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Sink or Swim: AVID Students in Advanced Programs

By Linda Powell-McMillan, National Director Program Development

As an AP® Biology teacher, I told my eager yet apprehensive students that they were leaving behind the security of high school curriculum and entering the challenging environment of a college level course when they chose to take this course.  The expectations would be high:  taking personal responsibility for the completion of assignments, taking the AP exam at the end of the course, grading based on lab reports and exams, being present for extra study sessions and extended laboratories, and basically acting like a college student as they stepped across the threshold of my lab each day.  I expected (but did not check) students to take notes.  I expected them to study for preliminary exams.  I expected them to participate in study sessions offered to coach them to be better technical writers and exam takers.  I did not collect homework, though much was assigned.  I did not grade their participation in labs, only their lab reports.  I expected the students to read all the text outlined in the syllabus.  In so many ways, I tried to replicate the expectations and environment of a college level science course.

When I started teaching the AVID Elective, I asked all my AVID students to take at least one Advanced Placement course before they graduated. I realized there would be academic challenges if other teachers of AP courses had expectations similar to my own.  My class of 30 students started in AVID at the 9th grade without benefit of learning WICOR strategies in middle school.  I had a long way to go in preparing these AVID students to meet the challenges and expectations of other AP teachers.  I was not about to throw them into the deep end and allow them to either sink or swim through the rigorous waters of Advanced Placement.

Too often districts and schools open access for “all” students to advanced courses and expect the students to either sink or swim without the benefits of life rafts of support like those provided by AVID.  To be successful academically in advanced courses, students need to learn strategies for attacking and reading complex textbooks.  They need a method for effectively taking, reviewing, and studying notes.  They need to be supported in efforts to take responsibility for completing homework and class assignments.  They need a safe place to study in groups, to talk through complex ideas, to resolve difficult questions and to come to their own understanding.  They need practice writing in different genres.  They need strategies for approaching teachers with unanswered questions and to get explanations for ideas presented in class that make no sense to them.  All of these strategies can be gleaned from actively participating in the AVID Elective class.  The WICOR strategies need to be learned and practiced (for years) before students attempt an advanced course.  The supports need to continue while the AVID students are taking advanced courses so that they have a place to get help and continue practicing.  We want them to be expert swimmers in the advanced class environment.

I realized my AVID students, if they were not supported, would indeed sink.  I also realized they might not swim strongly if expected to carry three to four advanced classes in a single semester.  If they had not had the experience of high expectations in past classes, they could drown when presented with a full roster of advanced classes.  They needed to be successful in at least one course before they took multiple advanced courses.  I tried to identify those courses where they had high interest and high capacity for success.  I wish I had had access to the information now provided by the College Board’s AP Potential.  After students take the PSAT, this tool outlines information about AP courses students could be successful in taking.  If I had had this tool, I would have been able to direct my students toward courses where they could expect (with lots of hard work) to be academically successful.

There are barriers that make participation in AVID difficult when taking other advanced classes.  There are often not enough periods in the day for students to take all the classes they desire.  There are requirements as outlined by International Baccalaureate and Cambridge diploma programs that leave no room in the student schedule for the AVID Elective.  There continues to be system barriers of prerequisites, graduation mandates, and class size requirements as well as cultural barriers designating who should and should not be allowed to take advanced courses.  In a perfect world of public education, these barriers might disappear but in the end students need life rafts of support to be successful academically.  AVID provides these needed life rafts and creates great swimmers in the advanced course environment.

There are schools and districts in the AVID world who have successfully integrated AVID as the support system for students in Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate, and Cambridge courses.  I am gathering a database of these schools that will be posted on MyAVID.  If other schools are interested in how to bring these programs successfully together, they will have a resource.  If you know of schools that should be included on this database or if you are a school/district interested in finding out who to talk to about this integration, you can contact me at: [email protected].

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