AVID puts college in sight for the in-between students

Program targets group that is often ignored during high school years

May 29, 2002|By Stephanie Desmon | Stephanie Desmon,SUN STAFF

NEWPORT NEWS, Va. - Ishaam Collins was your basic disorganized, disheveled kid, not real interested in his schoolwork, content to slide through middle school and probably through high school, too.

Then he was given the dream, a dream he didn't know to have. He was, at the time, a run-of-the-mill seventh-grader from a family where high school was the educational summit. Ishaam, the dream said, you can go to college.

Now a junior at Heritage High School in this southeastern Virginia shipbuilding city, Ishaam is a year away from packing up for Old Dominion University or Norfolk State University, where he hopes to major in computer science and minor in music.

The dream - and the tools to make it come true - came from a program called AVID, an acronym for Advancement Via Individual Determination.

AVID is a class for students in the middle - between gifted programs for the most talented and remedial programs for those at the bottom. This is for those who try to skate through and keep their heads down, who don't push and aren't pushed.

The program, which has its eastern division center in Atlanta, gives students organizational, study and learning skills. It plots a course that leads to a high school diploma and an acceptance letter to college. And it supports them with teachers who play coach, cheerleader and surrogate parent, if need be, every step of the way.

"It helped me put my life in order," Ishaam said. "If the program hadn't come, I don't think I would have been this organized or be going to college. I think AVID should be in every school."

AVID, born out of Mary Catherine Swanson's English class in San Diego 22 years ago, is in 1,275 schools this year in 21 states. By fall, it will be in 1,500 schools, including eight new additions at high schools in Baltimore County, where officials hope it will boost faltering minority students. Teams of teachers from the county schools will be trained this summer and begin the program this fall, which has been used in two Anne Arundel County schools.

The statistics are impressive: Ninety-five percent of AVID seniors go to college, company officials said, 71 percent of them to four-year colleges. In Maryland last year, 44.6 percent of seniors went to four-year universities. Some of Newport News's AVID grads have gone to prestigious schools including Duke University, Howard University and the U.S. Naval Academy.

AVID forces students to take higher-level courses - 40 percent last year took advanced-placement courses, Swanson said, up from 5 percent five years ago. And these students are ready for college when they get there. Eighty percent stay.

"It's proven, it's documented," said Curtis J. Blakely Jr., assistant principal at Heritage High and a trainer of AVID teachers nationwide. Before the program, "The motivation hasn't been there. The thought process has been, `This is too hard for you, maybe you should take a lesser course.' AVID says, `Challenge that child.'

"It doesn't make any difference what subject it is - it has to do with methodology. What you're doing is you've put a vision in their head - at the end of the rainbow, college is at the end."

"The kinds of kids who benefit from AVID are bright but don't know how to be successful in the school system," Swanson said. "They're basically good kids who sit in the back of the class, don't cause trouble, get C-level grades and a year later, no one remembers they were there."

Where AVID is not successful, it's because schools have chosen to dump troublemakers or failures into it, officials say.

"Once you do this, you have really nullified the purpose of AVID," Blakely said. "You wouldn't put kids who are acting out in an honors class. Why would you stick him in AVID? It should be 60 kids who are willing to learn."

Time management and organization are the jumping-off point. Each AVID student is issued a three-ring binder. Inside, the student keeps notes for each class (taken in a certain way, based on principles out of Cornell University), a log of everything learned in each class each day, all grades and writing samples. The notebook is graded - random binder checks are a hallmark of Al Fleury's class at Heritage.

Then there is the academic push. Often, high school seniors consider college only to find the classes they have taken for the past four years make them ineligible. Not here.

They are often tutored by college students during their daily AVID class. They write down whatever questions they have from any of their subject areas - and discuss them with one another. They don't move on without an answer. Sometimes it's easier to understand when a classmate explains something, as opposed to the teacher.

All the while, college is the goal. In Fleury's class last week at Heritage High, a room lined with pennants from dozens of colleges and universities, the freshmen and sophomores gave PowerPoint presentations about colleges of their choice, with research gleaned from the Internet and through correspondence with the schools.

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