It’s 11am on a Tuesday, and class at Jack Jouett Middle School is in full swing. Seventh graders in Christine Jacobs’ class are sitting in a circle, discussing a legal article they read and analyzed for homework the night before. Everybody’s either engaged in the conversation or actively taking notes, nobody is doodling in a notebook or staring into space, and a student who used to hesitate to speak up in class raises his hand and compares the Civil Rights Movement to the current struggle for gay rights.
Jacobs teaches the Advancement Via Individual Determination* (AVID) elective course, an international nonprofit college readiness program that is designed to prepare middling students for advanced classes, but also to improve overall school-wide performance. Jouett adopted the program four years ago with Jacobs’ help, and with its new status as an AVID demonstration school, will serve as an example for visiting teachers and administrators who want to implement the program elsewhere. About 60 kids currently participate, and Jacobs said next year’s numbers will be higher than ever.
The AVID program is competitive, with an extensive application process. Students must maintain a 3.0 grade point average, have a good attendance record, meet an SOL score minimum, and interview one-on-one with administrators. Jouett is one of six Albemarle County schools with the program, and Charlottesville City Schools have also incorporated the system into their curriculum.
Jacobs said the program targets kids who fly below the radar with decent grades, but don’t yet have the motivation for advanced classes. Most AVID students come from homes with parents who are unable to provide the academic support they need to excel, and would be the first in their families to graduate from a four-year university.
“The majority of these kids didn’t think they would go to college,” Jacobs said. “We’re sort of selling them the dream.”
Once they’re in, they learn organizational skills, note-taking, and public speaking, and work twice a week in small groups with local college students. They also develop “soft skills,” Jacobs said, like making eye contact, sitting in the front of a classroom, and asking challenging questions.
“It’s always been so important that students leave the class knowing facts and specific bullets of information,” Jacobs said. “This makes me instead think it’s much more important for them to be critical thinkers, critical readers, and to have really good questions and discussions about that factual information.”
With heightened pressure on Virginia’s teachers to push students to higher SOL scores, education is becoming increasingly more standards-driven, said AVID Eastern Division Director Ann Hart. Teachers and administrators agree that standardized testing is important, but the program is designed to teach students how to problem-solve and work step-by-step through tough questions rather than memorizing facts.
“State standards are the what, and AVID is a how,” Hart said. “It provides the process and structure, the organization.”
Hart said tracking the program’s success has been a challenge. Nearly 70 percent of AVID seniors go on to college, but she said without a mechanism to examine retention rates and numbers, success stories beyond graduation have been anecdotal thus far. About 85 percent of colleges and universities across the country are sharing their data now, and AVID should release a report about success rates within the next eight months.
Jouett AVID Coordinator Ashby Johnson, who oversees the program and works with both students and teachers, said it can only be sustainable and successful with strong support from administrative staff. Luckily, she said, Principal Kathryn Baylor has been behind it since day one.
Baylor said she has had to carefully budget for the instructors’ salaries, which are just below the cost of a full teaching position.
“We’ve had to rearrange staff to make that work out,” Baylor said. “But I believe all the sacrifice is worth the reward. The students’ individual determination to get better spreads out to all the other kids in this school.”
Part of Jouett’s success is a concerted effort to expand AVID tools and processes into every classroom, not just the electives. Nearly half of the school’s teachers participate in summer training on AVID systems and techniques, and Baylor said she’s seen the whole student body transform as students get comfortable in the program and push their peers to do the same.
Eighth grader Nate Gibson is wrapping up his first year in the program, and said his organizational skills and grades have already improved.
“You can ask any of my teachers,” he said. “My organization was terrible. They used to tell me I left a paper trail behind me.”
In addition to a higher GPA and a more manageable three-ring binder, Gibson said his favorite thing has been the field trips. Jouett’s AVID classes took joint trips with Burley Middle School to visit the University of Maryland and the Charlottesville Albemarle Technical Education Center, which Gibson said gave him new ideas about what he wants to study.
Classmate Alexis Johnson said her organizational skills have also improved, and the overall atmosphere of the elective is not the same as other middle school classes.
“People were more welcoming,” she said. “There’s really a family feeling in class.”
Now that Jouett has been named a demonstration school, Johnson and Gibson said they have a new feeling of accomplishment, and are proud to be a part of moving the school and the program forward.
“I think it’s pretty cool,” Johnson said. “We’ve put in a lot of work to get to where we are.”
The selection process for demonstration schools is a long one, and only about 140 of the 4,900 worldwide schools with AVID are given the title. The status gives Jouett bragging rights, but Baylor says it also keeps them on their toes.
“It’s just the beginning of a whole new aspect of the journey,” Baylor said. “Now that we’ve achieved that goal, our task is to become even better. Our job is to continue to grow within our school and share the journey with others.”
*AVID was incorrectly identified in the print version of this story as “Advancement Via Individual Development.”