Published Online: February 5, 1997


AVID Learners

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But a court desegregation order was changing all that, siphoning off half the student body. Arriving to fill their seats were about 500 low-income students--the majority Hispanic, most of the others African-American--whose plans for the future involved little more than finishing high school, if that.

Yet it wasn't just the race and class of the new students that had these Clairemont teachers feeling unsettled. It was also the realization that the school was about to go down the tubes academically. After all, most were veteran teachers who had for years taught college-prep courses. Many of their new students came from the nearby Mexican border town of Tijuana and hardly spoke English. Something would have to give, and they feared it would be the curriculum. These new students were destined for the dark outposts of remedial education, which until that point had barely existed at the school. The teachers worried that they would have to follow, abandoning calculus for general math, Shakespeare for magazine articles. Many had helped found the school 20 years before and were bitter. There were rumors that the San Diego school district wanted Clairemont to fail so it could sell the choice property to developers.

But one Clairemont teacher, English department chairwoman Mary Catherine Swanson, had something different in mind. She was determined that the school not automatically steer the new students onto a remedial track. Swanson, 35 at the time, had once taught remedial reading, and she knew that once students were placed in such classes they almost never came back. So she decided to do something that would give these students the chance to shoot for college.

'You can't magically just give underrepresented kids this rigorous curriculum and expect them to be successful.'

Mary Catherine Swanson,
AVID founder

To most of her colleagues, this seemed a hopeless task. But Swanson, who now directs AVID's growing national operations at the San Diego County office of education, felt no trepidation. "One of the hallmarks of why I was a good teacher was that I always collaborated with others and never, never taught in isolation," Swanson said. "We had two years to think about desegregation before it finally arrived in 1980, and I constantly talked with others--those who weren't totally lost to skepticism--about how we might approach it."

The approach she cooked up became AVID. Its goal was to prepare underachieving disadvantaged students—those who typically ended up in remedial classes--for entry into four-year colleges. This was a lofty goal, and Swanson knew that simply placing these students in college-prep classes and telling them to go for it was not the answer. "You can't magically just give underrepresented kids this rigorous curriculum and expect them to be successful," she said. "The majority will fail. And we all know that schools can't accommodate large numbers of failures. They keep course titles that suggest the courses are rigorous, but everyone knows that Advanced English II is really remedial."

Her solution was to create a supplementary course that students could take to learn the range of skills they would need to succeed in high school and beyond. Students who chose to participate in the new program--it was then and still is voluntary--took the school's standard curriculum, plus the daily, hourlong class with Swanson.

The basic structure remains in place today. AVID students enroll in the same academic courses that traditional college-bound students take. In those classes, they receive no special instruction or consideration. Though the vast majority of teachers in AVID schools are receptive to the program, most have no direct connection to it. The extra academic and social support the students receive comes via the AVID classes, which are taught by regular subject-area teachers who have received special training.

Swanson's first AVID class was filled with students with no idea of what serious study entailed. Most, she discovered, were ambitious but naive: They wanted to attend college but did not have a clue about what it would take to get there. Their study habits were weak or nonexistent. They tended to study alone, minimizing the opportunity to learn from others. And an astounding number took no notes at all. Over the years, they had become passive observers.

AVID relies heavily on former students to serve as tutors for the younger students.

Swanson decided to first focus on notetaking. This was the only way she could find out what the students were picking up in their other classes. She taught them how to take detailed notes, and, when she discovered that they often didn't understand what they were writing down, she had them jot questions in the margins. She also insisted that the notes be more than a copy of what was on the blackboard. If they couldn't put the material into their own words, then they didn't really understand it.

The simple act of taking notes had an immediate and somewhat surprising impact, and it quickly became a cornerstone of the AVID program. Most practically, it forced students to be attentive and gave them a way to share ideas and information. More subtle were the psychological changes dedicated note-taking produced: The youngsters slowly began to see themselves as students in the full sense of the word. And teachers who had been dubious about the students' abilities were amazed to see them doing the very things their top students were doing. Although they were hardly aware of it, the AVID students were becoming acculturated in the ways of the college-bound.

But there was only so much Swanson could do on her own: She simply didn't know enough math or science to be much help in those subjects. So she asked former Clairemont students--all of them knowledgeable and in college--to come back and tutor the AVID youngsters. The tutors were ostensibly in the AVID classroom to assist with schoolwork, but their presence had other important benefits. Because the tutors were close in age to their charges, the students felt comfortable talking to them about their problems.

"The kids were most frustrated when they couldn't grapple long enough with information to really understand it," said Swanson. "You know what happens with teachers. They ask a question to the full class and then, when no one responds, answer the question themselves and move on. But you can't just move on, or you'll lose kids."

One Clairemont student who looked as if he might get lost for good was Maximo Escobedo, one of six children in a family of Mexican immigrants. Although he understood only a few words of English and felt overwhelmed by American culture, the young Escobedo knew enough about what was going on to see that the school wasn't working to his advantage.

"After the first two weeks, I realized I wasn't being placed in classes that would get me on to college," said Escobedo, now a graphic artist at a software company. "They were putting me, like the Mexican friends I played soccer with, into two or three shop classes a year. My first classes were Spanish, English as a Second Language, shop, PE, math--a very iffy set."

The next year, due in part to a counselor who recognized his potential, Escobedo entered AVID. "In AVID, I was not only expected to get high grades but also to go to college," he said. "After my second year at Clairemont, my schedule was completely changed--from esl to English literature. By my senior year, I was in honors English. It was rough, but I knew that the tutor could always help me get through. And it helped that all of us AVID students were struggling with the same things. I was an outsider, but the AVID classroom was the one place I felt I belonged."

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