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Riverside 25th Anniversary: They Said It Couldn’t Be Done 

by Mary Catherine Swanson, AVID Founder

On January 6th I had the privilege of attending the AVID 25th anniversary celebration at Ramona High School in the Riverside Unified School District in California.  This inspirational gathering was significant in several ways.

Developing a Structure for AVID Dissemination

In 1987 a Riverside District administrator heard me speak about AVID at an English Conference and returned to her district asking that they research the program.  A small bus arrived at Clairemont High School (AVID’s home) filled with administrators and teachers.  They carefully studied the curriculum and spoke with students.  At the conclusion of the visit, they commented that surely I had mentally gifted students enrolled to which I commented that San Diego District administrators had leveled the same charge, and so I had invited them to individually test the AVID students on the district-mandated IQ tests for gifted program qualification.  AVID students’ IQs averaged 102.  The observation that had prompted the accusation was a discussion students were having regarding essays they had written to a practice Advanced Placement English prompt – the kinds of observations and questions most often heard in Advanced Placement classes.

Soon I was to receive a call from the secretary to the Riverside Board of Education asking that I present AVID to them.  For me, this was a real dilemma.  At the time, I was working for the San Diego County Office of Education whose funding and state charter required that work be implemented within San Diego County, not in Riverside County.  I took a vacation day and drove to Riverside.  The Board president said that the AVID statistics were too good to be true.  Board member Maxine Frost said, “We need this program.  Give Mary Catherine a chance.”  Frost was later to become president of the National Schools Board Association and told everyone she met about AVID.

Now I had to figure out a way to serve a district not in the San Diego area.  I offered that teachers and administrators could attend San Diego County trainings which they did, and I took more vacation days to work in Riverside to set up the structure for implementing AVID.  The significance of this venture was that I developed a support structure for districts at a distance to adopt AVID – the structure which has allowed AVID to function throughout the United States and overseas.

Turning Around a School

Riverside began AVID at Ramona High School in 1988 – one teacher, one class section.  That year the school graduated 325 students and schoolwide three percent went to college.  The school was 68 percent white; nine percent of the students qualified for aid to families with dependent children and five percent were English learners.  Ramona offered one Advanced Placement class. Beginning in 1988, each year Ramona added a class section of AVID and additional teachers.  They devoted a counselor to the program, and the district supported the costs of tutors and professional development.

Fast forward to 2012.  Ramona High School is composed of 84 percent underrepresented minorities and 79 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced lunches.  Fifty-three percent of the students are English learners.  Twenty-six percent of the student body is enrolled in AVID (more than 500 students), and the schoolwide college going rate is 28 percent.  There are 17 Advanced Placement classes whose enrollment is 85 percent AVID students.  Ninety-eight percent of the AVID students receive acceptances to four year colleges, and 99 percent enroll in college.  Ramona regularly sends AVID students to MIT.  More than 1,700 students have graduated from Ramona’s AVID program.  Ramona has more Dell and Gates scholars than any school in the nation.

In 2005 Newsweek Magazine named Ramona High School as one of the 800 best high schools in the nation and the AVID Center in 2010 named Ramona one of the five top superstar AVID schools in the nation.  Ramona has been an AVID Demonstration School for 19 consecutive years.

Over 25 years, Ramona High School has become filled with students who society and our school systems expect not to succeed, but each year Ramona has gotten stronger and stronger.  They have done it through the dedication of the school board, administration, teachers, and students – the school where everyone said it couldn’t be done.

Student Stories

As always, as I made my remarks at the anniversary celebration, I told stories of my original AVID students who are now in their 40s and have succeeded way beyond what anyone believed was possible.  I closed by saying that Ramona now had their stories to share, and did they!

Francisco told of illegally fleeing Mexico with his mother when he was five years old, crawling through brush on the American side of the border and being strafed by “mosquitoes” – helicopters.  He was frightened and could not understand why they were leaving their father.  When he entered school, children made fun of him because he couldn’t speak English.  He began AVID in middle school and started the process to become documented, but that took forever and didn’t occur by the time he was ready for college – UCLA.  But Francisco was determined, and although he had to pay out-of-state tuition because he was an undocumented student, he worked at restaurants, walked dogs, and delivered newspapers to pay for his college education.  Today he is a UCLA graduate with no debt and studying to go to medical school, and he finally has his first set of papers making him legal.

Yolanda spoke about how AVID had given her her identification and she vowed to become an AVID teacher.  She chose to enroll at the local University of California campus so she could hurry back to Ramona to tutor AVID students and learn from its teachers.  Today she teaches AVID at Ramona and cannot imagine doing anything else.

Several years ago the school board member, Maxine Frost, who insisted on giving Ramona a chance to implement AVID died of lung cancer, but not before the AVID students visited her in her hospital bed with a huge sign saying, “Thank you for bringing AVID to us!”

Over and over as I listened to the stories of the students and teachers (Ramona has never lost an AVID teacher in 25 years!) I heard about their individual determination – the determination of a school board, administrators, teachers, and students.  And as Ramona’s student body diversified, the school improved – impossible they said.  It is not that we don’t know what needs to be done to allow all students to succeed; the question is if we have the individual determination to do the work.

And so as we ponder our New Year’s resolutions, let’s have the determination to bring good education to every school in America, even if they say it can’t be done.  Our reward will be that in just a few years we can be as proud of our accomplishments as folks are at Ramona High School; and as the stories of our students echo in our heads, we will feel blessed to be working in school districts where our students have futures of hope and promise.

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