How AVID Helps Students "In the Middle" Get College-Ready

December 7, 2016

By Elizabeth Morgan, Director of External Relations

I recently had time to attack the pile of books on my bedside table, including “Question Everything: The Rise of AVID as America’s Largest College Readiness Program,” by award-winning education writer Jay Mathews. If you’ve wondered what AVID is all about, the book is an excellent explanation of the supports and benefits students receive from the program. For nonprofit leaders interested in organizational scale, the book also narrates AVID’s growth from one ninth-grade class at Clairemont High School in San Diego in 1980 to a movement serving 1.2 million students in 44 U.S. states and 16 other countries. Finally, Mathews makes a compelling case that the national debate about accountability standards, schools of choice, or competing curriculums has had little overall effect on educational outcomes, especially for students of average academic performance whose parents have not completed college. If we don’t find more ways to systematically help teachers improve classroom instruction and learning for those students, as AVID does, national reform strategies will remain irrelevant. (As it happens, AVID is hosting its national conference in Dallas this week.)

What does AVID do? Practically speaking, it’s a daily elective high school class where students get extra support so they can perform better in their academic subjects. AVID teaches or provides:

  • Organizational and time management skills
  • Note-taking instruction and monitoring (using the Cornell note-taking system)
  • Default or preferential enrollment into advanced academic classes (honors, AP, IB)
  • Twice-weekly tutoring from college students trained in an inquiry-based method (this is crucial and difficult -- tutors just ask students questions, never give them the answers!)
  • In-class college admission support (choosing extracurriculars, visiting colleges, writing essays, filling out forms)

This list may sound simple, or even easily replicated. As the book makes clear, however, these supports interact in exact, complex and profound ways to improve academic achievement, put students on the path to college, and change teachers’ beliefs about which students can handle advanced classes.

Public schools and districts make an explicit choice to partner with AVID and enter into an agreement that outlines how to implement AVID with fidelity and pay related expenses for curriculum and professional development. The largest expense, though, is the commitment to providing a teacher for each daily AVID class, and many schools have multiple sections of AVID per grade level.  

What else did Jay Mathews help me understand about AVID – one of NCAN’s largest members – and its value? First, teachers adore the program and say it transforms their teaching across the board, not just in the AVID classroom. Mathews quotes many teachers who love AVID’s curriculum and report that AVID’s professional development is the best they have ever experienced. For teachers who have struggled to help low-income students get ready for challenging work, it’s “what we have been waiting for,” as one superintendent said. No doubt this enthusiasm reflects the fact that AVID was built by teachers, not by outside “experts” advocating the reform du jour. “AVID teachers like the focus on preparing students for college rather than just raising state test scores, a numbers game they distrust,” Mathews observes.

Second, AVID is part of the school day, which means it is incorporated into students’ daily routine and academic experience. It’s not an additional expectation after school, on weekends, or in the summer. Unlike many out-of-school college access programs, AVID addresses students’ academic weaknesses and also provides college admission support. Additionally, it doesn’t require schools to make big changes in their operations: it will work with a block schedule or traditional schedule, an honors or an AP program, a year-round calendar or a nine-month calendar.

Third, AVID was developed specifically to address changing student demographics that are now sweeping our nation. In 1980, AVID founder and English teacher Mary Catherine Swanson watched a newly built high school drain away many of Clairemont High’s affluent white students, with low-income African American and Hispanic students bussed in to fill seats. “The plan seemed to be to shove the newcomers from South San Diego into remedial classes, Mathews writes. “Swanson thought that was a terrible idea.” Rather than perpetuating low expectations for the new students, Swanson committed to giving these students extra support specifically designed to improve their academic performance so they could succeed in college-preparatory work. Mathews also tells multiple stories about how AVID student performance has changed the thinking of teachers who were “gatekeepers” to advanced classes, who didn’t believe that “average” students deserved the opportunity or could handle the work. Such shifts in mindset are key to creating the holy grail of “college-going culture” for all, not just a privileged few.

Finally, AVID doesn’t rest on its laurels. Over 36 years, the organization has continued to evaluate, adapt, try new things, discard others, accept feedback, define what’s most important, and get better. AVID is also committed to growth and has developed models that serve elementary, middle and college students. To reach more students, AVID is presently focused on expanding in more large urban districts and on creating more “schoolwide impact” (that is, capitalizing on how the skills, habits and beliefs of AVID teachers and students can affect the experiences of the entire school’s students and teachers). If AVID sounds like something students in your school district could use, learn more.

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