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Friday, Aug. 25, 2006 | Twenty-six years ago, Mary Catherine Swanson founded AVID (Advancement Via Individual Achievement), a college preparatory system, in a single San Diego classroom. This fall, her vision that every student should be given the opportunity to attend college will expand to more than 2,600 middle and high schools in 40 states and 15 countries. As the recently appointed executive director, I know I assume a huge responsibility to continue the success Mary Catherine and the AVID team have established.

AVID is based on the idea that students in the academic middle, given sufficient support, will succeed in rigorous coursework and can succeed in college. The AVID program, taken as an elective class, targets the marginal student who just gets by, often getting “C” grades in courses that are not rigorous. This is frequently the student who sits at the back of the classroom, largely invisible. To change this, they must be placed into rigorous curriculum in order to be challenged and to adequately prepare them for college work.

Challenging students brings out the best in them. It sends the message that teachers care about them and think they’re highly capable. Conversely, watered-down curriculum can send the message that we don’t expect much of our students. However, the key in raising expectations is to provide the extra help and support. I believe that all students, with very few exceptions, are capable of completing the college preparatory classes needed to qualify for four-year colleges and universities. And that is precisely the goal of AVID, to make sure all students are prepared for college success.

This is a daunting task as we face many challenges. One is that the economic divide appears to be growing. The middle class is shrinking and we’re becoming a more polarized nation. Families who lack an academic tradition are at a real disadvantage. Chances are their children and their children’s children aren’t going to college. AVID breaks this cycle by opening the college dream to families who otherwise would have been left out of the mainstream.

One initiative AVID has undertaken to help more students become college-ready is a collaborative with the College Board. Together, we meet regularly with 20 or so superintendents from across the country and discuss how districts can lead the way in ensuring that far more students leave our high schools ready for college. We also host a national conference, drawing superintendents nationwide to discuss best practices and systemic changes to prepare more students for college.

This collaborative between AVID and the College Board has been a positive venture, and we are looking at ways to expand it. We want to include more superintendents from an even broader cross-section of the country. We also want to find additional partnership opportunities with the College Board and other organizations interested in college readiness issues.

One key is targeting students at an earlier age. The sooner we intervene and support students, the better chance they have of succeeding in high school. AVID is expanding from a middle and high school program to a grade 5-12 program. This gives students a better chance of succeeding in middle school, which gives them a better chance in high school, finally giving them a better chance in college.

Another issue faced by educators is the shrinking pool of teachers. AVID does a tremendous job of helping districts retain and develop highly trained teachers. One refrain we hear over and over again from AVID teachers is, “This is why I got into teaching.” People who enter the teaching field usually do so because they love kids. Sure, they love the material and love teaching, but overriding that is a love of kids. But typical teachers soon find themselves buried in testing and grading 150 papers, and they’re simply not able to provide the kind of personalized attention that many students need. And yes, many burn out. AVID allows teachers to focus on the whole student and his or her comprehensive needs. We talk about the achievement gap, but part of the problem is a teacher-student gap. AVID brings the teacher much closer to the student. What we’ve seen, as a result, is that AVID often rekindles one’s passion for teaching.

Looking forward, I want to maintain and continue the growth AVID has seen recently. I see large growth opportunities in California and across the country, both with our current and new districts. Many schools have seen the benefits of AVID in one or more sections and have decided to take it a step further and incorporate AVID school-wide or even district-wide. This is a large endeavor, but we are excited about helping schools expand the program so they can reach more students.

However, as we grow, I will be taking a careful look at AVID’s core competencies to ensure that we maintain the quality, consistency and passionate commitment to students and teachers for which AVID is renowned. I am also committed to advancing AVID Center’s long-term vision, which is to ensure that school systems make the college dream accessible to all students, not just those from advantaged backgrounds. This is something I feel passionately about. The writing on the wall is clear. If we don’t prepare most students to be college ready, then we’re failing not only these young people but, increasingly, our economic and moral position in the world depends on how well we rise to this challenge.

I am excited to be here, and all of us at AVID are committed to our being a leader in addressing these significant challenges.

Jim Nelson, former superintendent of the Richardson, Texas Independent School District, became executive director of AVID Center on Aug. 1. He was appointed in May after a nationwide search to succeed founder and Executive Director Mary Catherine Swanson, who retired in June. Send a letter to the editor here.

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