventh-grade, and went up until 12th grade-resembling UPA currently. 

“On the first meeting prepping for school, parents and students came to check things out and everything came alive, it was really exciting,” Westerhoff said. 

Westerhoff noted how the efforts of the founding members have paid off and recognizes its importance. 

“All sorts of behind the scenes goes into having the ideal school because it’s important that UPA provides a really good education, and UPA students take the education to make it the great school it is,” Westerhoff said. “We are always looking out to see how we can do better and with that comes a lot of meetings and discussions where we observe the current performance of students and look to see how we can improve.”

Dot Westerhoff works on her laptop, responding to student emails and finalizing senior events and commitments.

Other tasks the administrative board, staff and counseling department takes to maximize student performance and enjoyment include diving deeper into each student and understanding how to help them and open doors of opportunities for them. Additionally, the board examines data such as marking period grades, college acceptances, college decisions and student motivation behind college decisions, and AP course engagement and course load. This information is used to improve the courses and student life at UPA to reach the ultimate goal of college preparation. 

Constantly monitoring data and student performance has paid off as UPA has been recognized in the top 200 high schools in the nation. 

 “Over the years, we have become a well regarded school due to outstanding student performance and students and families promoting UPA,” Westerhoff said.

Since UPA is now a much larger school, Westerhoff is working on how to better communicate and connect with students, paying attention to reaching larger amounts of students. Along with a larger population, the UPA community has grown and thus there is more involvement of parents and students, and a growth in one area: financial aid.

“The number one topic that brings students to my office is financial aid, which usually comes up after the college application deadlines,” Westerhoff said. “Conversations about financial aid have improved and increased.”

One of the most valuable services Westerhoff offers students and families helping them navigate the affordability challenges for college education. She does so in helping them explore options such as scholarships, grants and loans. 

“The last thing a student needs is to leave college with a large debt hanging over them,” Westerhoff said. “Weighing the many financial options is extremely important for many [students].”

Other frequent topics of questions for seniors include college readiness, which is the right school for each student and how to write personal statements and common app essays, to name a few. 

Westerhoff initially worked with freshmen and sophomores while previous counselor and AP English Language teacher Sandra Trotch worked with juniors and seniors. Following Trotch’s retirement, Westerhoff switched to counseling juniors and seniors. 

This transition was natural for her since she had connected well with them in their younger years. This is one aspect that she misses when working with the current juniors and sophomores, as she only had the opportunity to connect with them later on in their high school career. 

Westerhoff noted that she does not like to tell students what to do when they approach her for advice.

“I value the student’s opinion, and I don’t like to tell them what to do, it is up to them to drive the car, but I can assist them in this process,” Westerhoff said.

Over the years, her approach to counseling has stayed the same, but her knowledge on how to counsel students and the college admissions process has increased. However, she notes that the changing climate of college applications does affect the advice she gives to her students. 

“20 years ago, if a student came to me and said they wanted to get into UC Davis, for example, I would be able to tell them exactly what they need to do and if they followed through, they could get into that college,” Westerhoff said. “Now, however, the competition and the number of applicants has significantly increased, so it becomes more difficult to specifically pinpoint what a student needs to do to get in.”

Along with the increased competition and applicants, Westerhoff stated that student stress has increased considerably, coupled with parents’ expectations. 

“A handful of students come into my office and are stressed because students feel more obligated to their families and parents to get into prestigious institutions, which just puts an exuberant amount of pressure on the student,” Westerhoff said. 

The increased competition in California has brought the challenge of encouraging students to explore other lesser known colleges that are farther away from home, which is met with apprehension from students and parents. 

“Students are hesitant to apply to other colleges because they tend to ask, ‘Oh, but do I really want to be that far away from home and go to a lesser known university,’” Westerhoff said. “Students tend to forget about other colleges that do have openings and really good programs for their major, so one of our really big pieces is to encourage people to look a lot farther and explore more.”

Finally, Westerhoff’s favorite aspect of counseling is she learns from her students and always looks for how she can better help a student, especially in finding their niche and igniting their passion for a specific field or study. 

“What I learn from them all the time is the wonderful potential of each person, which makes them so unique,” Westerhoff said. “Being able to identify that potential and watch that student take control of their journey and path to success is so wonderful and rewarding.”