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Friday, August 05, 2005 | This is part two in a two-part series. Read part one.

Precious Jackson defied the odds. She did not drop out, get pregnant or join a gang by her sophomore year of high school, as she was predicted to do. Despite growing up in a world of drugs, alcohol, physical abuse, gangs and violence, she graduated high school in San Diego, attended and graduated from Howard University in Washington, D.C., and now studies to be a teacher.

“Prior to my transition to college, I had gone to more funerals, baby showers, court appearances and violence prevention meetings than birthdays,” she told 3,800 teachers at a training session for the Advancement Via Individual Determination program in Mission Valley on Thursday.

During the emotional keynote address, Jackson and two other AVID graduates movingly described how AVID transformed their lives and made college accessible for them and thousands of other students. They thanked AVID founder Mary Catherine Swanson for giving them hope and a quality education.

“Mary Catherine has changed the course of history,” Jackson said through her tears.

AVID, which this week celebrates its 25th anniversary, began in San Diego’s Clairemont High School in 1980 in a single classroom of 32 students. Since its modest beginnings, AVID has spread like wildfire, serving more than 200,000 students and becoming one of the most successful college-preparatory programs ever for low-income, underserved students in over 1,900 U.S. schools in 35 states, Canada and 15 countries through the Department of Defense Dependent Schools.

From Virginia Superintendent Wayne Lett to Poway Superintendent Don Phillips, all across the country AVID has been recognized and lauded by educators who have implemented Swanson’s program and achieved extraordinary results.

Washington Post columnist Jay Mathews wrote, “I don’t know of any single person in the country who has done more for our school children than AVID founder Mary Catherine Swanson.”

California education secretary Alan Bersin said, “Mary Catherine is one of those educators who had the courage of her convictions and the stick-to-it attitude that produced a significant innovation.”

“Twenty-five years ago, I never believed it would go beyond Clairemont High School,” said Swanson, calling the growth of the program unintentional. “We just put one foot in front of the other, and look what happened.”

AVID works by identifying those seventh- through 12th-grade students in the academic middle, not the students who are flunking but those getting Cs and low Bs. At risk for failure, AVID students are often overlooked because they fall between the gifted and the remedial.

They must exhibit ability, motivation, determination and, given their family history, be considered unlikely to attend college. Because many do not speak English as their first language, their potential for success can be hidden from view or easily disregarded, according to Swanson. They are typically poor, minority students with difficult home lives who have no college-going role models in their immediate families.

“Josie was abused by her father who used to beat her and throw her against the wall,” said Swanson, who peppers her conversations with stories of AVID students who overcame tremendous odds through sheer grit and resolve.

“In middle school she was told she wouldn’t succeed. She used to ask for books to read, and they said no. Can you imagine? She’s now written a book and is a published author, and is getting her Ph.D. at Irvine.”

Swanson used this example to emphasize how critical teacher expectations and support are in student success. “You have to give kids academic rigor, and they have to know you’re on their side,” she said. “Then they’ll do whatever you ask.”

Swanson’s mantra is: “Rigor without support is a prescription for failure; support without rigor is a tragic waste of potential.”

The strategies

Developed and refined by high school and college teachers, the AVID curriculum focuses on writing, inquiry, collaboration and reading. Using WIC-R, AVID emphasizes active learning, communication skills, critical thinking and in-depth analysis of material – strategies crucial for college admission and success.

To help AVID students reach their full potential, the program also places high demands on its students, enrolling them in rigorous honors and Advanced Placement classes while providing the tutorial and classroom support they need to succeed.

“This isn’t magic,” Swanson said. “It’s not a silver bullet. This is just hard work.”

AVID is an elective class that meets like all other middle- and high-school classes. Specially trained AVID teachers instruct their students how to study, take notes, read critically, ask probing questions, get organized, avoid discouragement, stay on track and be determined and motivated. AVID teachers are trained to bring out the best in their students and also to serve as advocates and friends, someone the students can turn to for help in both their personal and school lives.

Because it can take a year before grades rise, some AVID students become discouraged and drop the class.

“There are kids who will not do this,” Swanson said. “We lose 5 to 7 percent every year. The most common reason is that they don’t want to work that hard. It’s voluntary. We can’t force the kids to do it. It takes goal-setting, hard work and commitment. They have to want to go to college.”

An English teacher for 14 years before developing AVID in 1980, Swanson, named America’s Best Teacher in 2001 by Time and CNN, taught advanced and remedial classes. “I knew what it took to motivate the top and the bottom,” she said. “But it was very hard to get the middle to set goals. Nevertheless, I really thought I could do it. At the time, it was just band-aiding kids against an unjust system” – a system Swanson said favors children who, by accident of birth, come from stable, middle- or upper-class families with a college-going tradition.

AVID took off after schoolwide performance soared at Clairemont High School, part of the San Diego Unified School District, increasing 46 percent in language arts and 35 percent in math in one year. Swanson said SDUSD officials saw the dramatic improvements, took her AVID model and standardized the program for other teachers in the district.

Swanson worked at Clairemont from 1970 until 1986, when she moved to the San Diego County Office of Education after receiving a state grant to disseminate AVID to all county schools. “I remember how much the grant was for,” she said. “It was $60,000 – $30,000 for materials for schools and $30,000 for my salary.”

When school districts from other counties throughout the state and the country began to take notice, Swanson, now 60, left SDCOE and opened the San Diego-based nonprofit AVID Center in 1992. Married with one son who is a high school teacher in Poway, she plans to retire next year after 40 years in education.

The evidence

Luis Acle, president of SDUSD’s Board of Education, however, was lukewarm.

“AVID has been extremely useful for some children, but not all children learn the same way,” he said. “There are many who are very quick to sing its praises, but we will wait for some recommendations and analysis from our new superintendent, Dr. Carl Cohn. He’s the expert.”

Ottinger said Cohn “made good use of AVID,” among other strategies, to increase achievement at the Long Beach Unified School District when Cohn served there from 1992 to 2002. Ottinger is hopeful that AVID strategies will be employed more broadly at SDUSD in the years ahead.

“There has been uneven implementation across the district,” he said. Instead of the typical 5 percent of a school’s population enrolled in AVID, he would like to see more students involved in AVID and all teachers trained in AVID strategies, to make college possible for even more students.

According to AVID and third-party data, 98 percent of AVID students graduate from high school, compared to 70 percent of all students nationally. In one study at one school, Latino and black AVID students passed the high school exit exam at a rate nearly twice that of their non-AVID peers.

Of AVID high school graduates, 95 percent attend college, 77 percent of whom attend four-year universities. The national average of all students for four-year college enrollment is 35 percent. AVID students also have higher college retention rates.

According to a study by the California Department of Education, 81 percent of AVID students complete the rigorous requirements for high school coursework demanded by the University of California system, compared to 34 percent of overall California high school students.

In New Mexico, at Tse Bit Ai Middle School, 100 percent of AVID eighth-graders passed Algebra I last year, compared to about 40 percent of the school’s total eighth-grade class.

The ethnic breakdown for AVID students from 2004 data indicates that 48 percent are Hispanic, 24 percent white, 16 percent black, and 7 percent Asian and Filipino.

Because of the documented success of AVID strategies, supporters say the program also changes the way classmates regard low-income, minority students at their school when they see AVID kids achieve at the highest levels and enroll in top universities. The program also has added benefits to schools and districts, they say, by helping to close the achievement gap, raise test scores and meet legislative goals for improved academic performance.

“It is the data, data, data that has really made the difference” in the success of the program, Ottinger said.

25 years and counting

“We have had protests from GATE (Gifted and Talented Education) parents,” Swanson said. “They think it will water down the GATE program (to have AVID kids included). But we can’t water down AP classes because exams are nationally standardized.”

However, she said when AVID kids rise to meet the challenge, misgivings from parents of GATE students usually dissipate.

AVID Center is a nonprofit educational organization that receives funding from grants and foundations, school districts and the state of California, which last year allocated about $9 million to the program. Ottinger said it costs each school about $3,500 per year to run one AVID class of about 25 students each. This equates to $140 per student.

With 34 employees – including Swanson, Ottinger and California director Granger Ward, former superintendent of the Grossmont Union High School District – AVID Center provides program materials, curriculum, teacher training and on-site support, and oversees operations at its eastern, central and western divisions in Atlanta, Austin and Denver, respectively.

In her keynote address before the teachers Thursday, Swanson said the most frustrating obstacles were not the students but rather were institutional, what she called “the usual suspects” – fear of change, turf battles, politics, lack of imagination, small-mindedness and complacency. “And as far as we have come in 25 years, still today these impediments exist,” she said.

Former AVID students today are doctors, lawyers, engineers, scientists, computer and technology experts and other professionals. “But because they experienced such a good education along the way, the most common is teaching,” she said.

Swanson said of her original class, “In these students I saw bravery and hope as they awoke in the cold dawn and left their communities … Embarking on a journey takes courage. It takes courage for our students to stare down the low expectations that society harbors for them, the soft bigotry that bubbles just beneath the surface … But we have proved that schools can be transformative institutions and that students do not have to be bound by their backgrounds.”

In the years ahead, Swanson said she’d like to see AVID a more integral part of every school system. She’d also like to address the needs of failing students.

“The ones we really haven’t tackled are the straight D and F kids,” she said. “But I think I know how to do it.” These students need double the amount of learning time with more intensive support and tutoring, she said. “And you have to give them tougher curriculum. If you keep giving them remedial work, they won’t learn anything.”

AVID, Swanson said, is ultimately about self-discovery, when children move from quiet acceptance to active participation. It’s also about teachers, and having faith in students and their ability to go farther than anyone ever thought they could. “I’ve never defined myself as more than a teacher,” she said proudly.

Please contact Marsha Sutton directly at

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