By Kristen Behrens, English and AVID Teacher, Mundelein High School
At Mundelein High School, we host four Parent University Nights per year. This year, one evening in particular stood out to me. I was charged with educating parents on the nuances of the FAFSA, scholarship opportunities, and how to interpret a financial aid award letter. The response was stunning. I quickly realized that AVID parents and students are gripped by fear when it comes to the idea of taking out student loans for college. Parents literally created a line down my classroom’s hallway after the meeting, and I stayed in my classroom to privately talk each family off the ledge until 8:30 p.m. that night. Their financial woes were sobering, and I quickly realized that I needed an action plan to make parents realize how hard their students have worked, and that they are worthy of attending a four-year institution right after high school—even if loans do, in fact, need to be considered.
As a positive response to this terror, I decided to start tracking students’ scholarship packages, and the work has paid off. I’m an English teacher by trade, so if I can do it, anyone can. First, I required all students to bring in copies of their acceptance packages, and from there, I made copies of each acceptance letter. Every single acceptance letter that has been given to me now hangs on one of my three bulletin boards in my classroom, and I’ve found that AVID students, non-AVID students, and staff often stop and stare with awe. Next, I created a spreadsheet in Excel, and every time that a student was awarded a scholarship or grant, I entered each award into the spreadsheet. As of this minute, our students have been offered a whopping $2,141,464. Will they cash all of that in? No. After all, students in my class were required to apply to five schools, and my students will, sadly, only go to one higher institution of learning next year. Does it matter that students will not cash all of that in? No. They worked hard for every single dollar, and as first-generation college students, they deserve to be celebrated.
Beyond that, I used our Twitter account, @MundeleinAVID, to tweet to each college and university in thanks for the scholarship designations and used our school’s hashtag "#mundypride" every single time that students came to class with an award. Oftentimes, we received a positive response, which we used as a launching pad for further discussions. Let me just say, if your school allows you to use social media, use it. Using Twitter has been transformative for our class this year. Not only are we sending out positive publicity about our AVID efforts, we are also getting our name out to the community in an easy-to-access, affirming way. Our twitter feed speaks a resounding message: Mundelein High School’s AVID program, along with a heaping dose of grit, works. We may only have 68 followers, but connecting with AVID’s official Twitter by including their @AVID4College handle and our school’s hashtag in tweets has certainly helped to create a positive buzz.
As a first-year senior AVID Elective teacher, I clearly had no idea what I was getting myself into when I created our plan to fight back against the fear. At first, my class of 27 students and I decided that we would attempt to hit $1 million in scholarship money. We hit that number on December 8, 2014. So, in order to keep the momentum going, we aimed for $2 million, and we exceeded that goal by February 13, 2015. As of right now, we are heading toward $2.5 million, and I can’t wait to hit that mark. I have total faith that they will, too. In terms of classroom celebrations, each student gets a hearty round of applause from their peers and tutors each time that they receive a scholarship, and I create quarterly awards for the top five students that have been awarded the most scholarship money. However, the satisfaction and pure delight that students feel as they run to my desk with a scholarship package is the best reward of all, and I am over the moon with pride for each and every one of them.
Kristen Behrens teaches English, Reading, and AVID at Mundelein High School, which is located in a northern suburb of Chicago. Kristen is in her 9th year of teaching, and she has taught at-risk students, as well as honors-level learners—but no class has been as transformative as her first AVID class, which she is teaching this year. Kristen holds bachelor’s degrees from the University of Iowa in English and Secondary Education, and master’s degrees from Northern Illinois University in Educational Leadership and Literacy Education (reading). When she’s not teaching, she loves playing Scrabble, swimming laps, and spending time traveling with her husband, Mike.
You can learn more about AVID on avid.org.