AVID college prep system quietly spreads here

The largest and, as far as I can tell, the most effective college readiness program in the country is called AVID, short for Advancement Via Individual Determination. It was created by a San Diego English teacher in 1980 to help 32 average kids from low-income families develop academic and life skills. Now it has 250,000 students in 48 states, the District and several foreign countries, more than 90 percent of whom go on to college.

Hardly anyone has heard of it. Its founder, Mary Catherine Swanson, dislikes self-promotion. The program has grown mostly by word of mouth. Until recently, it has not been very active in big cities, where successful programs get more media attention.

That includes the District, with just three regular public schools and two public charters that have AVID. But it has been growing rapidly in the Washington suburbs, being used in 93 public schools, with more on the way. That is one of the reasons I am writing a book about it, in hopes of understanding its strong training methods, popularity with teachers, emphasis on children in the middle and the most unusual and promising tutoring method I have ever seen.

AVID students in Anne Arundel, Prince George’s, Charles, Montgomery, Fairfax and Loudoun counties, as well as Alexandria, the District and soon Manassas, spend 40 percent of their AVID class time working with tutors trained not to show them how to solve problems that are stumping them but to ask questions that will help them think through the solutions themselves. The students also are required to ask helpful questions of struggling classmates, so they will know how to break down any difficult issue when they are in college with no tutors to help.

AVID teachers show students how to manage their lives and time, prepare for college and navigate the college application process. They train students in the Cornell method of note-taking, which emphasizes key questions. They check student binders to make sure all learning materials are in good order. They monitor students’ progress in the honors and college-level courses AVID requires them to take.

Cathie Grant-Goodman, who recruits and trains AVID tutors in Fairfax County, said, “If they are well-trained and tutorials are strong, then you will see a significant impact on student achievement.” National data show higher percentages of AVID students than similar non-AVID students going to college.

The program does cost money. About 70 of the 100 AVID tutors in Fairfax County’s 23 AVID middle and high schools are paid. Most are in college, which AVID prefers. Those still enrolled at universities — George Mason University is Fairfax’s leading provider of AVID tutors — earn $14.50 an hour; the rate goes up to $16.50 after they earn a degree. That will cost the county $270,000 this year.

All of Anne Arundel County’s 31 middle and high schools have AVID, but it cannot afford to pay tutors, so only about 10 percent are college students. Most tutoring is done by high school juniors and seniors who have performed well. The lack of money to pay tutors is “our biggest roadblock,” said the county’s AVID coordinator, Jennifer Lombardi. Still, AVID has helped raise standards, tripling Annapolis High School’s college-level test participation since the program began there in 1999.

Teachers have embraced the program because of its emphasis on conceptual understanding and supporting students who take academic challenges. Some display an almost cultlike enthusiasm for their work. That makes it difficult to find AVID critics to help me understand the program’s weaknesses. My e-mail address is below. Tell me what you believe is bad and good about this unique approach to teaching as it quietly spreads through the region and the country.

For previous columns by Jay Mathews, go to washingtonpost.com/class-struggle.

 
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