In 1980, California teacher Mary Catherine Swanson started a program
called AVID to help immigrant and minority students get into college.
AVID, which stands for Advancement Via Individual Determination, is now
helping students in more than 4,000 schools in the United States and
several other countries.
An effort to help under-achieving students
The program began after Mary Swanson's suburban San Diego
school, Clairemont High, became racially integrated under a court
order. New students, many of them immigrants and African Americans,
were bussed to the school from other neighborhoods.
that many of them needed extra help to cope with their coursework, so
she set up a mentoring program for 32 students. "When I first started
AVID," she recalls, "I clearly did it for a group of students at one
high school, and I had no intention of AVID ever being anything more
Swanson says she has always believed that students
need to challenged, so she encouraged the teens in the program to
enroll in the school's toughest classes. For one period each day, they
attended the AVID class to improve their study habits, reading and
verbal skills. She assigned them problems and then broke the class into
smaller discussion groups to solve them.
Students meet academic challenges
Although Swanson taught English, the problems were in various
subjects, including science and mathematics. "The key is difficult
problems," she explains. "If I give you something easy, you as a
student interpret it that I think you're not very smart. And you won't
work very hard. So I have to make this tough."
The students had to master new ideas and be able to explain them, both orally and in writing.
were challenged, and Swanson says they responded as she hoped they
would. "Our test scores, standardized test scores, went up 35
percentage points higher than the rest of the district in mathematics,
and 48 percentage points higher in language arts." In 1984, the first
group of AVID students finished high school. All went on to college.
program was expanded, to reach students in the 4th through 12th grades.
It spread to other San Diego schools, then around the United States and
several other countries.
Swanson says there are too many success
stories to recount. But she points to one student from that first
class, a Vietnamese immigrant, who got a Ph.D. in physics and worked in
the space program, before completing a master's degree in business
administration and becoming a top executive for a major corporation.
Providing support for student goals
The AVID program uses tutors from local colleges and
universities, and also holds family workshops for parents. But the key,
Swanson says, is the students, who just need some direction and focus
in their studies.
"They are students who want to succeed in
our school systems, but don't have the support in their communities or
in their homes to be able to do that. And we give them that kind of
Swanson says the program's principles are simple:
encouraging students to tackle challenging problems and master
difficult concepts through writing and group discussions, and through
hard work. "It isn't rocket science," she observes, "it's good
teaching. But what it does is it gives it a framework for being able to
do that within our public schools, and I think that was what was
Swanson had hoped to be a reporter and, in the 1960s,
was offered a scholarship to study at Columbia University Graduate
School of Journalism. But her father, a newspaper publisher, told her
that opportunities were limited at the time for women in journalism. So
she got into teaching and says she loved it immediately. Fourteen years
later, she started AVID.
Hard work makes you smart, and successful
People often ask her why she has put so much effort into the
program over nearly 30 years. She says the answer is simple: she felt
it was her job. "I mean, I'm a public school teacher. And so I thought
my job was to teach as well as I possibly could any student who walked
through my door."
More than 300,000 students are now enrolled in
AVID and most go on to college. The program operates in the United
States, Canada, Australia and on U.S. military bases overseas.
Swanson says one of AVID's mottos is that hard work makes you smart,
and she adds, that message is also the key to success in school.