AVID (short for Advancement Via Individual Determination) is an elective course in Alexandria schools for grades 7 through 12 that equips students (most of whom will be the first in their families to go to college) with important college readiness skills.
AVID serves more than 425,000 students in 48 states and 16 countries. The 30-year-old program was introduced to ACPS about four years ago, and roughly 375 students are currently enrolled in it. The typical AVID student is in the academic middle and needs some additional attention and skills in order to master college-preparatory courses, to adopt a college-going mindset, and to succeed in college.
AVID is on my mind this week because I am one of a half-dozen AVID tutors at George Washington Middle School and this was our first week back in the classroom. For these GWMS students, AVID teacher Diane Duff wears many hats: She teaches them organizational and study skills, such as the Cornell note-taking method, which are part of the AVID curriculum; she brings in guest speakers, often first-generation college students, to talk about the challenges of adjusting to campus life and paying tuition bills; she incorporates important life skills into her classroom, such as good manners and a confident public-speaking voice; and she acts as an extra parent for students who need a listening ear, an encouraging smile, or a cup of hot chocolate.
Ms. Duff also organizes college visits for the students, and this is perhaps the most life-changing aspect of AVID. I once heard Secretary of Education Arne Duncan tell an audience that the single best way to lower the high-school drop-out rate is to take middle-school students on college tours—in order to give them a vision of what it would be like to attend college while they still have time to shape their record and prepare for college. For many of the 7th-grade AVID students at GWMS who go on the annual trip to Gettysburg College and the National Battlefield Park, it’s their first experience on a college campus; for some, it’s their first trip outside the metropolitan D.C. area.
The AVID tutorials are the last piece of the program; they make up 40% of AVID students’ classroom time and are where the tutors enter the picture. In a nutshell, during these tutorials, a small group of about five or six students share questions or problems from their core subjects that they need help with. As homework prior to class, they have filled out a worksheet to help them draw a bead on where they are confused. Through a process of asking questions (which is facilitated by the tutor), the students help each other find the solutions.
As you can imagine, this is asking a lot of middle-schoolers to learn this type of inquiry and collaboration (which are two of the five pillars of AVID along with writing, reading and organization). And yet by the time they head to the Minnie Howard campus of T.C. Williams, most of them have become proficient in the tutorial process; they are starting to move from just memorizing facts to drawing connections between what they are learning; and they are developing higher-level critical thinking skills.
High-school students in AVID also spend 40% of their time in tutorials; the remainder of their time they spend working on college applications and essays, filling out financial aid forms and pursuing scholarship opportunities. The individualized help that they get from the AVID teachers probably causes them to be more apt to apply to highly-selective colleges than they would otherwise be. Research has shown that good students from poor families are not likely to apply to elite colleges, even though if accepted their net cost (taking account of their financial aid package) might be less than it would be at a state school or community college. (http://www.npr.org/2013/01/09/168889785/elite-colleges-struggle-to-recruit-smart-low-income-kids)
AVID was one of the first major new initiatives of former superintendent Mort Sherman, who was seeking ways to address the widening achievement gap among ACPS students. After a one-year pilot period, the program has been in full-swing for the past three years, and the AVID students in the T.C. Williams Class of 2016 will be the first class to have had the full AVID experience from grade 7 through grade 12. The most recent data from the national AVID Center shows that 91% of AVID students completed their four-year college entrance requirements, compared with 36% of students in the U.S. overall. But we won’t know until our current sophomores are second-semester high school seniors—in other words, six years into the program—whether they are accepted into four-year colleges at a rate that exceeds their non-AVID peers.
That’s why AVID is a perfect example of how we should not expect reforms that are introduced into our schools to produce results overnight. Oftentimes, we toss school reforms out the window and label them as fads and failures before they have had a chance to take hold. (In a recent Washington Post article, retired T.C. Williams teacher Patrick Welsh seemingly takes a swing at virtually every innovation introduced into ACPS during his 40+ year career. Somehow, AVID managed to escape his ire. http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/four-decades-of-failed-school-reform/2013/09/27/dc9f2f34-2561-11e3-b75d-5b7f66349852_story.html)
AVID did receive very favorable mention in the Post recently, in a column by Jay Mathews. (http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/education/avid-college-prep-system-quietly-spreads-here/2013/09/22/3c5dc326-20a9-11e3-b73c-aab60bf735d0_story.html) In the article, Mathews calls AVID “as far as I can tell, the most effective college readiness program in the country.” At the end of the article, he invites readers who are familiar with AVID to tell him “what’s good and bad” about the program so that he can come to a more nuanced understanding, in preparation for writing a book about AVID.
My own biggest fear is that we will have done everything in our power to prepare our AVID students for the rigors of college-level work and to make sure that they are accepted at a college or university that is a good match for them, but that we won’t provide the necessary follow-up and intervention to ensure that they remain enrolled in college, succeed academically and graduate on time. For many of these students, if there’s a job loss or medical crisis in the family, dropping out of college in order to earn a wage is a clear-cut decision. But returning to school may be one challenge too great.
If you are confused about the new “No Student Drop-off” signs at T.C., you are not alone. The prohibition is only in effect weekdays from 8:00 to 8:30 a.m. and from 3:00 to 3:30 p.m. This is when buses and vans are unloading and loading special needs students, and extra traffic in the circle during those times would cause undue congestion. T.C. Principal Suzanne Maxey is working with the Alexandria Police Department to modify the signs.