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California Teacher's Program Helps Underprivileged Students Prepare for College


Mary Catherine Swanson
Mary Catherine Swanson

More than 300,000 students are now enrolled in AVID and most will go on to college

Immigrant and minority students in the United States often face obstacles getting into college. To help them, California teacher Mary Catherine Swanson started a program that has expanded to more than 4,000 schools and is Making a Difference in the lives of hundreds of thousands of students in the United States and abroad.

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The program is called AVID, Advancement Via Individual Determination. It began in 1980, when Swanson's suburban San Diego school, Claremont High School, became racially integrated under a court order. New students, many of them immigrants and African Americans, were bused to the school from poor neighborhoods.

Many needed extra help to cope with the heavy coursework, so Swanson started the program with 32 of her students, and then got other students, teachers and college-age tutors involved. She says the program is based on problem solving through group discussions and writing. "I taught the teachers how to put the students in groups with very thought-provoking questions and have the students solve those things and then give them back to us - a different way of teaching," she said.

The students got extra help in subjects ranging from English to mathematics. Swanson says the students were challenged, and they responded. "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," she said.

She says the students were eager to learn, and just needed direction and focus. "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," she said.

More than 300,000 students are now enrolled in AVID and most will go on to college. The program has expanded to include the 4th through 12th grades, and it operates throughout the United States and on U.S. military bases overseas.

The program also reaches out to Canadian and Australian students.

Swanson says its principles are simple, encouraging students to tackle challenging problems and master difficult concepts through writing, group discussions and hard work. "There are no shortcuts to any of this. It is all hard work. But it's working smart, knowing how to learn, knowing how to teach the students how to learn," she said.

Swanson says AVID teachers tell their students that the hard work will payoff for the rest of their lives.