By Rob Gira, Executive Vice President, AVID Center
I’m always looking for districts that have a coherent approach to providing rigorous opportunities for all students and a plan for supporting those opportunities. Some districts leave this effort to the discretion of the sites, and even to individual teachers. That is not the case in Boise, Idaho, where I found a superintendent, Dr. Don Coberly, and area director, Dr. Stacie Curry (she also oversees AVID), making sure that the district leverages AVID’s support with the wealth of opportunities provided through AP® courses. I also found a district with a strategic plan that explicitly calls out both AP and AVID in support of their key imperatives. The district’s vision, as stated in their plan, is “to graduate each student prepared for college, career, and citizenship.”
In conversations with Coberly and Curry, I learned quite a bit about the city and the district. The city of Boise has over 200,000 residents, with more than 33 percent possessing at least a Bachelor’s degree. Major businesses include software, environmental technology, energy, and high tech manufacturing. The school district is the second largest in the state, with 45 schools serving more than 25,000 students who speak 92 languages. More than 47percent of the students in the district are eligible for free or reduced price lunches, a seven percent increase since 2002.
AVID has been implemented in Boise since 2006, when Stacie Curry, a California transplant, introduced AVID to Coberly and the district. All of the district’s secondary sites feature AVID, with the first graduates in 2011. In reviewing the district’s longitudinal AP data, I noticed that the number of exams taken since 2002 has increased from about 1,000 to almost 3,500, with no appreciable drop in scores.
I wanted to know how Boise has accomplished the AP and AVID scale-up and also wanted to know what the impact has been on staff, students, and the community. Coberly, who is a district graduate and former principal, has the historical perspective, as well as a vision for the future. Curry, a former principal and assistant superintendent in California as well as Boise principal, implements the district’s AVID professional development efforts to support acceleration.
Gira: How have you instituted systems so that teachers, administrators, and students all understand the mission and vision of your district?
Coberly: In terms of strategic plans we’ve put together in the last 20 years, this one had the best publicity and we make sure our principals are referencing it. Two years ago, we ran a $14 million levy, which passed by a 71 to 29 percent margin. We used college and career readiness as one of the driving forces to speak with the community.
The rhetoric on public education these days is negative, but while this may be the case in some areas in the country, it is far from the case in Boise. We talk about AVID as part of the process. Experience taught us how important communication is with your constituents. Messages from the levy resonated not only with parents, but also with kids. With our staff, special emphasis is placed on referencing the strategic plan. Any time we interact and meet, we always develop our “why” thought process: why we do what we do, and how it relates to the strategic plan. We keep the strategic plan as a “living” document.
Stacie Curry, our AVID District Director, and others conducted focus groups at all of the high schools. The kids had gotten the message, that this plan is an historic commitment to success for all kids. To give you a perspective on our approach to AP, in 2002, as we were beginning to scale up, we looked at the past rankings on the AP Challenge List, and we discovered Bellevue, Washington. We saw all their high schools on the list. Certainly, we have different demographics, with almost half of our students on free and reduced lunch, compared to a much lower rate in Bellevue, but we didn’t let that stop us. Now, all four of our high schools are on the list.
Gira: What have you done to support teachers and administrators so they are not overwhelmed by the district's ambitious efforts?
Curry: We always start with “why” before we get into the “how” of professional development. We do tons of professional development, but need to tie it together. For example, with the Common Core, we set out a plan. Then, we trained some of our staff in AVID’s critical reading strategies. When our staff goes to training, we tell them that they are there to learn how to address Common Core, but we use AVID strategies. As part of their training, we also have our teachers going into AVID elective classes, to observe tutorials, so they can see higher level questions in action.
Coberly: Interestingly, we recently had a presentation at a board meeting about Finland and their coordinated effort as far as professional development. Their philosophy is similar to what we’ve implemented over the last decade. The value of teachers working together to solve problems has been huge.
Curry: We haven’t been afraid to extend training and let teachers try out the practices and then debrief. Some teachers don’t want to be out of class, but over the last few years, they see the value of working together.
Gira: How have you built a culture of college and career readiness for all students?
Coberly: We originally formed the goal based on schools on the Washington Post list (e.g. Bellevue). So, we provide teachers with the necessary resources to transition. We have also changed our culture to one where everyone can do it. The next step in our strategic plan is to encompass this attitude entirely.
Curry: From day one, we believed we can have AP and rigor in non-traditional high schools, where all students can have the opportunity and support. For the last four years, our foundation director, Jennifer Henderson, has been supporting the college and career readiness aspect with AVID. There is a large endowment of scholarships this fall, totaling $100,000 for AVID students. We are intentional with building and maintaining a culture of college and career readiness.
Gira: One of your district’s ambitious goals is to have every graduate taking at least one AP exam by graduation. What motivates you to do this, and how will you accomplish it?
Coberly: For our AVID students, it’s a requirement to take at least one AP class and most take multiple classes. For our next strategic plan, we would like to incorporate this goal for ALL students. For students in the AVID elective, there are high expectations for success. Across our district, we are now offering a large range of AP courses, up to 26 at each high school. Our plan is intentional in moving AP courses downward into the lower grades, and we are looking to include non-traditional students more often in rigorous courses. AP Human Geography, for example, is a new course we have introduced at the earlier high school grades.
Gira: How are you leveraging AVID across your district? What results are you getting from this?
Curry: We are into our fourth year of offering AVID’s Path content trainings. If we hire new teachers in, say, mathematics, they attend AVID’s math training. The structure we use for this is to spread the training out across a semester. We encourage teachers to try out the strategies and they are seeing better results. Now, we are offering both math and science AVID trainings, and we have opened them up to grades 4-12, to see what kind of results we will get. It is amazing to see a fourth grade teacher and a high school AP teacher discussing what constitutes rigor.
Gira: You are following your district’s graduates via the National Student Clearinghouse. What have you learned from this effort, and how are you applying the data?
Coberly: We’ve learned a lot. We discovered NSC about five years ago. We first used it to study a couple of graduating classes. Now, we’re within a year of having six years of data, following our graduates. For our AVID students, it has given us confirmation about their success. Their freshman-to-sophomore retention is impressive, as we discovered that 85 to 90 percent were returning for their sophomore year. NSC has also told us about our AVID students actually enrolling directly in college or university after high school, a figure of 85 percent for last year’s grads. We’ve also been able to track the diverse colleges and universities they are attending.
Gira: AVID students in your district, mostly low-income, first-generation college goers, are performing well on AP exams. What explanation do you have for this?
Coberly: Our district high schools have always done a good job in their commitment to training AP teachers, even before we brought AVID to the district. By making AVID’s Path content training accessible to them, we have been able to train more teachers. They value the integrated effort and see the importance of access. Of course, our AVID elective teachers are very strong and AP is expected for AVID students. We are looking for online support for students to augment the AVID tutorial.
Gira: What advice do you have for districts that want to accelerate college and career readiness?
Coberly: I would stress a couple of things. First, strengthen your AP offerings overall and provide AP courses outside the core. Start the work in elementary and work forward. Also, be patient and let the process work. Additionally, school districts have to get better at messaging with their communities, such as using social media to interact with them, to get the word out so they understand why we are making this strong push. We need to communicate and get the word out and share enough so that people get our “why.” The social media platforms we use include Twitter, Constant Contact, and use of a community relations committee composed of district patrons who are social media savvy. We have email lists that have been broken down to target certain audiences.
Curry: I would also suggest using data to break it down and pinpoint areas of improvement. Then, create a strategic plan to resolve issues. I found the book Say It and Live It to be something of an example, illustrating how companies evolve and live with their mission to be successful.