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How-To: Develop as a Professional
The AVID program in Chapel Hill, NC Judy Jones


Throughout my many years of teaching, I have seen many educational programs and innovations come and go. Sometimes they have gone before I think they have been giving a fair chance at succeeding, but sometimes they are abandoned because they simply did not achieve the goals and dreams that were expected. About 10 years ago, another initiative was started in our school system – AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination). Many teachers were very skeptical – you get that way after a long time of seeing so many programs promising great outcomes and then fizzling away. But after a few years, a surprising thing happened. Teachers began to ask for AVID students in their classes. Our scores, grades and college acceptances, particularly for our minority students, began to slowly improve. And the enthusiasm began to grow for the AVID program.

AVID began more than 20 years ago in San Diego. It arose amidst the turmoil surrounding integration of the schools. A courageous English teacher, Mary Catherine Swanson, started a journey down a different pathway from the rest of the schools. The typical approach to integrating the white privileged high-achieving schools with schools that had high numbers of poor, immigrant students was to create remedial classes. The resultant “integrated” schools were, in fact, models of segregation – with white students tackling advanced and honors classes and the minority students taking low-level, slow-paced classes. This model is based on the presumption that poor and/or underprivileged students cannot achieve at high levels. It has always, in my mind, been an insidious reflection of some of our most destructive societal beliefs.

Mary Catherine Swanson certainly believed that every single student can learn and achieve at a high level. When the high-achieving white school where she was English Department Chair was planning the remedial classes for the approaching integration with an inner city school, she asked to put some of the expected students in advanced, college-level classes. Her principal agreed, if she would work with those students one period each day. And thus started a revolution. As with any revolution, the road was not easy. For those of you whose interest has been piqued by my short description, please read The Wall of Fame by Pulitzer Prize-Winning Jonathan Freedman. It is a lively description of the many roadblocks and frustrations that Mary Catherine had to face and overcome. But it is also a poignant look at the lives of her AVID students and the amazing courage and determination that they possessed that helped them overcome great obstacles and succeed beyond anyone’s expectations (except for theirs and Ms. Swanson’s, of course!). In Chapel Hill, an inspired and innovative teacher, Terry Greenlund, saw the potential of the AVID program to chip away at our achievement gap. And about 10 years ago, AVID became a part of our daily lives.

Description of Program
Students: The AVID program targets students who are in the middle. It is not intended to replace all programs for students who struggle. It is intended to take the students who have the potential to take advanced classes given the right kind of support. The program looks for students who have a sparkle of motivation and who can succeed in college. It also looks for students who will be the first in their family to attend college. I struggled with this focus, originally, because like many teachers, I want to save all children. But what I have seen is that by taking these “middle-of-the-road” students and helping them achieve excellence, we have changed the culture of our schools. Now we have a high-achieving population of minority students who set a tone for the rest of their peers. When I started teaching in Chapel Hill in 1984, I could not help noticing that our African-American students struggled with the attitude that “academic achievement is a white thing.” That attitude has almost disappeared, partly due to the AVID program and partly due to a change in teacher attitudes. It should be noted that the AVID program in Chapel Hill, although primarily populated with minority students (because that is the focus of our achievement gap statistics) is also open to any student who could use the structure, the instruction, and the motivation offered by the program. For example, in my senior class last year, I had 6 white students and 10 minority students. This year there are fewer white students, simply due to the needs of the population. The program is so popular that our own teachers often ask to have their students (white or minority) placed in the AVID class.

Structure: Our high school operates on a traditional schedule – six 55-minute classes per day. AVID students have one period each year that is their AVID class. So what do we do with the students in these classes? The weekly schedule consists of 2 AVID curriculum days, 2 tutorial days, and 1 motivational day – although certainly we modify this schedule occasionally as needed. The AVID curriculum varies from year to year, but generally, it consists of building vocabulary, grammar, writing, reading, speaking, and organizational skills. The tutorials are designed to build a collaborative approach to learning. Ideally, students are working together to help each other answer high level questions about their subjects. (Tutorials require regular, trained tutors and we still struggle to get these tutors.) And motivational days are used for speakers, scrabble and chess games, and class discussions about what the students are experiencing in their classes and in life. Part of the AVID program involves regular binder checks – students are expected to maintain one big binder with all of their papers organized in a particular way. Consistently, we emphasize with the students one of the major tenants of the AVID program, the “individual determination” piece. AVID is not intended to be a “crutch” for students. It is intended to help them “grow their wings” and fly into life – equipped with motivation, skills and knowledge that they have internalized.

In addition to the classroom activities, AVID students are expected to attend college information nights and SAT review courses that our system provides. They take the PSAT and SAT frequently and work hard to improve their scores so that by senior year, they are competitive. (We pay for these tests, if students need the help.) Our students are also taken on college visits at least twice each year. These visits build enthusiasm and hope for the college adventure. Whereas most of our white students (who come from families where both parents are college-graduates) take going to college for granted, our minority students (many of whom will be the first to go to college in their families) are scared and nervous about the process. They need a great deal of support and encouragement. And they need the chance to become familiar with college campuses and environments.

As I have said, in Chapel Hill, we have seen an improvement in scores and achievement of our students. More minority students are taking advanced and AP classes. SAT scores have improved for minority students, probably as a result of the SAT prep classes and as a result of taking more challenging courses. Certainly, we have seen an improvement in our minority student engagement. In addition, I have seen a shift in teachers – from sadly accepting the achievement gap to working hard toward eliminating it. Of course AVID is not the only initiative in our district that had accomplished these changes. However, it is certainly one of the important efforts. For more information about achievement in our school system, you can go to our school website: http://chccs.k12.nc.us

As a concluding thought – I have always been interested in efforts to improve student achievement for all students. I was pleased to be asked to become one of the AVID teachers. The rewards have been many in the two short years that I have been teaching these students. I encourage you to look for new challenges. It is the excitement of new learning and experiences that keep teaching a creative and enticing profession!

Read a practical application of the AVID Program.

Please share your ideas with me  via e-mail.

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