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‘Average’ kids helped to excel

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    The Avid program prepares elementary, middle and high school students for college by teaching better study, organization and team skills. Above, Avid tutor Terrina Ching, second from right, coached Washington Middle students, from left, Isaac Lee, 13, Kai Yonashiro, 14, Johyeon Jung, 14, and Iao Seng Sio, 13, on how to solve a mathematical word problem during a class Wednesday morning.
    University pennants hang in the Avid classroom at Washington Middle School.
    Washington Middle School students Samantha Cadiente, 14, Jennie Nguyen, 13, and Misty Tran, 13, worked together Wednesday morning during an Avid class. The program teaches students study, organizational, team and leadership skills.

C-average students are something of a gap group in most schools.

Few programs target them. Often, they just slide by.

But more and more Hawaii public schools are looking to change that by adopting a pricey national program aimed at helping middle-of-the-road students do better, dream about college and grasp the tools to get there.

The internationally recognized program is called Advancement Via Individual Determination, or AVID, and it’s showing early signs of success in Hawaii schools. Teachers say average students, many of whom come from low-income families, are making big gains in their grades and on tests and that many are setting their sights on higher education.

"We call them a work in progress," said Lee Anne Domingo, an AVID teacher at Washington Middle School, of the seventh- and eighth-graders she teaches. "AVID helps the kids in the middle. It makes them better prepared."

Better prepared for all sorts of things — organizing their schoolwork, focusing on their studies, planning for tests and thinking about the future.

Joanne Khau, an eighth-grade AVID student at Washington Middle, said the program has helped her boost her GPA from 3.0 to 3.8 and has given her more confidence in her most perplexing subject, math.

It has also got her thinking about something else.

"I don’t know much about college," she said, as she took a break from an AVID tutoring session on a recent weekday. "I just know I want to get there."

Thanks to successes like Khau’s, the AVID program has seen steep growth over the last six years. The first Hawaii school to adopt the program was Campbell High in 2004. In 2008, 32 schools were offering the program to about 1,420 students. This year, there are 7,008 AVID students in 88 schools. And next school year, 103 public schools will have AVID.

The growth of the program, offered as an elective to middle and high school students and as part of the curriculum for students in elementary school, comes as the state is scrambling to meet ambitious graduation and college-entrance goals. The state has pledged to boost its high school graduation rate from 80 percent to 90 percent by 2018, and its college-going rate from 51 percent to 62 percent.

AVID is a program created and licensed to schools by a private nonprofit, similar to Advanced Placement.

It teaches students skills such as organization and time management. It offers tutoring in subjects that students are struggling in. It puts college within reach, by talking about what it takes to get into college, scheduling campus visits and going over details like how to apply for grants and scholarships.

A key element of the program is that students have to want to be in it. They need to apply to get in, sometimes going through an interview process to articulate their goals. Middle and high school students give up other electives, like art or band, for AVID.

Washington Intermediate’s AVID classroom is practically a shrine to college aspirations. Pennants from universities across the country hang on strings that run the length of the classroom. More college items hang on the wall and on bulletin boards, amid student work and inspirational messages.

On a recent day there, students were broken up into tutoring groups, preparing for exams or reviewing concepts they were having trouble with.

Jessennya Torres, 13, said at first she wasn’t too excited about being in AVID. Her mom urged her to join, she said, so she did. Quickly, she started to see changes, as did her mom.

"In sixth grade, my binder was all messy," Jessennya said. "Now, in AVID, I’m organized, even at home."

Before long, her grades went up, too.

The girl who liked paddling more than school went from getting C’s and D’s to earning A’s and B’s.

Paula Samson, Jessennya’s mother, said her daughter has made dramatic improvement.

"She’s one of those kids who has to work for her grades," Samson said.

And it used to be that Jessennya didn’t work for them. Now, Samson said, her daughter comes home and does her homework without being told. She’s neat and organized.

"She focuses, and school is actually her priority," Samson said.

Adele Wada, a Department of Education specialist who helps schools implement college awareness and prep programs, said AVID is a good option for schools looking to help average kids aim higher. "AVID’s focus is for students to be college- and career-ready," she said. "It gives them the confidence to try."

The program is seeing early successes here.

All of Hawaii’s 72 AVID seniors graduated last year, 86 percent took a college placement test, and 77 percent said they planned to go to college.

The growth of AVID locally comes as the program is also seeing considerable growth nationally and internationally. AVID started at one school in 1980, grew to 1,000 schools in 2000, and was in nearly 4,500 schools in 47 states and the District of Columbia as well as 16 countries last year.

For Hawaii schools, the biggest downside to AVID probably is its cost.

AVID requires a weeklong training conference on the mainland for eight teachers, plus licensing fees. Altogether, schools estimate the program costs about $40,000 to adopt in the first year. Some schools also spend that amount in the second and third year as more teachers are trained.

An annual AVID site license costs about $2,000.

To pay for the program, most Hawaii schools have turned to federal funding, some of which appears to be drying up. Some have also relied on help from grants or searched within their own tight school budgets.

Mike Harano, principal of Washington Middle, said AVID might be expensive, but it works for the kids who often don’t get extra help.

About 100 of Washington Middle’s 800 students are in the program.

"We have programs for our gifted and talented," Harano said. "We have programs for our special-needs kids. The middle kid is … a forgotten group."

Harano credits AVID in part for big improvements in math scores at the school, and for an overall sea change on campus, from a place with a hard reputation to a school with solid programs and college-aspiring kids.

"For long time, it (Washington Middle) was known as a rough school," Harano said. "But we’ve really changed that, and AVID helped us do it."


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