04 September 2006

What It Takes

Last week was our first week of school, and as such, I had my head buried in the sand work, and missed Bob Sipchen's fantastic column on the college admissions game, as well as the follies and inanities of the college ranking system.

Not that I don't subscribe to US News, and not that I didn't pop open that issue and puruse it when it hit my mailbox to see the rankings... OK, actually, I didn't, but only because I was in the midst of hectic preparations for school and didn't have time.

However, on the same day it arrived, I had 14 seniors over to my house for a pre-school senior BBQ (yes, things like that are actually permitted in the small town in which I live and teach), and I passed off the issue to the students, who eagerly devoured it, not only for the rankings, but for all of the other articles on college that the issue contains.

In his column, Sipchen mentions a few programs devoted to getting students from low-performing schools into four-year colleges, but it doesn't mention the AVID program, a program I've been involved with since college. In its 26-year history, AVID, which stands for Advancement Via Individual Determination, has managed to gain acceptance for 77% of its graduates into four-year universities, affecting a much larger group of students than programs like Upward Bound or Gear Up. Begun in a single San Diego high-school classroom, AVID can now be found in middle and high schools in 36 states and 15 countries, and since 1990, has graduated over 40,000 students and sent them on to college.

I'm proud this year to have the first cohort of AVID seniors at my school, students I've had in the program since they were freshmen. While there are only the aforementioned 14 of them, it's a new program at a small, rural school, and it's taken all of the energy I've had for the past three years, as well as the work of a number of other wonderful people, to get this group this far. And as the program builds support at my school, the number of AVID seniors graduating and enrolling in four-year universities will only climb. I can look at my 14 seniors and already know that, barring major unforseen circumstances, all of them will be going to a university next year, and I know that they will succeed once they are there.

I can't offer my AVID seniors one trained guidance counselor for every 90 students, as can the Webb School, mentioned in Sipchen's article. I'm not a trained guidance counselor (although I am certified in college-counseling) and the single counselor we have for our 1100-student population is swamped just trying to ensure that students graduate. My school can't offer intensive writing and SAT prep classes and representatives from top colleges. I can only prepare my kids as best as possible by giving them test-prep materials, taking them on yearly college visits, and fighting tooth-and-nail for them to be in every college-prep or college-level class they take.

My work with my AVID students is a constant struggle against a system that is not designed for these kids to succeed, and a constant struggle against the low expectations people have for these students--expectations at home, at school, in the community, and within themselves. While my teaching assignment is English, I spend far more time mentoring, pushing, encouraging, and nagging students to push themselves and believe in themselves than I ever do grading essays.

What does it take? This year alone, it has taken about 30 hours of senior conferences, completed the summer before the students' senior year with the knowledge that once school begins, there won't be the time. It's taken begging and bargaining and sweet-talking and outright bribery (with chocolate and cookies and cinnamon rolls) of various school officals to get the students into the classes they've needed to meet college entrance requirements.

It's taken numerous meetings to ensure that the program is run correctly, so that the students who most need it can benefit from it. It's taken hundreds of pounds of candy, sold bar by bar, and thousands of gallons of water, spent on car after car, to pay for college visits, study materials, and SATs and application fees for kids who don't qualify for fee waivers.

It's taken box upon box of kleenex, used by both male and female students who come to school sick so that they don't miss a second of education, who come into my classroom in tears over challenges in their lives that would make the most stoic adult dissolve into a puddle on the floor, and by me, as I try to make sense of the system and the students and their lives and the fact that nothing is ever fair and that no matter how hard we all work, good kids still will get screwed.

But most of all, it's taken an iron-clad determination that these kids will succeed at whatever the cost, a determination I am stubborn to wear on my sleeve, and one that I push on the kids at every opportunity. Far greater than the challenges of college-prep and AP classes are the challenges that many of my students face at home on a daily basis--kids in the foster care system, kids expected to raise their siblings while their parents work, kids expected to work to support the family, kids who don't have any family at all.

I have students whose motivation comes from watching parents exhausted and physically worn down from field labor. I have kids who get their motivation from alcoholic and physically abusive parents. I have kids whose motivation comes from parents and family members who tell them that they can't and won't make it to college, and that they'll just end up back here in five years with two small children and a job at a packing house and broken dreams. I have kids whose motivation comes from being part of a system that entraps rather than frees people, and a desire to change that system and someday give others the help they were often unable to receive.

The race for college admission isn't all about name-brand schools and esoteric ranking systems, a fact that I try to impress daily upon my students. It's what they do with it when they get there, the opportunities they make for themselves, that will determine what they get out of it. They make the best opportunities for themselves from what they have in high school, but I constantly worry that it's not enough--that they'll still be behind when they get to college. There is only so much I can give them, so much I can do for them in the short time I get with them. And I just don't know if it will be enough.

But the only thing I can do is continue trying, and hope that the skills they learn and the motivation they gain here will propel them through university and earn them their diploma.

I can't wait to see where my kids end up. I'm not a parent, but I honestly can't imagine being any more proud, more anxious, or more excited about my own children than I am for the 14 young adults whose lives I've been privileged to be a part of for the past three years, and for the changes and challenges they will face this year, their senior year.

175 more days.


At 11:20 AM, Blogger Kim said...

Thank you for your determination with this group of kids, and thanks for the info on AVID! I had only heard this mentioned in passing before, but now I plan to ask the school where I get hired if they have a program, and if they don't, I'll try to implement one! Powerful stuff.

At 2:11 PM, Blogger La Maestra said...

Yaay Kim! AVID is without a doubt the most difficult thing I've ever been involved with in my life (and that's coming from someone who routinely took 20 or 22 units at a time in college as well as worked 30+ hours/week) but it is by far the most rewarding.


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