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AVID Learners

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What happens when students normally dumped into remedial classes get the chance to shoot for college? They go for it.

Hoover Senior High School in San Diego is the alma mater of legendary Boston Red Sox slugger Ted Williams, but if he were to visit the school today he would scarcely recognize it, so changed is it from the 1930s. Then it was a launching pad for white kids taking off into the middle class; now it's a "gateway" school of great diversity, serving immigrants from all over the world: Mexicans, Ethiopians, Russians, Chinese, Filipinos. Some don't even have the English language in common.

But one thing 170 Hoover students do have in common is AVID, a college-preparatory program for disadvantaged kids that was pioneered in San Diego more than 15 years ago and is now in more than 500 schools in California and beyond. Since 1990, a remarkable 60 percent of the program's 5,000 graduates nationwide have gone on to four-year colleges. And of those, nearly 90 percent are still there or have earned degrees. If not for AVID, many of these students would have wasted away in shop and bonehead math classes.

Hugh Mehan, a sociologist and teacher educator at the University of California at San Diego, has studied AVID. The program, he writes, "pulls out the rug from under the assumption lurking in American education that ethnic and linguistic minor-ity kids can't do well in college-bound classes."

The official name of the program sounds like something out of Ayn Rand: Advancement Via Individual Determination. And yet the name is something of a misnomer, as the thrust of the program has more to do with cooperation than sheer perseverance. The principal idea is to get disadvantaged students, who typically study alone, to work together under the guidance of a teacher and tutors on challenging curricula.

On a Tuesday afternoon in September, I visited an AVID class at Hoover, a sprawling, dusty school that resembles a military compound, to watch this socialization process at work. As the AVID students split into small tutoring groups, I found myself seated with four teenage boys—a Haitian, an Ethiopian, and two Somalis. As I waited for their tutor to arrive, the Ethiopian said something to me that I couldn't make out. "Pardon me?" I responded. The boy, Nasir, tapped his finger on a page of the hefty textbook open before him and repeated his question, this time so deliberately that I caught each syllable: "Can you help me find two examples of dramatic irony?"

It occurred to me that maybe he thought I was his group's assigned tutor. "No, no," I said, "I'm just visiting. I don't know where your tutor is."

Nasir looked around the room. The half-dozen other study groups all had tutors—black and Hispanic college kids in their early 20s. A couple were at the blackboard showing their charges how to work through equations. At the table next to ours, I heard a tutor reading through students' essays say, "You've got your commas in the wrong places again."

Despite my denial, Nasir apparently decided that I must be the tutor, for he once again tapped his finger on the page and asked, "Can you help me find two examples of dramatic irony?"

"What are you reading?" I asked.

"The Wife of Bath's Tale," he replied.

"Look," I said, "I haven't read that in 20 years." Chaucer is difficult for well-schooled undergraduates. Who, I wondered, would have the foolish temerity to assign these kids this Middle English text?

Nasir sighed ever so slightly. The Haitian boy and the two Somalis didn't say anything, but they looked amused. The Haitian caught someone's gaze at a neighboring table and made a few tough-guy faces before cracking up. Nasir just stared down at his book, clearly upset that no one was helping him.

"Okay," I said, somewhat chastened. "Let me have a look." Nasir turned the book toward me and then dangled a finger above a couple of lines, "Wommen desire to have sovereinetee/As wel over hir housbonde as hir love."

I told Nasir that I thought the speaker was saying that women want control over men. But that was about all I could make out. That seemed good enough for Nasir, who said, "Ah, then it is dramatic irony!"

Many AVID students do precisely what kids at elite private schools do.

This grabbed the attention of the others—even the Haitian stopped his clowning—and Nasir explained his logic. A knight has raped a lady, for which he is sentenced to death. A sympathetic queen, though, offers him a way out. The queen will spare his life if the knight can answer the question, "What do women really want?" After a long search, he finds a "foule" widow who will tell him the answer in exchange for an unknown promise. The knight agrees. Women, he learns, want "sovereinetee," or control, over men. As for the promise? The incredulous knight must marry the hag.

This surprise or unexpected turn of events, Nasir asked, "is this not an example of dramatic irony?"

As the tutor-designate, I answered, "It seems to be."

Together, the students then went hunting through the text to find additional examples. By the end of the session, they had all written something. As the Haitian boy left the classroom, he greeted a friend with a very complicated handshake. He was in a good mood; he was ready for English class.

As I walked out, it hit me that these Hoover students were doing precisely what I'd seen kids at elite private schools do: discussing ideas and pooling resources to accomplish together what would have been arduous and time-consuming—if not impossible—on their own. In short, they were learning how to succeed at the game of schooling.

AVID's roots date to September 1980, when buses packed with students from San Diego's tenements and housing projects pulled up to the doors of Clairemont High School. The teachers waiting inside believed that the world as they'd known it was about to come to an end. Up to that point, these white middle-class teachers had taught kids who could have been their own children. They wore the same styles of clothing, took the same kinds of summer vacations, and made plans to attend the same colleges. But a court desegregation order was changing all that, siphoning off half the student body. Arriving to fill their seats were some 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.

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