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High school Socratic program helped turn former student into district leader

Superintendent Lamont Jackson in San Diego understands how disadvantaged students can succeed by asking many questions

5 min

In 1980, Mary Catherine Swanson, the well-regarded 36-year-old English department chair at Clairemont High School in northern San Diego, had a problem.

Her school district was about to bus a group of low-income Hispanic and Black students from south San Diego to Clairemont each day for a dose of the higher standards thought to be found in nice suburban schools. The problem was that Clairemont was just going to shove the new kids into remedial classes and hope for the best.

Swanson thought that was a terrible idea. With the help of Jim Grove, a senior English teacher who had spent his childhood in an El Paso orphanage, she started an elective daily class for the incoming students called Advancement Via Individual Determination, AVID for short.

Swanson’s AVID class taught time management, note-taking and study skills. She brought in college student tutors twice a week to help students with difficult homework in the demanding classes she insisted they take. She also piled more reading and writing instruction on AVID kids in her English class.

There were mishaps. A biology teacher did not believe such children could be doing so well in his class, so he falsely accused them of cheating. A district official bothered by favorable news coverage of AVID tried to get the program canceled. Swanson’s unfriendly principal dumped busywork on her. Her efforts to expand AVID got little district support.

Nonetheless, Swanson’s inventiveness, energy and charm have turned nonprofit AVID into the largest college preparation program in the country aimed at disadvantaged students. Its teachers and students love using the Socratic method, question after question.

One sign of its successes is the selection of veteran administrator Lamont Jackson to be the new superintendent of the 135,000-student San Diego Unified School District. Thirty-eight years ago Jackson was a student in Swanson’s AVID class.

San Diego has done so well closing learning gaps with AVID and other programs that its previous superintendent, Cindy Marten, who served eight years, last May became deputy U.S. education secretary in the Biden administration.

Jackson, 52, said the main lessons he learned from being an AVID student and AVID teacher were “seeing each student as capable and having high expectations for students” as well as “providing access and opportunity in advanced coursework with support.”

As the district emerges from the pandemic, he said, he wants students and staff to have “the wellness supports, including mental health, social-emotional learning, and the growth and development support that enhances learning and teaching in a newfound context.”

One useful support developed by both students and teachers in AVID is a tutoring system unlike anything I have ever seen. It emphasizes conceptual understanding rather than just memorizing facts.

Two days each week, AVID students sign up for tutoring in a subject giving them trouble. Divided into small groups, one tutor for each group, they take turns describing their biggest problems in that week’s homework and asking for help.

In the first year of AVID four decades ago, Swanson gave her tutors a break so they could prepare for their college midterms. She unhappily discovered while they were gone that the students couldn’t learn without them because the tutors were giving them the answers.

When the tutors returned, Swanson told them students needed to learn how to get to the truth themselves. “You have got to fashion good questions and ways that will lead them back to the textbook or back to their notes to find the answers,” she said.

Gradually they figured it out. When I investigated AVID a decade ago, I found that this process, called inquiry-based tutoring, had evolved to the point that the other students in the tutoring group asked leading questions of the kid in the hot seat while the tutor took notes for the student’s reference. Former AVID students told me that looking for the underlying concepts worked well in college. It impressed their professors when they sought help during office hours.

Getting into the biggest college prep program

AVID, based in San Diego, works with more than 8,000 schools throughout the country and trains 85,000 teachers annually. AVID spokeswoman Lynn Kepp said a record 25,000 educators have already registered in the past month for in-person and online summer institutes, the heart of its approach to training.

Jackson earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology and social studies from San Diego State University, and a master’s and a doctorate in educational leadership from the University of San Diego. He had been the district’s interim superintendent since Marten’s departure and was appointed to the position permanently this month.

Swanson remembers him as “a pleasure to have in class.” He was upset when his grandmother had to be called to talk about his skipping some classes, but smiled to hear himself described to her as a very good student. He had many friends and loved sports, particularly basketball.

Swanson said she is not surprised at his successes. “He is totally student oriented and very proud of his own two sons,” she said. “He is a gentle soul who is not afraid to allow his emotions to show.” And like any AVID student, he knows how to ask good questions.