Free State graduate grew confident with help of AVID program

Free State High School senior Jessica Merritt credits the Lawrence school district’s AVID program with her academic improvement, but that wasn’t the biggest difference it made in her life the last four years.

That change is reflected in her willingness to interview for a story on her four years in the Advancement Via Individual Determination program. Four years ago, the thought of such an interview would have terrified her, Jessica said.

She was an introverted teen uncomfortable in many social situations when she was recruited to be part of the program during her eighth-grade year, Jessica said. She will graduate Tuesday from Free State and enroll in August at the University of Missouri-Kansas City to study environmental science with the confidence gained from four years of challenging herself through AVID.

“That’s the biggest difference,” she said. “I was kind of an antisocial kid when I started high school. I was still struggling with ordering my own food at restaurants, let alone ordering a pizza over the phone.”

Jessica said her social transformation began her freshman year in the AVID class of FSHS teacher Adam Leitel.

“He wanted us to be confident in our public speaking, so every week he would pull us up one at a time and give us a random topic,” she said. “We would have 30 seconds to think about what we wanted to talk about, and then he would start a timer for one minute. He wanted to promote that you had to talk continuously. You couldn’t just stop or go ‘ah, I don’t know.'”

Improving her social skills wasn’t the reason she accepted an invitation to attend an informational meeting on AVID at the end of her seventh-grade year, Jessica said — the goal was to improve her chances of getting into college.

AVID targets minority students and those facing other challenges that would hinder their chances of attending college after high school, said Leah Wisdom, the district coordinator of student support services, during a February update to the Lawrence school board. To do so, it provides tutoring and support for hardworking, motivated students who are in the “academic middle.” In many cases, the students would be the first in their families to go to college, Wisdom said.

Jessica said her mother, Lawrence High School English teacher Jeannie Merritt, encouraged her to enroll in the AVID program.

“The obstacle in the way of my going to college was finances,” she said. “My mother is a single parent who has raised five kids on a teacher’s salary. My mother is the only member of my family who has graduated from college. She is a big influence on me. She has high standards for me, which I appreciate.”

In following up on the invitation to AVID, Jessica ignored comments of fellow students, who mistakenly thought AVID was a remedial program.

“I definitely heard that, especially early when it was just starting,” she said. “I had kids tell me, ‘I’m not going to do that. It’s a program for stupid kids.’ No, it’s not. It’s for kids who want to go to college and want to work to get into college. I knew it would help me because you have to take advanced courses and have to do community service.”

Academically, Jessica said she improved her GPA from about 3.0 during her sophomore year to her current 3.3 average.

“It will go up a little more,” she said. “I’m having a good semester.”

Jessica also improved her ACT score to 28 her senior year, or two points better than the score she registered when she took the exam as a sophomore. The statewide ACT composite score for 2017 seniors was 21.5.

She improved academically by working through some personal matters and taking to heart the systematic approach she learned from AVID. That included taking class notes with a structured, systematic note system, and doing things early.

AVID students are required to take rigorous or advanced placement courses every semester. Jessica said she enrolled every year in an advanced English class and added either an advanced math or science course.

To fulfill AVID’s community service requirement, Jessica was the publicist for the FSHS Ascent Club, which promotes minority enrollment in math and science classes. In that position, she managed the club’s Facebook page and created written handouts.

Through the club, Jessica put an exclamation mark on her newfound confidence through her involvement in securing a $2,500 Westar Energy grant to install a wind turbine at FSHS this summer. The grant process required her and other club members share in an hourlong presentation to the company’s executives in Wichita.

“I could never have done that as a freshman,” she said. “It was really intimidating, because I wasn’t there as a student presenting to other students. We were talking about a real project and real money. I had to get dressed up in business attire and talk in front of all these people.”

Jessica got another introduction into the adult world through one of her senior projects, which are required to graduate with AVID honors. The project was to start a community garden at FSHS like those now active at the district’s middle schools. Unfortunately, the garden ran afoul of budget and permit problems.

“It didn’t work out, but I think I learned a lot about how the adult world works,” she said. “You can adapt and try to change it, but sometimes, it’s just not meant to be.”

More successful was another senior project of working as an intern for the Sunrise Project, Jessica said. As a parting gesture, she used her pottery skills to make a set of cups, bowls and plates for the Sunrise Project coffee shop.

“I wanted them to reflect the values of the Sunset Project, so each set was made to represent a different cultural style of pottery. I’m just finishing those up right now,” she said.

Her community service work earned her a $1,000 scholarship to supplement the $1,500 academic scholarship she received from UMKC.

Jessica will return to Free State for the dedication of the wind turbine and to share her experience with future AVID students, but she is eager to start at UMKC, a school she first visited on an AVID tour.

“I’m ready to go,” she said. “It has been my dream to go to college since I was in seventh grade.”


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