Giving students a little nudge toward college

U.S. educators converge at Pikesville to learn about AVID program

October 27, 2006|By Gina Davis | Gina Davis,SUN REPORTER

Pikesville High School junior Marcia Mellinger has evolved from a painfully shy C student to one who has a high B average and is involved in a half-dozen extracurricular activities. Senior Brandon Walker was earning A's in the school's standard courses, but with a bit of a nudge he was persuaded to take more-challenging courses.

"I wanted to go to college, but I wasn't doing what it would take to get into college," Walker, who now takes honors, gifted-and-talented and Advanced Placement classes, said yesterday in the school's library.

Mellinger and Walker said their academic turnaround is the result of a college-prep program aimed at students "in the middle" who, educators say, are capable of doing more-challenging work but need more resources, such as tutoring and organizational skills, to reach their academic potential. Yesterday, nearly 30 educators from several states came to learn from Baltimore County's experience as they prepare to launch the Advancement Via Individual Determination program in their school districts.

The training session at Pikesville High allowed the educators, who are district directors for the program in school systems as far away as Arizona, to observe classroom teaching methods such as the Socratic method and hear from students about how the program has helped them.

AVID, founded by an English teacher in 1980 at a San Diego high school, is offered in more than 2,700 middle and high schools in 39 states and the District of Columbia across 15 countries, according to the program's Web site. More than 40,000 AVID students have graduated from high school and more than 90 percent of them have gone on to college, the site says.

In addition to taking more-advanced classes, students in AVID have one period a day devoted to learning organizational and study skills, improving their critical thinking and tutoring. The program also includes field trips to college campuses.

Baltimore County began offering AVID in 2002 at six high schools with 32 students and is spending $1.1 million this school year on a program that has been expanded to 1,117 students at 20 high schools, including Dundalk, Catonsville, Owings Mills and Loch Raven, local officials said. The plan is to offer the program at each of the county's 24 high schools next school year.

The bulk of the funding, which comes from the district's operating budget, covers teacher training and professional development, as well as curriculum materials, such as textbooks and manuals, according to Jessie Douglas, the AVID director for Baltimore County schools.

Already, the investment is paying off, Douglas said as she pointed out that 98 percent of the 113 students who graduated in May as part of the county's first AVID class enrolled in college.

"We go after the students who might not have thought of college or they have real limited information on how to prepare for college," said Douglas, who stressed that enrollment is voluntary.

Many of AVID's participants come from lower-income households or will be the first in their families to attend college. Douglas said she couldn't quantify the percentage of the first graduating class that might not have otherwise chosen college, but she is convinced that the program steered them in that direction.

"It's all about giving them the opportunity to have the possibility to fill the dream of going to college," she said.

Douglas said funding constraints limit the program's growth to one class of 25 to 30 students at each high school each year, but her goal is to offer AVID to all high-schoolers. Meanwhile, all middle and high school teachers have been instructed to incorporate the program's lessons on organizational and study skills into their classes.

Judy Berkowitz, AVID district director for the Boston Public School System, wanted to know how Baltimore County school officials ensured that students were choosing AVID and not feeling pressured to do so.

"Kids will make a choice by what their friends are doing," said Berkowitz, who taught middle school English for 31 years in Boston.

Douglas and other local AVID coordinators said they manage the selection process by requiring students to write essays explaining their interests in the program, sitting for an interview and signing a contract that expresses their commitment. The coordinators also take recommendations from middle school guidance counselors on which students would benefit most.

Mellinger said the program has made her less fearful to seek help and has shown her that she had the potential to do better.

"AVID is not necessarily a miracle class," she said. "It brings out of you what has always been there."

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