Keeping the doors to academics open

Siuslaw schools initiate AVID program in light of challenges of learning in new era

Sept. 12, 2018 — 

“My mom was my eighth-grade English teacher, and my dad was a sixth-grade social studies teacher,” said Siuslaw High School English Language Arts teacher Max Perry. “I had a C in my mom’s class. I remember the last day of the year, she said, ‘If you do this assignment, you’ll get a B.’ I thought, ‘Eh, it’s all good. I don’t need to do it.’

“The importance of school doesn’t feel real sometimes, until you get into high school. It becomes very real, very fast. If you start slacking off in your freshman year, you begin to realize it.”

Siuslaw High School Counselor Steven Moser added, “A lot of freshmen can’t be a mediocre middle school student and then just show up, day-one, and say, ‘I’m going to kill it in high school.’ It’s very rare for that to happen. That mindset gets locked in. If you’re a B or C student in middle school, that’s what’s going to happen.”

Perry, Moser and Siuslaw High School Principal Kerri Tatum were talking about the new Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID) program that is being instituted in the school district this year, and the types of students that they aim to help with the program.

“We have our college students, and we have those who are in the alternative education,” Moser said. “We have full day options for students who need smaller class sizes. We have online learning options. But it’s not something that average kids who get Cs and Bs are really going to utilize.”

Enter AVID, a program that was built in the 1980s with the goal of helping low-income students achieve college readiness, especially those traditionally underrepresented in higher education. The program is taught in 44 states in more than 5,000 schools, including Mapleton School District.

Students apply for the program on their own — it’s not mandatory — and enter a cohort that will guide them throughout their high school career, bolstering their abilities in note taking, studying skills, organizing and collaboration. It’s meant to help students who have been doing “just enough” to get by.

“Speaking as someone who was at that level, sometimes it’s just apathy,” Perry said about the types of students AVID aims to help. “Ideally, we’re talking about 2.0s and above, with average to higher test scores on their eighth-grade assessments.”

It’s not that the students lack the ability to earn higher grades; they often just don’t have the motivation, confidence or knowledge to succeed.

“They don’t have the mindset,” Moser said. “A freshman may not have the mindset that they can take an honors level class. It’s just the confidence to actually push themselves. Those who are in the honors classes are students who have that motivation.”

And many times, that motivation is provided by parents who have already been through the higher education system.

“Most of our kids who do really well have college-educated parents,” Tatum said. “Many of those kids are going to go to college no matter what. They’re going to go, they’re going to apply, and we have the classes to support them. They’re going to do it in spite of us. AVID is really for the next level of kids. The ones that don’t have the support at home, or that intrinsic motivation. It’s focusing on those first-generation, college going kids. It’s someone whose parents never had to fill out a FASA, or a scholarship application. They’ve never filled out a college application.”

In terms of graduation, Siuslaw High School has been improving graduation and completion rates over the years. As for four-year graduates, the school had dipped to a rate of 59.7 percent in 2011 but grew to 85.4 percent in 2017. The statewide four-year graduation rate for 2017 was 76.7 percent. Five-year completion rates for the school rose to 93 percent for 2017, compared to 83.2 percent statewide.

“This is not just about graduation, but what’s going to happen after graduation,” Tatum said. “And that’s a conversation that needs to start happening early.”

To begin to look past graduation, students need to look at the studying strategies they’re currently deploying in high school, and the types of courses they sign up for.

“The point of AVID is for kids to take rigorous academic classes,” Perry said. “The kids that we’ve targeted for the program are kids who want to take those courses, but maybe they get into the sophomore year and they’re sitting in that honors class and they realize they don’t have all the study strategies they need. They don’t have the academic background they need to be successful.”

While Siuslaw has a bevy of advanced courses in its roster that could count toward a four-year university — a student can graduate with up to 90 credits towards a four-year bachelor’s degree if they take the right courses —AVID is not solely focused on a four-year degree.

“A lot of kids might not want to do that,” Perry said. “Maybe there’s a trade or vocation that they want to go in to. Giving them the opportunity to keep all those doors open is really important. Your freshman year, you can shut a lot of doors if you’re not careful. The whole point for AVID is to keep all those doors open and make sure you have the skills you need if you choose to keep those skills moving forward.”

To get into the program, students have to apply and go through an interview process.

“The biggest thing I looked for when we did the interviews was motivation,” Perry said. “How motivated are you to improve? The students had to have recommendations from their teachers. We’re trying to find kids who aren’t afraid of the work. Well, maybe they’re a little bit afraid of the work, but they’re willing to be pushed towards it. They’re going to start pulling their own weight. The grades are a factor, but there has to be a willingness to learn. That’s the most important thing to me.”

While the official AVID program is only now being introduced in the high school, many of the core principles have been introduced into the school through the Future Success program, began by Perry after reviewing some of the AVID tenants in other schools.

“We taught our students a bunch of note-taking strategies and social-emotional strategies,” he said. “So, every kid is getting those strategies. I’m seeing it now with my junior English students who were in Future Success. They have built more skills which we’re trying to see.”

For Moser, he has already seen improvements in student skills and a rise in honor class placement since the Future Success program was initiated.

“Typically, the honors teachers are coming, begging me, ‘I need more students, and I don’t want to get it dropped,’” he said. “This year, it’s ‘Let me know if there’s someone else taking this, because I’m running out of desks.’ It’s such a positive shift.”

At the same time, transfer students who were apart of AVID in other school districts were requesting the program.

“When they figured out that we didn’t have AVID at school, they were devastated,” Moser said. “I’ve never had anybody show up who was in an AVID class who was like, ‘Finally, I’m done with it.’ We actually had two of them come to a board meeting with us and helped us advocate to get the AVID program, because they felt so strongly about it. That’s when it clicked for me, that this must be a program worth having and that works.”

Siuslaw began sending teachers for official training in AVID, with the official first class beginning this school year in both the high and middle schools.

At the high school, the first project that the class worked on was organizing school materials.

“Organization is one of the biggest barriers to high school success,” Perry, who teaches the class, said. “A lot of students have ‘black hole backpack syndrome,’ where everything goes in there and you never see it again. We have a giant three-inch binder that is separated for each of their classes with planners and all the materials they need.”

To fill those binders, the educators are teaching students note-taking skills, what to write down in class, how to organize them and what to follow when they’re studying.

Next, the students are working on creating a network of peer-to-peer help for their academic classes, focusing on finding study partners within their class.

“We talked about what goes into being a good study partner,” Perry said. “Being reliable, being motivated, being a good listener and having some sort of chemistry. So, we had them go out and find classmates that exemplify that. So now, if they miss class or have a problem, they have a resource to draw from.”

But the program is also looking to train tutors to help the students. Traditionally, AVID calls for college students, traditionally freshmen and sophomores, to take on tutoring roles.

“But we don’t have access to a lot of college students in Florence,” Perry said, so they’re making due with what is available: Siuslaw High School students who are currently enrolled in college credit classes, who tutor the AVID students as a qualifier for an honors diploma.

“We’re training right now our junior and senior tutors who will be helping with tutorials, which is a collaborative learning structure we use,” Perry said. “It’s different than any other tutoring that I’ve been around. Instead of the student saying, ‘The answer is x,’ we’re using inquiry to guide our students using their notes and materials to get the answer of that question.”

The older students are being trained not to just give out an answer but guide the AVID students through the process of finding the answer through the study materials.

“The tutors are having a tough time grasping that,” Moser said. “The tutors themselves are super nice, but it’s going to be difficult for them to see someone who’s struggling and not be like, ‘Let me show you the answer and how I got it.’ That’s not what they’re going to be doing, they have to be holding back a bit. They have to ask those inquiries to help the student learn how to fix the problem themselves.”

Working through a complex problem is something that many students are having difficulties with in the modern age of Google.

“They give up if they don’t get that easy answer right away,” Moser said. “Not everybody, but it’s so easy to pass something if they can get an easy out.”

Tatum added, “You can find the answer to almost everything online, but you’re really stealing the learning process from yourself.”

Perry pointed out that it’s not just students who rely on quick internet searches for their knowledge base — “I’ve googled how to bake chicken so many times,” he said. “I know how to do it, but I rely on Google.” — and having such instant knowledge can be a good thing.  

“But in school, we have to talk about the learning process,” he said. “I teach content, but that’s not the most important thing I’m teaching. The process of learning is the important thing. We have to show why it’s important as to why we’re doing this. Maybe the math problem isn’t what you’re learning. It’s the process itself, and a little bit of grit in finding the answer.”

The educators have also found that it can be difficult for students — and adults — to parse out correct information online as well.

“That’s the major problem of our society right now,” Perry said. “It’s so hard to differentiate between good information and bad information online. What’s accurate information? That’s something we have to figure out, how to teach our students to use reliable sources and navigate the internet. I’m not sure we’re doing a good job of that as a society.”

Studying can also be hampered through the ways in which technology is built.

“They want to use their phones to help them study, but a text message pops up on something they’re really interested in and they lose their train of thought,” Moser said. “With the amount of knowledge you can have on your phone, yes it’s great but it’s also a great distractor. It’s tough to have a balance.”

It’s these types of technological landmines that the educators hope to navigate through programs like AVID. It’s also an opportunity to build the process of learning through community.

“In the first day of AVID, you had a couple of kids in the back who were really shy and weren’t saying anything,” Tatum said. “You had the loud, outspoken kids in front. Day two, everyone was involved and the quietest girl in class was talking. Just that one day of community building, you’re seeing that right away.”

And by building community, the apathy that can often lead to a C grade could be offset.

“I think a lot of times, those grades come from feeling that maybe people don’t really care,” Perry said. “The work that you’re doing doesn’t have a point. When you have teachers that honestly care about you, not just your class or your essay skills, but you as a person, you have more of a reason to do your work.”

Getting teachers involved in students’ lives has been a priority for the Siuslaw High School staff.

“Two years ago, we had some significant issues with bullying and just some stuff that shouldn’t have been happening,” Tatum said. “One of the things we did to address that was to make sure that staff members were out in the hall, like every single class. So, there’s more eyes. But now that we’re in the halls anyways, we have good conversations with the students. Tell the kids ‘Hi’ and ask what they did this weekend. It’s making the conscious effort to do it, and doing it every day, every period and getting to know people. …  I don’t want to say we’re going to ‘turn it around,’ because I feel our culture is great. But we’re bumping it up a notch.”

Tatum brought out a “show me” placard that she keeps outside her office, which shows which movies she likes and where she went to school. It’s an effort to both personalize staff and create a motivation for students to go on to better things after high school.

“It sounds silly, but if I know my teacher cares what I have to say, I’m more likely to put an effort into that assignment, instead of just mailing it in,” Perry said. “I think this kind of stuff where we’re trying to develop relationships with kids is paying off in the classroom.”