County Schools Premiers New Program to Raise Visibility of All Students

As any Harry Potter fan knows, his invisibility cloak enabled Harry to wander around Hogwarts undetected, which was a very cool thing. Invisibility in a classroom, however, can be problematic, causing underrepresented students to slip between the cracks. Imagine you come from a family where college and career are never part of the dialogue; you get by in school but in many ways you’re invisible. You don’t apply for scholarships or examine career options, and it never occurs to you to focus on skills to make these options viable.

Alachua County educators are hoping underrepresented students will start to be much more visible, as they embrace a brand-new program that just premiered in four classrooms, two in Gainesville and two in Alachua, called AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination). As the name implies, the focus is on taking ownership and responsibility and differs from many initiatives for a number of reasons. First, it is imbedded in curriculum, without any potential stigma of before or after school classes, also making it easier for students who have other commitments after hours to be part of the program.

Another unique factor is it’s an elective course. For one period a day, students receive additional academic, social, and emotional support to help them succeed in their school’s most challenging courses. Students learn a more effective way of note-taking as well as writing skills, time management and organizational skills and interpersonal skills. This AVID time slot also encourages open communication—an opportunity to talk about ongoing struggles with peers—that proponents of AVID say really helps students gain more confidence. The AVID class also provides one of the most important skill sets needed, the ability to interact and communicate with confidence and professionalism.

What this can look like is a high school junior walking into a class at Gainesville High (one of the four schools utilizing this new approach to learning) and making eye contact with her teacher, shaking hands and asking to sit in the front row of class in order to help her learn more efficiently. The point is while eye contact may seem like a no-brainer, if you are part of a population that never stands out, you typically avoid making eye contact if at all possible, and almost certainly don’t opt to sit in the front of any class.

AVID elective classes are often steered by students asking other students for input, creating an environment of trust and collaboration, another way to help students build their confidence. Westwood Middle School in Gainesville, Mebane Middle School and Santa Fe High School in Alachua are the other three pilot schools involved in AVID, a teaching system that trains more than 70,000 teachers a year and serves around 6000 schools a year.

How it works: A school must apply to be part of AVID, and if accepted teachers go for three-day training, and then bring back the philosophies and methodologies to their particular school. Costs to bring in this training was $50,000 for all four schools, part of which was paid for by the Education Foundation of Alachua County, explained Executive Director Rachel Debigare. The remaining monies came from Alachua County.

“It starts at the top, with school principals excited about the leadership teams” said Debigare. “Every student has choices and AVID helps them make decisions on which direction they want to go.”

AVID offers a variety of classroom activities, lesson plans, professional learning videos, and articles that are relevant to students. And it provides schools a direct line of support to regional teams, data tracking, planning guides, and self-assessments to help schools measure their success and refine their approach. And if a student wants to participate, there is an application process that varies in each district. Typically, it includes open-ended questions offering students an opportunity to express goals, assess their achievements, and share what they want to learn in AVID.

This initiative was brought into Alachua County schools under the Office of Equity and Outreach, which was established in September of 2017 specifically to address the achievement gap through the development of an equity plan, training, and community partnership, explained Valerie Freeman, Director.

A collaborative endeavor from the get go, it’s all about building genuine relationships between teachers and students, as well as the relationships that are developed through the atmosphere created by the teacher. Circling back to visibility or lack of, one of the tenets of this program is to ensure each student is known and valued, with an emphasis on no invisible students. Strong relationships help both teachers and students set and maintain high expectations and support each other to reach these goals.

Freeman explained that 90% of students who get involved with AVID apply for college, and out of that number 90% of those students are accepted, an impressive number for any demographic and especially for students who never thought college was an option. The idea of college and advanced learning is so much a part of AVID that students involved in this initiative are now starting to apply for scholarships as early as eighth and ninth grade; they’ve been given an alternative vision of the future, along with the necessary tools to make that future a reality. Debigare said local educators are highly optimistic about the success of AVID and envision Alachua County as an AVID district, where schools from elementary through high school offer the same mind set of enrichment and empowerment, in essence leveling the playing field for all students.

By Jennifer Webb

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