Heritage finds success in AVID

Program gives teens experience, tools to prepare for college life

By Howard Buck, Columbian staff writer



Heritage High School teacher Matt Kessler pressed his 23 seniors hard this spring. Again.

Listen to Miranda Taylor, longtime participant in the school’s Achievement Via Individual Determination program, which is designed to steer more students into rigorous Advanced Placement courses and a full-throttle college education.

“He always pushed us to do our absolute best and work as hard as we could,” Taylor said. “He was always saying, ‘Finish strong.’”

In Vancouver, AVID interest

Evergreen Public Schools offers the AVID program at Heritage High School and its feeder middle schools.

Citing improved grades and test results, Vancouver Public Schools has announced a major expansion of AVID this fall to include all four of its traditional high schools and its six middle schools, about 390 students total. Another 400 students at alternative Lewis and Clark High School will be recruited.

Getting all students “college-ready” is a district priority, said Layne Curtis, Vancouver director of curriculum and instruction. “The research is compelling that AVID is a vehicle to accomplish that.”

Finish strong, they did: Of 23 senior students in the AVID program this year, 22 were accepted into a four-year university, racking up just shy of $800,000 in college scholarships in the process. That compares to about $680,000 in scholarships won by the other 433 Heritage seniors.

“This year was the perfect storm,” Kessler said.

While he’d rather not “toot my own horn,” he and senior counselor Ryan Hovde are rightfully proud of the AVID bounty at Heritage.

“We had the right group of kids, and I pushed maybe harder than I normally would,” Kessler said. “This has been such a bright, shining star” as Evergreen Public Schools braces for more budget cuts. “Our kids are getting a slingshot right out of here.”

Graduates such as Taylor, 18, who starts at Washington State University Vancouver in August on a one-year full scholarship, said the relentless Kessler and Hovde deserve the credit. Grant writer Rosemary Fryer completes the potent Heritage AVID team, Kessler noted.

“I never realized how many steps and efforts it takes to get into a four-year university. I wouldn’t have known where to start,” said Taylor, oldest child in her family. Her sister DeeAnna, a sixth-grader, is anxious to follow her sister’s AVID path.

Taylor said she hopes to study civil engineering at either WSU’s Pullman campus or Oregon State University. She loaded up on AP math and science courses at Heritage she never otherwise would have tried, she said.

“You can always tell the AVID students in the classroom,” Taylor said. “They’re the ones up front, the ones asking questions … the ones who take their notes out before they’re asked. As you go through the program and you take harder classes, you just know it helps you.”

Add the college-search boost, and it’s no surprise “we were so many steps ahead of everyone,” said Taylor, who with her peers are the top of an AVID pyramid that includes Heritage feeder middle schools.

Since 2000, the national-model program has been funded at Evergreen by outside grant money, including Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and other competitive awards.

There are two separate block classes for freshman, sophomore and junior students, plus the lone senior class. About 165 Heritage students are enrolled in the program. AVID also reaches to classes at Covington and Frontier middle schools, where teachers recruit students starting in sixth grade.

AVID’s objective is to create a culture where college is a question of where, and not if, for students who show promise but need an extra nudge to succeed at a four-year university.

Its method involves aggressively drilling students in note-taking and organization, providing tutorial and collaborative peer help, and exposing them to college rigor and environments, campus visits, guest speakers, and AP courses and exams that earn them early college credits.

It’s no small thing to guide students through the maze of college application, financial aid and scholarship legwork. It’s even more bewildering for teens whose families lack higher education experience. Kessler demanded no fewer than 20 college applications per student, at least until they found just the right match. More than 30 schools accepted his 2011 seniors.

“The work that we try to do is, maximize opportunity,” Kessler said. “Who can we just give that lift to to change the trajectory of their path?” Many students, though not all, are minorities or live in poverty.

Hovde hunted for grant or waiver opportunities. AVID pays all or part of the costly application fees and charges for SAT, ACT and other crucial tests. That includes the 10th grade pre-SAT, or PSAT, that first draws colleges’ notice and proves to students that they have “the right stuff” for university level work, Kessler said.

Among his disciples is Austin “Rudy” Frazier, 18, accepted by eight schools without a single rejection. Frazier, who weighed options of tens of thousands of dollars in scholarships, is headed for Dickinson State University in North Dakota on a combined wrestling-academic scholarship. At Dickinson State, he said he’ll compete at a high level and chase his dream to be a high school math teacher and wrestling coach.

“Our (AVID) class is amazing. Just the family aspect is great,” Frazier said.

Kessler pounded the applications regimen, led challenging classroom dialogue and led peer-tutoring sessions that Frazier said sealed his own teaching ambitions.

“A lot of my friends said I was better (at explaining math) than the real teachers,” he said.

Taylor said a weeklong immersion stay at the University of Portland in her junior year — AVID students slept in dorms, tackled real coursework and filled out UP’s admission application — had strong impact.

The discipline, self-reliance and, yes, freedom of students made a lasting mark, she said. College was clearly a whole new level, yet suddenly a real prospect, Taylor said.

“It was a motivator. We were so ‘stuck’ in high school,” she said she realized through the experience.