Thursday, August 04, 2005 | This is part one in a two-part series.

The small size of the book belies its power – 25 years, 25 stories.

It tells of children from poor families, many with miserable home lives, non-English speaking children, gang members, immigrants, orphans and drug users, children victimized by prejudice, poverty, ill health, violence and neglect.

It tells of students from all walks of life who most educators had given up on who found salvation in a program begun 25 years ago by a determined woman with a dream, a teacher who never stopped believing in the ability of all children to succeed if given academic rigor, persistent support and unflagging encouragement.

This week, the nationally recognized Advancement Via Individual Determination movement, begun in San Diego in 1980, celebrates its 25th anniversary by honoring the program’s founder, visionary Mary Catherine Swanson, and all the students whose lives she touched through AVID, which has become an acclaimed model for success throughout the country.

In honor of the occasion, the nonprofit AVID Center, headquartered in San Diego and run by Swanson, has published a book featuring the stories of 25 former AVID students and teachers, each of whom briefly describes in emotional words their experiences with the revolutionary program that changed their lives forever.

Maximo Escobedo is one such student. Escobedo, the fourth of eight boys in his family, had just moved to San Diego from Mexico with his family in 1979, because his parents sought better opportunities for their children. But school was difficult and full of unknowns. “I was at a disadvantage,” Escobedo said, looking back at his first year in the U.S. as a sophomore enrolled in the English as a Second Language class at Clairemont High School. “I didn’t speak the language. I didn’t know how to function here. I didn’t know what to do.”

The following year, he was recruited by English teacher Swanson to take part in an experiment called AVID. Composed of 32 students who were bused to school from the inner city, that first AVID class was created by Swanson in response to a court judgment in 1977, the Carlin Decision, which forced the San Diego Unified School District to de-segregate its schools.

Determined not to give up on these students, Swanson developed early ideas for a class that would set high standards for academic rigor, provide a solid support system, teach necessary study habits and provide scholastic tools that would help these children reach their full potential, graduate high school, attend college and eventually become successful and productive citizens.

Many other students in that founding class also spoke little English, and some faced major challenges in their home lives – like alcohol, drugs, crime and abuse – that made college an impossible dream. Many students’ parents never graduated from high school, and none had ever attended college. For most, escape from the trap of poverty and hopelessness seemed unattainable.

Yet Swanson believed that, given a demanding curriculum and personal attention from specially trained teachers, traditionally underserved students in the academic middle could be motivated to apply themselves, making success not just possible but likely.

“I was shocked by the high expectations of AVID,” said Escobedo, who was placed in an advanced American literature class right out of ESL. The following year as a senior, he took honors English and college-level political science.

“It was very tough – intensive and intimidating,” he said in fluent English. “Most kids [in those classes] were the brains in the school. There was just a handful of us AVID students.”

Escobedo knew he should take the AVID class, although it meant giving up the one thing he loved – his art elective. But “AVID made a lot of sense” and was worth the sacrifice, he said, describing the decision as “mind over heart.” But he needn’t have worried. “Once Mary Catherine found out I had to give up my art class, she contacted the art teacher and found a way for me to take art also,” he said. “What a difference a great teacher makes.”

Thinking back to the students in that first class, Escobedo said that without AVID, “it would have delayed our potential by years. I would have spent time on my own in the library every day just looking at art books. AVID gave me rigor with support, and the confidence I needed. It leveled the playing field for me.”

Escobedo was one of the lucky ones. Calling his parents his biggest source of strength and inspiration, he had a strong, wholesome family foundation and their love and encouragement. His parents, he said, are “the most decent, hardest working people I have ever known.”

But their support alone was not enough to provide their large family with the means and know-how for their children to advance in life, Escobedo said. Neither of his parents had finished grade school, and they had no money for college for their eight sons. They knew education was key to a better life for their children, but finding a way to open doors to greater opportunity for their kids was daunting.

With AVID’s help, Escobedo, now 40, graduated from Clairemont High School, San Diego State University and then the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, which is recognized as one of the world’s foremost colleges in art and design education.

Married today with two daughters ages 5 and 8, he said his parents are very proud of their eight sons, five of whom are engineers, one a high school teacher, one a Catholic priest and one a graphic designer. He credits Swanson and the AVID program for inspiring him to acquire the education he needed to become independent and successful and pursue his dream.

Now head of his own graphic design firm in San Diego called Maximo, Inc., Escobedo said he was “incredibly moved” when Swanson asked him to develop the creative design, an elegantly crafted package, for AVID’s 25th anniversary commemorative book. The 130-page book, which presents Escobedo’s story along with 24 others, was compiled and written by Bob Ross, a San Diego freelance writer and photojournalist, and is available through the AVID Center.

One of thousands of AVID success stories, Escobedo said he will never forget the opportunities AVID and Swanson gave to him 25 years ago, when he was invited to participate in a tiny class that launched a nationwide movement. In a scripted note within the book package, he dedicated the book to “the extraordinary AVID teachers, tutors and students who touched our lives during the first 25 years of AVID … and those still to come over the next 25.”

Read Part Two – Celebrating 25 Years of Student Achievement

Please contact Marsha Sutton directly at

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