Why Falls Church High leads in college prep

Jay Mathews
Columnist April 23

Despite its growing national importance in preparing students for college, the Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID) program is not well-known here. Yet its local growth is unusually rapid.

Only about 2 percent of the more than 4,800 U.S. schools in the program are designated by AVID as Demonstration Schools, a label of excellence that means they are models for other AVID schools in helping students learn to think, manage their time and apply to college.

Jay Mathews is an education columnist and blogger for the Washington Post, his employer for 40 years. View Archive

Falls Church High School in Fairfax County is most celebrated by AVID and is the only high school in this region with that designation from what is the nation’s largest college prep program.

The school’s AVID coordinator, Kelly Ginley, is a fervent advocate of helping average students from non-college families learn how to handle both higher education and complicated lives. “We have had tremendous success in identifying traditionally underserved students from the academic middle with potential and determination,” he said, “and then preparing them to be college-ready, with a more than 90 percent acceptance rate to four-year colleges over the past decade, and 98 percent college-going rate, including both two- and four-year colleges.”

I have written a book about AVID to be published later this year. It describes how AVID works in 45 states, where it now has 250,000 students. It is being used in 93 middle and high schools here, with more on the way. Falls Church’s success is a good indicator of what AVID can do, and of the differences that arise between educators trying to get the formula just right.

AVID students attend daily elective classes where they are trained in the Cornell method of note-taking. Their required binders are checked regularly to make sure their learning materials are in order. AVID teachers monitor students’ progress in the honors and college-level courses they are required to take. Forty percent of AVID class time is spent with tutors who don’t give students the answers to questions, but help them think through the lesson to get the answers themselves.

The Falls Church program has won high marks from AVID inspectors for its embrace of several AVID essentials, such as having a strong writing and reading curriculum and promoting collaboration among students. But it has clashed with the AVID rule that tutors should be students from colleges and universities.

AVID founder Mary Catherine Swanson found college students to be invaluable as tutors when she began the program in San Diego in 1980. They not only understood students’ academic difficulties, having recently been in high school themselves, but could give them a good sense of what college was like.

Ginley and his team have a somewhat different view. “While AVID wants the tutors to be college-aged so they can act as close to peer-level role models,” he said in an e-mail, “we have a core of experienced, overqualified adult tutors (two have PhDs, and two have master’s degrees). Our adults are not only wonderful tutors and role-models, but much more reliable than college-aged kids.” That is no problem for AVID, officials said, since Ginley meets the requirement of at least one college tutor per class.

The Falls Church High team and AVID Center officials keep the conversation going. There is no point making demands when the school is so eager to improve its fidelity to AVID principles. “We noticed a major blind spot in our program in the past year,” Ginley said. “We had 24 out of 26 seniors in the class of 2013 get into four-year colleges, but only 14 are attending four-year colleges.” The team realized that parents were making bad decisions based on misplaced fears of four-year college costs, so the teachers have been more careful to show them how the financing can work for their kids.

The many AVID teachers I have interviewed say they most love the way the program encourages them to be creative. I would like to hear from more local AVID educators on how that, and any other phases of the program, are working in their schools. Just e-mail me.

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