A boost for the middle of the learning curve

Earning good grades in middle school didn't take much work for Kason Washington. He assumed high school would be "a joke," too. "I thought I'd get straight As, but then I realized it was difficult," he says.

Now a senior at Parkville High School in Baltimore County, Md., he's been pushed to work harder than he ever would have imagined. That's because in his freshman year, a teacher invited him into a program called AVID - Advancement Via Individual Determination. In place at more than 2,000 middle schools and high schools nationwide, it puts students with average to low grades on a path toward college. AVID challenges them with harder courses while providing the support of a familylike atmosphere and a range of study skills.

This spring, the first set of AVID seniors will be graduating in Baltimore County. Out of 115 seniors, 98 percent have applied to college, and many have already received acceptances and scholarships, says Jesse Douglass, the county's AVID coordinator.

The program is an expanding component of the district's efforts to close achievement gaps. Currently in place at 15 high schools, it will be added to five more next year. Although many AVID students are from minority or low-income families, the program isn't targeted specifically at them. It's designed for students in the middle, those who are often invisible because they're not at the top but they're also not failing or causing trouble. It's primarily about closing the gap between students' potential and their performance.

During a national AVID conference at its headquarters in San Diego this March, Baltimore County Superintendent Joe Hairston gave one of the keynote speeches. His presentation showed that the nearly 800 AVID students in his district have higher attendance than the student body overall, higher pass rates on state tests, and higher participation rates in advanced courses and SATs. Nationally, 95 percent of AVID students go directly to college, most to four-year schools.

Here at Parkville, students use phrases like "tough love" and "boot camp" when recalling their initial experiences with AVID teachers. This year, Kason says, he tried to back out of his teacher's requirement that he take at least one Advanced Placement course, but she would have none of that, so he's muscling his way through AP Psychology.

"I wanted to go to college, but I thought I wouldn't be able to get out of high school," says Ezinne Chinemere, one of many AVID seniors who will soon be first-generation college students. "It's a lot of pressure... [because my family] didn't have that opportunity.... It's either go to college," she pauses dramatically, "or leave the house."

What prepares them to handle that pressure with grace is the AVID methodology, which spreads through the school after initial training for a team of AVID teachers. Students learn to take notes in all their classes and formulate questions on points that aren't clear. Teachers address the questions or have peer groups help one another. Finally, the students write in their own words what they've learned.

"When every teacher requires note-taking ... achievement goes up tremendously," says Mary Catherine Swanson, AVID's founder and executive director, in a phone interview. "It sounds so simple, and in many ways it is, but it's not a way most people teach."

Because AVID students in each grade also meet in a group every day, they form a family bond. "A teacher follows them all the way through ... and [the students] know they can talk not just about academia, but how they are doing in terms of achieving their goals," Dr. Douglass says.

AVID students also learn to lead peer tutorials, hold Socratic dialogues, and take field trips together to college campuses.

Katie Schmidt joined AVID as a 10th-grader after barely getting by the year before. "I would have said I wasn't smart, but that's not it," she says. She recalls exercises that developed her personal skills, like the "paper bag speech," where she had to bring in three objects and talk about why they were important to her. Now a senior, she's the opposite of the shy person she used to be. And as one of the white students in an AVID class that is largely African-American, she says it "breaks down barriers" and has given her a more diverse set of friends.

Michael Moore, a tall young man with dreadlocks and a charismatic smile, is Parkville's senior class president. He credits AVID with boosting his oratory and leadership skills. The program also does outreach to parents. But because Michael's mother has to work at night, he says, she's relieved that he's getting help with homework and applying for college. In the fall, he plans to start studying engineering at Florida A&M.

Ms. Swanson launched AVID in a school in San Diego 25 years ago and has watched it grow largely by word of mouth ever since. It's proof that students whom society sometimes writes off "can and will succeed when they are given academic rigor and a support structure," she says. But as she prepares to retire, she's frustrated that more students don't have such opportunities. "It should be the public school birthright for all kids. We have to do this very deeply and very systemically."

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