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Q&A Corner: AVID CEO, Sandy Husk

This interview originally appeared as part of the America’s Promise Alliance Q&A Corner series.

When America’s Promise Alliance’s Evelyne Santiago first interacted with AVID, she was a student at Santa Monica High School, where AVID played a prominent role in her ability to attend college. Dr. Sandy Husk has been the CEO of Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID) since January 2014. Recently, Evelyne was able to ask Dr. Husk a few questions about herself, her work, and AVID at the last Alliance Trustees’ meeting.

Evelyne Santiago (ES): You’ve held several positions in the education sector including teacher, counselor, principal and superintendent. What have you learned from each of these roles?

Dr. Sandy Husk (SH): As a teacher, I learned the need for patience, creativity, and the enduring belief in the potential of children to learn. Yes, I had days when I didn’t see progress, because the evidence is often gradual. There’s not a “quick fix.” To gain encouragement, occasionally you have to step back and see the whole year. I also learned that to teach to multiple standards, a teacher must combine, connect, and even juggle, and must never forget that we aren’t just teaching a subject, we are teaching children.

As a counselor, I saw that highly conscientious school counselors experience great stress and strain because they want to meet the needs of the students and families they serve. We witness tragedy, abuse and loss, all of which can consume us, unless we find ways to renew ourselves with optimism and hope. It is critical that counselors have a solid base of support from their friends, family and community. I was fortunate that I had a support system at home and the ability to focus on what made me happy as I served others.

Evelyne Santiago is a former AVID Elective student who now works for America's Promise Alliance.

As far as the principalship, it is one of the most rewarding and even joyous positions in education. I experienced such a great sense of community and felt an ability to impact that community in a positive way. During my workday, I often didn’t know what to expect next. But I loved resolving conflicts, planning strategically, and working side by side with teachers in the classroom. I learned that it is imperative for principals to integrate themselves into the community where their students live. Making home visits, attending community and sporting events, working with non-profits—these are all interactive and meaningful ways to gain enjoyment from the work.

I loved being a superintendent. I loved building relationships with my cabinet, with the board, and with community members, faith-based organizations and political leaders. Being a great leader requires both art and science, and for superintendents you must add patience. I discovered that a lot of people think they know how to run schools because they have attended school. Honoring their opinions and seeing multiple perspectives, while maintaining your leadership and putting children first, requires grit and tolerance at the same time. Ron Heifetz, a great thinker and writer on leadership, says that you must be able to stay “in the game” while occasionally moving to the bleachers to broaden your perspective. I try to follow that advice every day.

In all of these positions, I learned that you are only a great leader when you work with a great team. Building that team, focusing on relationships and listening carefully to the ideas and feelings of others will serve you well in any educational role.

ES: AVID maintains the philosophy that by holding students accountable to the highest standards, they will rise to the challenge. What does that look like in a typical AVID classroom?

SH: It is true that we have held AVID students to the highest college readiness standards for nearly 35 years through a combination of rigor and support. First of all, the typical middle or high school AVID Elective class—and we have nearly 15,000 of these nationally—features a highly trained AVID teacher who is a pedagogical expert and child advocate. This teacher facilitates learning using our strategies for writing, inquiry, collaboration, organization, and reading, which we call WICOR. AVID Elective students become adept at academic behaviors gained from these strategies. In short, they take excellent notes, ask good questions, work well together, stay well organized and read in depth.

Most of these AVID Elective students, about 500,000 at last count, are the first in their families to have any opportunity to attend a college or university. Additionally, in many of their homes English is not the first language. Yet they are completing four-year college entrance requirements at a rate of 90 percent.
The typical AVID Elective class also features college tutors who facilitate deep learning sessions based on high-level questions. The tutors don’t give answers; they guide and empower students to own their own learning. AVID students are accountable every day to prepare for college success. They are accountable to their teacher, their tutors and to their peers. Most of us in the AVID community have heard hosts of people say that the AVID Elective class operates the way every class should function: high levels of student engagement, clear expectations around rigorous experiences, and a powerful and positive peer influence.

Speaking of positive peer influence, part of the genius of AVID’s founder, Mary Catherine Swanson, is that she recognized the power of the peer group for teachers as well, and insisted that an interdisciplinary site team that includes all content areas, administrators and counselors, focuses on removing barriers and increasing college access. We still certify our sites based in part on the functionality of the site team.

ES: AVID was developed in 1980. How has AVID adapted, given changes in the classroom, college application process, and technology in general?

SH: First of all, colleges and universities have become more competitive. It is flat out tougher for high school grads to get accepted to the college of their choice. Thus, for our AVID students, we have become more insistent that they take AP, IB, and dual-enrollment courses. This gives them an extra edge.

As far as the college application process, we are also extremely vigilant in having our students complete the FAFSA. Financial literacy has become more important to our students, and making the right college choice is critical. In the AVID Elective class, we have continued to refine our materials and our teaching strategy. One of the major shifts for us has been working on the AVID tutorial so that there is more student ownership of the tutorial process and preparation in advance of tutorial sessions.

Where technology is concerned, this is one of our key imperatives. We are in the early stages of developing apps and portals to serve and support students and their families and we’re excited to see where that goes, though we are a long way from completion. We do see many AVID teachers and site teams, and sometimes whole campuses, working with their students to use their devices—phones or tablets—to better access college-readiness strategies.

ES: Where do you see AVID in 10 years?

SH: We hope that AVID will continue to be the national model for professional learning. We want all children to be able to access education after high school and we believe that this can be achieved in our nation.

ES: You are about to complete your first year as the CEO of AVID. What has been the best part so far?

SH: Experiencing an AVID Summer Institute. Our Summer Institutes are one of the primary locations for our world-class professional learning. I was able to attend 6 of the 10 that we offered this past summer. What I love about the Institutes, is watching current educators (teachers and principals) who are also AVID professional developers, lead their colleagues—28,000 of them, over the course of the whole summer—through workshops that we call strands.

Of course, the highlight of each Institute is at the general session where select AVID students tell their stories. The toughest thing I do is follow these amazing student speakers up on the stage. The emotions from them, their families, teachers and the conference attendees creates a feeling that energizes and motivates us all. I am very proud and humbled to be in the position of serving as the leader for AVID.


Evelyne Santiago is a member of the Alliance Engagement team at America’s Promise Alliance since July 2014. Prior to joining APA she served two years as an AmeriCorps member with City Year Los Angeles, working with 9th and 10th grade students in the Pico Union/Westlake neighborhood of the city. Currently, she is completing her Masters in Public Administration from the University of Southern California. Evelyne was part of the AVID class of 2008 at Santa Monica High School. She credits her ability to successfully apply and enroll in college to the guidance and support of her AVID teacher and cohort.

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