Getting into biggest college prep program

November 24, 2013

When Anne Arundel County parent Julie Hummer first encountered AVID, the nation’s largest college-readiness program, she could not understand why the program accepted only one of her twin sons, Eric, since both were top students. Even more puzzling, given that the program is geared toward average students, was that the one who was rejected, Ben, had some learning disabilities and might have been considered closer to the mean.

Hummer was one of many AVID parents, students and teachers who responded to my request for views of the unusual program, which is in 4,800 schools nationally and 93 in the Washington area but is rarely mentioned in the news media. Hummer said she and other parents got little information before applying for AVID at Meade Middle School. To her, the admissions system was confusing and contradictory, particularly troubling because she liked what it did and wanted both sons in it.

“I am certain that a great many candidates were disqualified simply because they did not express enough enthusiasm for a program they knew little about,” Hummer said. When the interviewer asked Ben if he wanted to be in AVID, “he said he wanted to be in the band and play the tuba,” she said. He thought wrongly that being in AVID, which stands for Advancement Via Individual Determination, would preclude that. There were so many applicants that any students indicating that they did not want in were rejected automatically, Hummer was told.

Hummer said she could see why the program is popular. It requires students to organize their schoolwork and lives in ways that parents love but find hard to instill in their children. Several e-mails and letters from AVID students said they thought at first the program appeared to require too much work, such as Cornell note-taking in all of their classes, but the students now consider those skills essential.

Jordan Taylor, a 10th-grader at Fairfax High School in Fairfax County, said he thought an elective course in marketing would be more fun, but he has since been convinced that AVID “is the best class in my schedule.” Heidy Palencia, also a 10th-grader at Fairfax High, said she signed up because friends already in AVID told her “it’s like being in one big family that helps each other with schoolwork.”

AVID was invented by San Diego English teacher Mary Catherine Swanson in 1980. It has been embraced warmly by teachers for its emphasis on critical thinking, advanced courses and time-management skills for kids in the middle. Any school can adopt the program without the massive staff changes that some reforms demand.

“When my son’s grades start declining, the support that is given is exceptional,” said Mary Ann Sabo, an AVID parent at Central Middle School in Anne Arundel. That district has the largest AVID program in the region, with classes in all 31 middle schools and high schools. The most innovative part of AVID is its use of tutors, who work with students two periods every week. They don’t tell students the answers to questions stumping them on their homework but instead train them to ask questions of themselves and others that will lead to the answers.

“I always have to explain to people that I am not actually tutoring anyone but facilitating learning,” said Mikhailina Karina, an AVID tutor in Fairfax County. She said students not only get deeper into their subjects but also acquire good information about college from tutors, who are often undergraduates.

Asked about AVID’s admission process at Meade Middle School, Robert Logan, AVID’s eastern divisional director, said that in the rapidly growing program, “the selection process is not pure science.” Hummer made several calls and persuaded the school to put Ben in the program along with Eric. Logan said both boys are within the average range for their school. AVID leaders say they want to serve all students but that will take more teacher training and more tutors.

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