Columbia schools bring in program to boost B, C students

Tuesday, February 19, 2013 | 5:59 p.m. CST; updated 8:52 p.m. CST, Tuesday, February 19, 2013

COLUMBIA — Wichita Public Schools teacher Elizabeth Roberts chose her career because she wanted to build relationships with students and make a difference in their lives.

The Advanced Via Individual Determination, or AVID, program allowed her to do that.

AVID is a national college-readiness elective class targeting students in the academic middle, or those who earn mostly Bs and Cs. AVID also targets students who could be the first in their family to attend college.

The program was developed by Mary Catherine Swanson, an English department chairwoman at Clairemont High School in San Diego, Calif., to address the needs of students who get overlooked between the highest- and lowest-performing students in a school.

The program replicates the college classroom experience by using student discussion as a problem-solving tool. Tutors from nearby colleges lead the discussion to help students answer their questions from homework assignments. Teachers follow AVID’s curriculum to develop students’ skills for college success, including organization, leadership and collaboration.

Columbia Public Schools will offer AVID in middle and high schools this fall. District administrators looked to Wichita and other districts for advice on how to bring AVID to the district successfully.

Students supporting students

Roberts first met her AVID students four years ago when they were freshmen. She will watch them graduate this spring. In Wichita, 76.2 percent of AVID students live in poverty and 90.5 percent of them plan to attend college, according to information from the district there.

All of Roberts’ AVID students have been accepted to a four-year college. The students in her class have collectively been offered $479,000 in scholarships.

"I have 26 students that I have had every day since their freshman year," she said. "We have built such a family relationship that I can get them to do their assignments maybe more than their other teachers can."

Roberts said one of her students struggled with family pressure to join a gang and drop out of school. The close relationship the class provided helped him stay focused and pursue his education, she said. Another of Roberts’ students was abandoned by her father, so her AVID classmates would text the girl on days she didn’t come to class to keep her on track.

"It is truly amazing," Roberts said. "It is truly, truly the reason I became a teacher. So often it is hard to make that connection in a year. You think you go into teaching to make a difference in someone else’s life, and time and time again they have made a difference in my life."

Setting the tone schoolwide

At a Feb. 11 meeting of the Columbia School Board, Superintendent Chris Belcher said AVID will address the academic achievement gap among groups of students in secondary schools because it emphasizes skills they need to be successful.

Wichita AVID Director Rob Compton said the program helps students stay engaged in school because it targets the skills they need help with the most.

"The students, it starts to become kind of their school family," Compton said. "They have a connection to the school. We’ve known for a long time that when students are connected to school they do school better."

Roberts said that at her school, Wichita North High School, where more than 65 percent of students are Hispanic, AVID’s reach extends beyond those enrolled in the elective. The training AVID instructors receive can be applied to the non-AVID classes they teach, so other students benefit, she said.

"I can also used those methodologies in my English class so I can support the AVID students in that class and also the non-AVID students as well," Roberts said.

Compton said AVID has the ability to change the entire tone of a school.

"We know that statistically when we raise those in the middle, it tends to raise all students up," he said. "When more kids are taking AP courses, then more kids not in AVID see their friends taking those and then they want to take them. They realize it is something they can do."

What Columbia learned from Wichita

Columbia Assistant Superintendent Jolene Yoakum said the administration learned that to be successful, AVID should start on a small-scale and expand later. The school board approved $130,000 to get the program started, including the expense of teacher training, she said.

Yoakum said Columbia Public Schools will offer AVID in grades eight, nine and 10 next year, at six middle and three high schools. Each school will have about 21 students in each AVID class.

She said another important part of planning is making sure the right teachers and students are selected for the program to make the biggest effect.

Yoakum said school principals will choose AVID teachers based in part on their ability to connect well with students. Roberts said the AVID student-teacher bond is a big part of the program’s success, and the success of her graduating seniors.

"Some of the kiddos you have, some of their lives and their background is heartbreaking," Roberts said. "To be that support, that cheerleader, that mom, that coach to get them through that, I get teary eyed just thinking about my students walking across that stage."

Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey.

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