Bell Gardens High School in east Los Angeles County was a sorry mess when science teacher Liz Lowe arrived in 1989. More than 3,000 students crowded into school buildings surrounding a concrete quadrangle with patches of grass and some trees. Expectations were low. Not much learning was done.
“It hurt my soul that here were these wonderful students who were very, very capable, but they were expected to be the working poor,” Lowe recalled.
Today, that community is still poor and ethnically isolated. Bell Gardens High has a student body that is 99 percent Latino. According to the 2010 census, the education level of its students’ parents was the lowest of any community of similar size in the state. The median household annual income was slightly more than $30,000.
Yet something unexpected has happened to the level of learning at the school. Bell Gardens High’s Academic Performance Index score, the 1,000-point scale that was used by California to measure test score success, has gone from 469 in 1999 to 704 in 2013 (the latest reported year). The school was ranked in the top 7 percent of all U.S. schools on the 2015 America’s Most Challenging High Schools list, a measure of college-level test participation I put out each year for The Washington Post.
Bell Gardens educators and parents agree that a program called AVID, short for Advancement Via Individual Determination, has much to do with the transformation.
Non-profit AVID (pronounced like the word that means “eager”) is the largest college readiness program in the country. Its success has much to do with unusually effective teacher training and a tutoring system that goes deeper than any I have ever seen.
AVID began in 1980 when Mary Catherine Swanson, the head of the English department at Clairemont High School in northern San Diego, decided to experiment with 32 low-income students coming to her suburban school as part of a busing program. Many teachers at her school said those Latino and black children should be put in remedial classes, but Swanson felt that if they were placed in a daily class that taught study skills and time management and provided tutoring, they could eventually handle even college-level Advanced Placement classes.
As Bell Gardens learned, the program was not easy. AVID classes demanded that students keep their work in order and, even more shocking to American teenagers, required that they learn how to take notes properly and do so in all of their courses. The tutoring was even more of a challenge.
Every Tuesday and Thursday, tutors, usually college students, would arrive to help students with homework questions that stumped them. The tutors did not follow the usual practice of telling tutees where they went wrong. Instead they trained the students to ask questions of whomever was discussing a particular difficulty, to help think through the problem. It took weeks, sometimes months, to get the hang of it.
Lowe, now the AVID coordinator at Bell Gardens, in 1994 was the first teacher at the school to get the one-week AVID training course. But it took three years for Bell Gardens to start its program. Juan Herrera, now the school’s principal, was then the school’s state and federal project director. He was very taken with the AVID emphasis on recruiting average low-income students. His father had been a janitor, his mother a seamstress. Kids like him tended to be left out, he thought, even though they would have benefited from an extra push.
State and district backing for the program has been helpful. Bell Gardens has about $115,000 for tutors this year. Its AVID program grew from 29 ninth graders in 1997 to 566 students, about 16 percent of the total school enrollment this year. It became so successful maintaining standards that it achieved National Demonstration School status, a designation given to only two percent of AVID schools.
Mario Martin del Campo, a former Bell Garden AVID student who became an AVID tutor, said he noticed at California State University, Northridge, where he was an English major, that students without AVID experience often gave up. They’d just say, “I don’t get it.” By contrast, del Campo said, his reaction to a difficult college assignment would be “I don’t know how to do it but I’m going to try it and see how far I get.”
The AVID classes make Bell Gardens High School a very different place from what it was in 1989. Educators like Lowe and Herrera think more schools stuck in poverty could make the same transition, if they are willing to fight for the money and make it extremely difficult for their kids to give up on themselves.
Jay Mathews, a Washington Post columnist, is the author of Question Everything: The Rise of AVID as America’s Largest College Readiness Program. He wrote this for “Reimagining California,” a partnership of the California Endowment and Zócalo Public Square.
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