AVID Learners

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"The social connections students make are vital, be they with the tutors or with college."

Hugh Mehan, author of a book on AVID titled Constructing School Success

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.

AVID was a teacher-led endeavor that spontaneously found its way from one school to the next.

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 I can do it on my own. As long as I take good notes and study hard, I'm OK."

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