Helping Underserved Students in San Diego

About This Project

“All stakeholders must be involved in setting the vision…and deciding on the course of action to bring about change.”— Mary Catherine Swanson, Founder, AVID

In 1966, Mary Catherine Swanson, a young high-school English teacher, recognized that a traditional method of dividing students based on perceived abilities left a broad group of capable but underachieving students underserved. Convinced that with appropriate training and encouragement these students could excel in her advanced classes, Mary Catherine dedicated her master’s thesis to identifying key teaching components that would enable all students to succeed through rigorous college and professional learning. Her findings placed a strong emphasis on the Socratic method and the idea that education should focus on the development of critical thinking through conversation and experiences, rather than the direct lectures alone. This method of teaching formed the foundation of the Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID) program in 1980; a teaching philosophy that empowers underachieving students to perform at advanced placement/college-level standards while providing individualized, cross-sector social and academic support. AVID focuses on teaching students the behaviors and skills necessary to achieve academic success, allowing teachers to mentor students and letting students make decisions regarding their own academic goals. Today, AVID has evolved into a college readiness system from elementary to higher education reaching more than 700,000 students in 4,900 schools across 45 states and 16 countries. In 2013, 99 percent of the 34,229 AVID seniors graduated high school on time, and 91 percent reported plans to attend college.

Mary Catherine taught high school English for 20 years, including 14 years of AVID elective courses, before taking on the full-time task of spreading AVID to other schools. She founded the non-profit AVID Center in 1992, and has received countless accolades for her contributions to education. She currently sits on the Board of Directors for the AVID Center, UC Davis School of Education, and other non-profits. When Mary Catherine retired in 2006, she was succeeded by Jim Nelson, who led the AVID Center for seven years, followed by Dr. Sandy Husk, who became AVID’s CEO in 2014.

Balanced Motivations

In 1978, a federal court ordered the San Diego Unified School District to integrate its schools, which meant that Clairemont High School, where Mary Catherine taught English, would suddenly receive an influx of 500 minority students. Mary Catherine recognized this as an opportunity to help these students from disadvantaged backgrounds prepare for college and careers. When she started AVID, her goal was to meet the needs of a specific high school. However, when all 30 members of her first AVID class attended college, she recognized the need to spread AVID’s teaching methodologies so that other students could experience similar success. As a result, when the California Department of Education offered her a position to disseminate AVID to other schools in the state, she readily accepted. In her desire to create public value, Mary Catherine left teaching after 20 years to help teach educators how to implement AVID in other schools.

Transferable Skills

Mary Catherine wanted to report on hard news stories growing up. Her father was a newspaper publisher which influenced her decision to major in English and Journalism at UC Berkeley, after which she worked as a summer intern for the San Francisco Chronicle. Through these experiences, she learned the importance of working with objective data and how to perform proper quantitative analysis. When forming AVID, Mary Catherine adopted a “data is our friend” motto. She relied on impartial evidence, like low minority college enrollment rates and high minority college dropout rates, to demonstrate the need for educational reform in high schools, and a high school’s demographic information, like school attendance, citizenship, and academic performance, as a baseline indicator of a school’s academic potential. These baseline indicators enabled Mary Catherine to identify underperforming students, or those students with high attendance rates but average grades. By targeting these underperforming students with her well-researched AVID methodologies and by using improved grade point averages, skills test results, and college enrollment as evidence of improvement, Mary Catherine developed a means to identify where AVID could make the biggest impact in a school. Moreover, through continually collecting and assessing data on the progress of AVID, Mary Catherine developed decades of quantifiable evidence on the need and success of the AVID program. She now attributes the long-term success of AVID in both achieving results and attracting partners to this strong reliance on quality data.

Integrated Networks

As a young teacher, Mary Catherine was always eager to find and build relationships with the “best” teachers at different schools. She often visited the classrooms of teachers she admired to learn from them in real teaching situations which allowed her to develop several meaningful relationships with teachers whom she respected. By the time Mary Catherine came up with the idea for AVID, she had a wide network of mentors and colleagues. One such mentor, Jim Grove, director of the gifted seminar program at Clairemont High School, helped Mary Catherine work through ways to integrate disadvantaged AVID youth into his advanced courses during a time when many teachers doubted that these students could succeed in an intense learning environment. Jim further exposed AVID students to the rigors of college and career through inviting AVID students to join his gifted class during guest speakers and on field trips to colleges. Having distinguished teachers like Jim involved with AVID also helped add prestige and legitimacy to the AVID program when approaching school boards and other potential partners about changing the way they approached education.

Intellectual Thread

While obtaining a master’s degree in education at UC Davis, Mary Catherine studied the philosophy, teaching practices, and curriculum necessary to enable all students to succeed. In addition to this academic foundation, Mary Catherine also has 20 years of teaching experience ranging from remedial classes to Advanced Placement courses, including 14 years implementing AVID methodologies. This subject matter expertise, direct work experience, and comprehensive understanding of the full spectrum of teaching techniques gave Mary Catherine unique insight into how to implement AVID at different schools and the confidence to speak with potential partners regardless of their sector or professional title.

Establish a governance structure

In establishing AVID’s first collaboration of educational professionals from different sectors, Mary Catherine united teachers and students from Clairemont High School with representatives from the California Department of Education and professors from UC San Diego, San Diego State University, Mesa Community College, and Point Loma Nazarene University. The collaboration met monthly and during the first few meetings, despite working towards a common goal, had difficulty reaching a consensus on everything from how to set up the curriculum to even what defined quality writing. After the difficulties presented in these initial meetings, the larger collaboration divided into smaller cross-curriculum groups, where teachers could focus on their own areas of expertise, feel comfortable about contributing their ideas, and learn from each other’s experiences teaching different subjects. Within three months of making this change, all members of the collaboration could point to positive solutions in how to better prepare students for college through using writing as a tool for learning. Eventually, through continued meetings, shared learning experiences, and positive academic results from pairing high school students with college tutors, the collaboration not only developed a new curriculum to prepare students for four year college, but also worked to change how the state assessed student writing competency.

Recruit a powerful sponsor or champion

AVID’s mission is “to close the achievement gap by preparing all students for college readiness.” As AVID began to expand beyond the state of California, Mary Catherine realized that partnering with a well-known national organization with a sincere commitment to the mission of AVID would lend credibility and legitimacy to the program’s methodologies and also help attract public attention to the collaboration. A natural partner was College Board, a non-profit organization dedicated to connecting students to college opportunities. College Board is best known for administering the SAT and Advanced Placement exams, but also provides college readiness services through programs like ReadiStep and SpringBoard English. Through this partnership, College Board gained new ways to improve their curriculum to better address achievement disparities, including creating groups such as the African American Male Initiative, the Girls Empowerment Movement, and the Organizational Binder Initiative. AVID gained national support from the organization administering tests AVID students needed to take to succeed. The partnership also allowed AVID to expand their own operations to provide academic support to advanced placement classes. Today, AVID continues this collaborative approach, although on a much broader scale, with a multitude of partnerships and alliances with organizations across the nation that share AVID’s commitment to closing the achievement gap.

Commit to information sharing

The AVID Center has an extensive electronic archive with a comprehensive narrative of AVID’s annual progress and a searchable database of nearly 50 years of AVID-related documents and 34 years of direct AVID data. Available documents include everything from Mary Catherine’s early research and notes on AVID methodologies to personal correspondence sent between members of the collaboration. Through the archive, current collaborators can view a complete history of AVID, including the program’s historical sources of funding, achievement milestones, and reasons for collaboration. The database also highlights some of the program’s early missteps, including a failure to adequately prepare for AVID’s rapid expansion. Through openly discussing initial stumbling blocks, the archives help to create a roadmap to preventing future unnecessary conflicts during AVID’s present expansion. In addition to improving the effectiveness of the collaboration, the AVID archives also promote an atmosphere of trust among collaborators who can view all of AVID’s past involvements.

Tell the story

A significant contributing factor to the long-term success of AVID has been the program’s ability to evolve over the years through constant assessment of the collaboration’s success. Through school follow-ups, summer workshops, professional learning events, AVID Showcases, and an annual national conference, AVID has established a platform to both receive feedback and disperse appropriate adjustments to AVID educators. For example, through AVID Showcases hosted by AVID-participating schools across the country, anyone interested in learning more about AVID has the opportunity to gain first-hand insight into an AVID implementation by directly observing and speaking with AVID teachers and students. Moreover, the AVID National Conference creates a forum for educators and other collaborators to gather and discuss program success stories, professional learning opportunities, annual progress towards achieving goals, and current best practices for preparing all students for college and career readiness.

Today, AVID works with over 700,000 underachieving students in more than 4,900 schools across 45 states and 16 countries. As an educational reform program, AVID has achieved continuous success with approximately 95 percent of students who participate in at least three years of AVID courses enrolling in college – 75 percent higher than the national average. In fact, AVID students also exceed the national average in percent graduating high school, percent of Latin-American and African-American students attending college, percent of students completing university entrance requirements, percent of eighth graders taking algebra, and percent of high school graduates taking at least one AP exam. Moreover, this success continues through college with 89 percent of AVID students who enter college ultimately receiving a degree. AVID Center’s CEO, Sandy Husk, has outlined the future goals for AVID Center as:

  • Retain and expand AVID sites, with a special focus on secondary schools;
  • Improve the quality of implementation of AVID across all sites; and
  • Monitor AVID’s graduates college acceptance and persistence rates.