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California Teacher's AVID Program Prepares Students for College

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.

She says 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 than that."

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.

They 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.

The 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 support."

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 missing."

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.

Mary 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.