AVID sees immediate results in boosting middle-of-the-road middle school students

About 10 days ago, Carissa Hanschu handed out sheets of paper in her first period class at West Middle School. On the papers were numbers that compared each student’s progress from his or her last semester in seventh grade to their first semester in eighth grade. With some prodding, three students stood and remarked on their progress.

One went from a D to an A in social studies. Another turned an F in English into a B.

Malachi Daniels said his D-turned-A in math was thanks to the note-taking format he learned in Hanschu’s class, an elective course that gathers students with middling grades and teaches them organizational and study skills.

West Middle School eighth-graders, Jake Viscomi, left, and Lexi Carter, participate in a team challenge to build the tallest structure out of marshmallows, string, spaghetti and tape. The competition took place in their AVID class.

The class, called Advancement Via Individual Determination, or AVID, is part of a program that existed at the high school level for three years, but was made available to eighth-graders for the first time this year. The kinds of results on display in Hanschu’s class on Jan. 23 are coming in from the district’s other three middle schools as well.

“What I hear the most is (teachers are) seeing a different type of student walking into their classroom,” said Leah Wisdom, who coordinates the program.

AVID was created more than 30 years ago by a global nonprofit of the same name that gives districts curricula designed for college preparation. The elective classes may involve would-be first generation college students, English-as-a-second-language learners or students having problems in school. The only requirement is that they need a little help with homework.

The lesson plan

About 60 middle school students and about 130 high school students take AVID classes in Lawrence. Right now, each middle school has one class.

In Hanschu’s class, the kids arrive — three-ring binders and writing utensils in hand, as required — and take their seats at four round tables. Hanschu immediately informs them their group has five minutes to build a tower out of a few spaghetti noodles and marshmallows, an exercise in teamwork.

“Hey, they copied us!” one student yells in good humor. “You’re cheating already.”

Over the next 40 minutes, the students talk about their grades and goals and partake in a half-hour workstation period.

At one of the stations, students help one another on homework from other courses, but they can only steer each other to the answers by asking questions. At another, students fill out “tutorial request forms,” a sheet that helps them lay out their questions — what they know, what they don’t know, what resources they can use — for their next tutor session.

Every AVID class brings in tutors two days a week. In addition, guest speakers visit weekly and other teachers in the school frequently provide feedback on how AVID students in their classes are performing.

Other days, students receive lessons on reading, writing and studying. They’ve all been schooled on a form of note-taking called Cornell Notes. They also take field trips to universities.

All of this is done to prepare students for the more rigorous coursework they’ll encounter in high school — taking an advanced placement course is an AVID requirement at that level — and eventually college. It’s also done just so they can understand that they can go to college.

“A lot of kids don’t even plan on going because they don’t know it’s an option,” said Shari Flakus, the AVID teacher at South Middle School. “They haven’t been exposed to it, they don’t have that expectation for themselves and maybe neither does their parent.”

The results

Wisdom said every class is making progress with its AVID students. Flakus said all 15 of her students have improved their grades compared to last year. The average GPA of the class went from a 3.298 to a 3.598 in the fall semester this year, she said. Two of her students landed on the honor roll with a 4.0 GPA.

Of all the other classes her students take, Flakus said, only one grade came back lower than a C. Hanschu also reported similar progress in her students.

“I think that AVID has helped me in the way of learning, taking notes and kind of putting that into my head so that we know what to do on tests,” said William MacArthur, a student of Hanschu’s. “It works.”

Apart from grades, Hanschu said she’s seen the motivation in her students swell. And the few who were once “best friends with the assistant principal” are now staying out of trouble.

All of this has gathered momentum for the AVID program itself. School officials said the positive results have made it easier to recruit students for next year’s classes, given that there is now a batch them who can speak on its behalf. Interest at South is such that there will be two AVID classes taught there next year, Flakus said.

More involvement in middle school means more students will be better positioned to succeed in high school, Wisdom said. They will also be more inclined to continue with the program at that level, where the class is a commitment until graduation day.

“It’s not meant to boost a kid up and push them out,” Wisdom said.