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AVID students stick with college, outpace peers

By Maureen Magee, Journalist, U-T San Diego

AVID Elective students participate in a Socratic seminar.This piece was first published by the U-T San Diego in January 2015.

For the past 35 years, the San Diego-based AVID program has built a national reputation for steering underserved students to college.

Turns out that AVID graduates — largely poor and minority students — go on to stay enrolled in college at rates that outpace their peers who did not participate in the program, according to new research.

The National Student Clearinghouse found that high school graduates from 2010 and 2011 who participated in AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination) persisted through their freshman and sophomore years of college at a higher rate than their counterparts who were not in the program. The research found that 87 percent of AVID graduates enrolled in a second year of college, compared to 77 percent of students overall.

“The report is nothing short of remarkable,” said AVID Center’s CEO Sandy Husk in announcing the results. “Considering that more than two-thirds of the AVID graduates are from low socio-economic backgrounds and minority populations, that AVID graduates outpaced their national cohorts in persisting in college is a testament to both the determination of the students and teachers, and the AVID strategies and skills.”

More than 5,000 schools in 44 states and 16 countries use AVID to train educators to help students overcome the obstacles that have historically kept certain populations out of college: poverty, language barriers and no college graduates in the family, among them.

The program is used by about 1,420 mostly middle and high schools in California — 126 of the secondary schools are in San Diego County.

AVID promotes academic success by calling for intensive tutoring, study and organizational skills, strong student-teacher relationships, and positive peer group support. Students are prepped for Advanced Placement courses and enroll in a special AVID elective class where assignments include college applications.

“Our fundamental premise is equity in education,” said Dennis Johnston, AVID’s senior director and chief research officer. “Your socio-economic status, your ethnicity, your college-going history, your language proficiency — you leave that at the door with AVID, along with all the things that people see as a barrier to college.”

The report is called “AVID Secondary Students’ College Enrollment and Persistence: What Equity Gaps?” It offers a an overview of AVID seniors from 2010 and 2011, their enrollment in college, rates of persistence in the second year, and a glimpse of enrollment and persistence rates compared with the general population.

AVID tracks students through high school, documenting how many graduate and go on to college. This study offers the first substantial look at what happens to students once they get to college. The research was based on data from the National Student Clearinghouse, a nonprofit that analyzes student data from colleges.

Skeptics have argued that it’s not surprising that AVID students do well since they took it upon themselves to volunteer for the program, an indication that they might already have the motivation to do well anywhere. The most at-risk students who are on the verge of dropping out are not typically served by AVID.

Johnston dismisses that criticism.

“The AVID kids that graduate, they are not the same kids that enter the program,” he said. “They aren’t in the program because they want to be there or because of an inherent motivation. They are typically there because the counselors have recommended it. By putting them in an enriched environment, that leads to motivation and success.”

Even so, the research is encouraging for schools that have infused their instruction and curriculum with the methods of AVID.

O’Farrell Charter School in San Diego is an AVID national demonstration school, the most elite certification the organization bestows on a school. Educators from across the state and nation visit O’Farrell to observe how to best implement AVID.

“The research is very significant,” said Jill Andersen, an assistant principal at O’Farrell. “It gives us that much more validation that what we are doing for our students is going to help get them into college — and stay in college.”

O’Farrell attributes much of its success to its AVID focus, Andersen said. All of the students qualify for subsidized lunches due to family income. The school’s Academic Performance Index was 805 (based on test scores and other data) in 2012, surpassing the state’s goal of 800 for all schools.

AVID was founded by Mary Catherine Swanson, who started the college-readiness program in her English class at Clairemont High School in 1980. She established the program to combat tracking — the practice of grouping students by ability — by enrolling blacks, Latinos and low-income students into the most rigorous classes.

AVID recently changed its focus from targeting students in the “academic middle” who need help getting to college to a broader mission that seeks to transform whole school systems to better serve every student group.

“One of the biggest barriers for a lot of kids with potential is they don’t have the knowledge and the skill set and wherewithal to navigate our education system and the A-G (sequence of courses needed to apply to a California public university),” Johnston said. “Many of our students in the state graduate within one or two classes shy of meeting the A-G requirements. If they had just been appropriately counseled…”

Starting with the class of 2016, the San Diego Unified School District will require students to complete all A-G classes to earn a diploma. The district has considered expanding AVID programs to help prepare students for the more rigorous graduation standards.

Johnston is hopeful more schools — in San Diego and elsewhere — take another look at AVID as they work to close the persistent achievement gap between some students groups with graduation criteria and other initiatives.

“AVID has this history and legacy in San Diego because that is where it started,” he said. “Today’s AVID isn’t your mother’s AVID. It’s not what it used to be. It’s for students in La Jolla or Mount Miguel or Poway or National City.”

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