AVID Learners

By David Ruenzel — January 01, 1997 23 min read
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.

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 simple 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 off 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, who was 35 years old at the time, had once taught remedial reading herself, and she knew that once students were placed in such classes they almost never came back. It was like the inscription above the gate of Dante’s inferno: “All hope abandon, ye who enter here.” So Swanson decided to do something that would give these students the opportunity to shoot for college.

To most of her colleagues, this seemed a hopeless task. But Swanson felt no trepidation. She talked about that time when I met with her this fall at the San Diego County office of education, where she now directs AVID’s growing national operations. “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 told me. “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 simple 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.”

Swanson’s 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 this daily, hour-long 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.

Swanson decided to first focus on note-taking. 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 kids’ 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, whose nervous energy manifests itself in clipped gestures. “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.”

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 learners 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.

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.

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 notetaking 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.”

But the upperclassmen--those on the brink of college--offered a very different view. “It is hard to get the point at first, especially if you’ve been coasting through school for eight years,” senior Carlos Echezerria said. “You’re finally in high school, and you want to hear about all the fun you’ll have. But eventually it dawns on you that all this work is for a reason, and you realize that it’s become second nature for you to write an essay, to understand a difficult article.”

Joe Hampton, another senior, said that without AVID he never would have had the grades and skills to get into college. “You may not always like it,” he explained, “but if you’re willing to work hard AVID will give you the skills you need to be successful in college and life.”

As much as AVID stresses development of academic skills, this is not its most important function, according to Hugh Mehan, who has written a book on AVID titled Constructing School Success. “It’s socialization,” Mehan told me. “The social connections students make are vital, be they with the tutors or with college. I found in my research, for example, that some tutors weren’t really helping all that much with homework. But something important was still going on. The tutors would say things like, ‘Yeah, I was scared about going to college, but here’s what I did.’ This kind of informal conversation is extremely helpful to kids.”

Mehan called the regularly scheduled field trips to colleges “a brilliant stroke.” “It’s amazing what that does for kids’ minds,” he said. “Many for the first time start seeing college as a real possibility and start thinking about what it will actually take for them to get there. And their enthusiasm transfers over into the classroom. When you’re in an AVID class, you’re sitting with 20 kids-all of them untraditional students-who are worried about academic stuff. That’s very, very rare and very powerful.”

The fact that students from less privileged backgrounds rarely study together has been well-documented by Uri Treisman, a mathematics professor at the University of Texas at Austin and winner of the prestigious MacArthur “genius” award. In the early 1980s, Treisman taught math at the University of California at Berkeley. He was perplexed by the trouble many of his African-American students had in his courses. Most were motivated and had good SAT scores, and yet they failed first-term calculus at an exceedingly high rate. His Chinese students, on the other hand, typically aced the class, though Treisman did not find them any more motivated than the black students.

The difference, Treisman discovered, was in the support they received from others--what Mehan calls “social scaffolding.” His Chinese students almost invariably studied together; there was no line of demarcation between their schoolwork and their social lives. But this was not the case for his African-American students--and many of his working-class white students. Their schoolwork had no significant connection to their social lives. They studied alone. And if they fell behind, they turned to no one for help. In fact, when these students sensed they were losing academic ground, they typically redoubled their efforts at solitary study-putting more energy into a self-defeating strategy.

Treisman responded to the problem by initiating study groups for his African-American students. The idea was to get them to work collaboratively the way his Chinese students did.

When Treisman and Swanson met in the late 1980s, they each had a jolt of recognition: Their ideas and approaches dovetailed perfectly. “Uri talks about how everyone has to take in information and then process it,” Swanson said. “Well, kids studying alone can do the first part but have trouble with the second. That’s why encouraging them to collaborate is such a big part of what we do.”

AVID teachers are key partners in that collaboration, especially when the time comes for students to apply to college. David Tingle, a former AVID student who is now a junior at San Diego State University, said that without AVID he would have been in the dark about the college-application process. “How many units of a subject you need, whether you should take two or three years of a foreign language, what kind of things you should write in a college essay--you just have no idea how these things work,” Tingle told me.

Most kids from poor families, Tingle said, receive little or no information about college. “You’re supposed to go to the guidance counselor for guidance on getting into college, but our guidance counselor got everything backward,” Tingle explained. “And when we’d correct her misinformation, she would say, ‘Really?’ The AVID teachers were our real guidance counselors.”

One of AVID’s great strengths in the early years was that it was less a program than a grassroots movement. A program by definition is a top-down affair with some sort of central administration. AVID, on the other hand, was a teacher-led endeavor that spontaneously found its way from one school to the next. But success has changed that. Even Swanson wonders how AVID will fare now that it is a bona fide program with a small bureaucracy in San Diego and regional support centers in other parts of California and the nation.

“I am concerned about AVID expanding too rapidly,” Swanson said. “There’s always a chance that the program could get watered down. We’re trying to prevent that by having schools prove they have a rigorous curriculum in place before they can become an AVID school, but the danger still exists.”

Even if Swanson and her team can sustain and further their successes, some observers--Mehan among them--question whether the program is capable of altering American education in any broad way. “AVID proves that all kinds of people have the capacity to do college work if they have social support,” Mehan said. “But providing that kind of support takes time and money, and whether we’re willing to provide that is more of a societal question than an educational one.”

Still, as Mehan pointed out, AVID has demonstrated that if the will is there, schools can do better with disadvantaged students, even within our flawed system. It has proved the obvious: The most effective way to prepare students for college is to give them-albeit with necessary supports-a rigorous college-prep curriculum.

This doesn’t mean that the support system has to be in place forever. In his book, Mehan writes about AVID as a kind of apprenticeship, in which a master carpenter, say, slowly brings a novice along. In the beginning, the apprentice needs almost constant guidance, but, as time goes on and the apprentice learns, the support is gradually withdrawn. Finally, the apprentice becomes a master.

I asked Tingle if it was difficult for him to do without the AVID support system now that he is in college. “No, not at all,” he said. “I’m well-prepared now, and 1 can do it on my own. As long as 1 take good notes and study hard, I’m OK”.

A version of this article appeared in the January 01, 1997 edition of Teacher as AVID Learners