Darral Sessions wishes AVID had been around when he was in middle school.
“I went to school here,” said Sessions, a math teacher at Coleman Middle School in Wichita. “I lived in a trailer park off Greenwich (Road). My parents both dropped out of college.
“This is something I needed in middle school and high school. But I went along not knowing and just – you know, what do you do? – you just figure it out. Teachers don’t stop and teach you how to take notes, how to organize, how to study. … You’re on your own.”
These days, as co-coordinator of Coleman’s Advancement Via Individual Determination program, Sessions’ mission is to make sure no kid is on his own. Especially kids like he was – kids who dream of college but don’t know what it takes to get there, kids whose parents might not know the drill, kids who need a little push.
It has been nearly 15 years since the Wichita school district first implemented AVID. The reform effort began at North High School in 2001 and has expanded to 39 schools: all seven comprehensive high schools, 15 middle schools and 17 elementary schools.
Officials say the district’s investment in the program – nearly $1.5 million this school year alone – has reaped huge rewards for thousands of Wichita students and their families. AVID has helped close the achievement gap between white and minority students and among socioeconomic classes.
Among AVID-enrolled students in Wichita, 99.8 percent graduate from high school on time, and 99.2 percent are accepted to college. In 2014, AVID students in Wichita collected nearly $3.7 million in college scholarship offers.
“We have several years’ worth of data, and the data is very good, both nationally and for Wichita,” said Rob Compton, who coordinates AVID in Wichita.
AVID, an international reform program based in San Diego, is a college readiness system designed to steer students who otherwise may not consider it toward college.
AVID instruction at middle and high schools includes small-group mentoring time, when students are advised by teachers and peers, as well as specific and repeated lessons on note-taking, organization and study strategies. AVID is designed to help middle-school students make the transition to high school and to guide older students toward honors and advanced-placement classes.
In elementary schools with AVID programs, teachers implement strategies schoolwide, teaching organization, time management, communication and goal setting.
Helping kids help each other
One recent morning at Coleman Middle School, students in Katie Richardson’s sixth-grade AVID class broke into tutoring groups to review concepts they were struggling with.
Before the tutorial sessions, which are held twice a week, each student completes at least one “pre-work inquiry” form, on which he or she writes down a challenging topic or question, what he or she knows about the topic and the point of confusion.
Paid tutors – most of them pursuing teaching degrees from Wichita State University – help facilitate each small group. They talk rarely, though, and don’t provide answers to questions, opting instead to help students help one another.
Kimmy Nguyen’s challenge this particular morning was a math problem: “Mr. Yoshi has 75 papers. He graded 60 papers, and he has the students grade the rest. What percent of the papers did the students grade?”
On the left side of a white board, Kimmy began figuring the equation. On the right side, she explained each step, beginning with “Turn the whole and the part into a fraction.”
“The ultimate goal would be the tutor doesn’t speak through the process. The kids are all asking each other and helping guide each other,” said Sessions, the math teacher.
Seventh-grader Jennifer Nguyen says the sessions make a difference. Her parents grew up poor and never finished elementary school, she said, so they can’t help her with homework.
“We learn to ask questions. It’s not like the teachers giving you answers all the time,” she said. “You have to think for yourself.”
A cultural shift
Much of AVID is focused on pushing students toward rigorous classes. More than 86 percent of Wichita’s 2,200 AVID students last year enrolled in at least one advanced-placement class.
“Our AP numbers, in terms of the number of students taking the courses, far exceed anything that the AVID students could have done on their own,” said Compton, the district coordinator.
“So that’s always part of the story, too. It’s this cultural shift and instructional shift.”
A poster in Richardson’s room at Coleman declares “Welcome to the family.” And that’s what AVID feels like for most students, said Sessions – a family of teachers, tutors and classmates encouraging them to do their best and stay focused on getting into college and succeeding there.
“It’s really not a program anymore. It’s a system,” said Denise Wren, a former assistant superintendent for Wichita schools who left in 2012 to become director of professional and leadership development for AVID.
“It’s been around long enough now that it’s just how we go about doing business,” she said. “It’s preparing students with rigorous classes, so they’re ready for college-level work. … That’s what colleges want: They want diverse kids who are prepared, and AVID kids fit that bill.”
Another bulletin board in Richardson’s room is labeled “We believe we are going places.” On it, she has stapled index cards on which students have written their dreams and goals.
“I believe I will go to college at Yale. I believe I will become a doctor,” Tsedenya Elias wrote. “I believe I can do great things. I believe I am intelligent. I know I’d rather be smart than popular.”
The program recently expanded into post-secondary schools as well. Butler Community College’s AVID for Higher Education program pairs students with personal advisers, tutoring labs and other support systems to ease their transition from high school to college.
“Our mission is to close the achievement gap,” said Debbie Feinberg, director of marketing and communications for the AVID Center in San Diego.
“There’s quite a number of students who are first-generation college-goers, and they need that extra little push in order to get to college. … They basically are told, ‘You can do this, and we’ll give you a little boost.’
“We create and present a strategy for educators that systematically teaches them how to teach those kids.”