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AVID Learners

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In 1990, there were 34 AVID schools outside of San Diego County. By 1995, the number had jumped to 350.

Escobedo told me it had taken his older brother six years of junior college before he finally moved on to a university. He had known nothing of what it takes to go to college. But AVID teachers and tutors constantly let Escobedo and his classmates know that college was an achievable goal. They made sure the students completed the necessary requirements, led them through the application process, and took them on field trips to colleges. "The fact that they took us on tours of universities—that was incredible," Escobedo said. "The first time you saw that environment, the kids spread out across the lawn with all those books. . ."

In its first years, AVID grew slowly but steadily, mainly through word of mouth. Teachers in the San Diego area, hearing about the program through the grapevine, brought it to their own schools. In 1986, AVID made a leap forward when Thomas Boysen, then the superintendent of the San Diego County schools, implemented it countywide. Soon the legislature in Sacramento became interested, and in 1992 the state began to create regional centers to expand the reach of the program. AVID was on a roll. In 1990, there were 34 AVID schools outside of San Diego County. By 1995, the number had jumped to 350. This past November, the program received grants from the Annenberg and Charles A. Dana foundations to extend its influence even further, particularly in the Southeast.

AVID officials say the program has grown so rapidly because it gets results. They point to a recent study by Hugh Mehan, the UCSD sociologist. Mehan found that 55 percent of African Americans who participate in AVID for three years go on to four-year colleges. The national college-going rate for blacks is 33 percent. Of participating Hispanic students, 43 percent enroll in four-year colleges, compared with 20 percent nationally. AVID has accomplished this with kids who are academically unexceptional. To get into the program, students need only meet a minimum standard on the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills and have a C average, though students with D's have been admitted. Much depends on the interview. AVID coordinators in each school look for kids who show an eagerness to turn things around.

Despite the dramatic growth and successful track record, AVID has not yet attracted much media attention. The program has received praise but none of the sustained applause given other school reform efforts. In the reform arena, AVID, it seems, is a solid performer but not a star.

While progressive reform groups like the Coalition of Essential Schools talk about reinventing schooling, AVID talks about helping kids succeed in the schools we have.

But then AVID is really not a reform "initiative" in the true sense of the word. While progressive reform groups like the Coalition of Essential Schools talk about reinventing schooling, AVID talks about helping kids succeed in the schools we have. AVID strives not to do away with the status quo but to bring its more highly calibrated aspects—namely the college-prep curriculum—to students traditionally left out of the loop. What is perhaps most remarkable about AVID is its straightforward, common-sense approach.

This point was made emphatically by Alice Esparza, AVID coordinator at Mar Vista High School in Imperial Beach, California, just a few miles north of the Mexican border. "The concept behind the program is really pretty simple," Esparza said. "It's support; that's all it is. You become an advocate for these students."

For Esparza and other AVID coordinators, being an advocate means harping on study skills, particularly note-taking and staying on task. When I entered Esparza's classroom, it had the feel of decades past: The kids sat in straight rows, copying from the blackboard the week's "SAT words"—torpor, supercilious, innocuous, and the like.

Esparza began the session with a "warm-up" exercise: Students turned positive assertions, such as "AVID grew to 500 schools in seven states," into negative ones: "AVID did not grow to 500 schools in seven states." This was a bilingual class—a number of the students had a shaky command of English—so Esparza leavened the brief English lesson with tips in Spanish.

After the warm-up came an essay-writing lesson, which was painstakingly straightforward. The first paragraph, Esparza told the students, introduces the thesis, usually in its last sentence. The thesis expresses a point of view about a subject. The essay's body paragraphs develop the thesis, which is restated in the conclusion.

This was teaching at its unglamorous extreme. But that didn't mean the lesson was unimportant; college students must know how to express themselves in writing. Esparza has her students write constantly, in journals, composition booklets, and notebooks, but she gives the three-part essay—thesis, argument, conclusion—the most emphasis. This is the kind of writing most often done in college, she told the class. And it is the structure the students will use when they write the essays for their college applications.

'You can always pick out the AVID students because they take better notes than anybody else,' says one teacher.

In true AVID form, the students recorded all the nuances of this lesson with the intensity of stenographers. They scribbled and scrawled, and yet they were doing more than transcribing. As taught, they had drawn a line down the center of their papers. On the left were the terms—thesis statement, for example. On the right, definitions. Or they might jot a question on the left—"What is a topic sentence?"—which they would later ask their tutors. The students followed this note-taking procedure for all their classes.

Ivette Sanchez, an AVID tutor and former Mar Vista student, told me that the note-taking method forces students to highlight important information, a task which kept them from getting bogged down in minutiae. "I had trouble my first couple years of high school because I kept memorizing a lot of irrelevant information," she said. "The important thing in studying is to key in on the main points, which is why we constantly encourage students to go back over their notes."

AVID students are such committed note-takers that they can be singled out in almost any classroom. During an algebra lesson at Hoover, for example, teacher Carol Chie noted that there was only one student taking notes. "And of course that student is an AVID student," she said. "You can always tell because they take better notes than anyone else. They're getting everything down while others are staring into space."

During my visits to Hoover and Mar Vista, I did not hear one AVID instructor speak about the joys of learning. They emphasized, instead, the importance of hard work. They urged students to complete their homework, bring questions to their tutors, and take copious notes. Students, it seemed, were encouraged to adopt a grin-and-bear-it attitude with regard to schooling.

This isn't easy for some. First-year AVID students are particularly resistant. "It can be really tedious taking notes all the time," a freshman told me. "Sometimes it's hard to hang with the program." Another freshman said, "I'm in the AVID program because my mother made me join. I don't see the point of all the work we're doing."

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