Advanced courses. Community service. Good behavior and attendance. Notetaking. Tutorials.
 
And it’s all voluntary.
 
AVID — Advancement Via Individual Determination — is in its fifth year in the Hood River County School District, an elective college prep class for students in grades 7-12 intended to close the achievement gap.
 
It’s not your traditional elective.
 
Students must meet certain criteria in order to enroll, and then must meet additional requirements in order to continue with the program: Be first-generation college bound, an underrepresented minority, from a low socio-economic background, an English language learner or have some other barrier to college, such as divorced parents or mental health issues.
 
Once accepted into the program, students must be willing to work hard — and they do. At Hood River Valley High School, they are required to enroll in advanced classes, complete 10 hours of community service per term and maintain a 2.5 or higher GPA. They must also be good citizens — no school suspensions, for example — and are additionally required to take the ACT and SAT their junior year.
 
At the middle school level, the focus is on organization, self-advocacy, public speaking and critical thinking.
 
In essence, AVID students lose a “regular” elective course so they can work harder and longer than their peers.
 
And they flourish.
 
“These kids sign up for a very rigorous and more difficult ‘elective’ and that says a lot about the tenacity of these students,” said Doug Beardsley, junior and senior AVID adviser and AVID coordinator at HRVHS.
 
The coursework is indeed rigorous. Going through a stack of this year’s schedules, Beardsley shares one as an example: AP Government, Medical Terminology, Writing 115, Trigonometry, Honors Medical Biology and AVID.
 
“This student’s parents work in an orchard and they live in orchard housing,” he said.
 
But the program works  because kids want to be there. Of last year’s AVID class at HRVHS, 70 percent were first-generation high school graduates, and they earned $2.1 million in scholarships and grants.
 
 “That’s not given — that is earned,” Beardsley stressed. “It’s what they’ve accomplished in the class and in the community.”
 
As part of the elective, the kids are required to shake hands with and introduce themselves to their teachers each semester.
 
“They learn how to make eye contact and shake hands,” Beardsley said. “For freshmen, it’s super awkward, but by senior year, they look forward to it.”
 
Beardsley calls this one of the “soft skills” students learn in class — skills they need to be confident and assertive, the things that will give them an edge in their college or scholarship interviews.
 
“I tell them it’s the $150,000 handshake,” he said. “It’s the little things that differentiate you from others.”
 
Varsity soccer player and junior Omar Escobed is an AVID student and is planning to pursue engineering or architecture.
 
“It’s extra work,” he said of the class, noting his community service and sports participation. “The class really helps open up high end schools and scholarship help,” Escobed added. “And it makes you more involved.”
 
While students are required to maintain a minimum GPA of 2.5, Escobedo has a 3.65 — with advanced courses, as Beardsley proudly pointed out.
 
“Rigor is a key benchmark of the program,” he said. “We have high expectations.”
 
There are high expectations for parents as well. For example, parent teacher conferences are mandatory. That can be a tough sell and requires parents to trust the school.
 
“So let’s say you’re undocumented and you have to commute here,” said Beardsley. “And there are cultural pieces — kids watching siblings while their parents work two or three jobs. And now you want me to come to a conference?”
 
Beardsley’s philosophy is that it’s not enough to get kids to college — they must also thrive and, ultimately, graduate. There’s a 70 percent college dropout rate among students of poverty, Beardsley said; AVID has flipped the statistic, with 70 percent of their students graduating.
 
“Our kids will humble you,” he said. “It forces you to match their work ethic, to be more prepared, to be more organized. I have to mimic exceptional organization and time management skills, and if I want kids to be culturally empathetic, I have to be, too.”
 
AVID started with one freshman class; it now has two.
 
“If a kid wants to go to college, I want to help make that happen — but it’s going to be some work,” he said.
 
And he tells students that their responsibility to their community does not end with college.
 
“I tell them, be mayor, sit on a board, create a scholarship,” he said. “How are you going to pay this forward?”
 
At Hood River Middle School, AVID teachers Kyla Louis and  Josh Hobson, eighth grade, and Michael West, seventh, focus on organization, self-advocacy, public speaking, critical thinking and college and career options; in eighth grade, students begin additionally focusing on the challenges of high school. There are 21 seventh graders enrolled and 15 eighth graders.
 
At Wy’east Middle School, there are 22 students in AVID 7 and 26 in AVID 8, said coordinator Steffanie Olson — but it’s now a schoolwide program.
 
“All students receive instruction in AVID organizational strategies, important for academic success at the middle school level and beyond, in their homeroom class,” Olson said.
 
In addition, all sixth graders rotate through a class called WYMS Success, taught by Olson and Andy Nelson, which teaches AVID strategies “as an entry into middle school,” she explained. “Toward the end of the year, we look to recruit students for the AVID 7 class the following year. Students who will be first-generation college students, are proficient in their reading and math skills, have above a 2.7 GPA and are determined are invited to participate … Students give up electives to take this course at the middle school level, so they have to want it. AVID is hard work and they have to be ready for that.”
 
“I think there are people in Hood River who don’t see or understand the full demographics of our community,” said Louis. “They should know that some of our students have to work incredibly hard to get to college and fulfill their potential. I want people to know that the AVID program is really helping a segment of our student population to achieve their goals. The students are doing the hard work and AVID is simply providing a framework to help them get there.”
 
Louis said there have been two big changes to HRMS’ program since its inception. The first is that the class is taught by grade level teachers instead of a counselor or teacher from another grade, which helps the kids form stronger relationships with the teacher as well as the teacher being more attuned to the students’ needs in their core classes.
 
The process of nominating students has also changed.
 
“At first, students were nominated for AVID if they needed a little help organizationally or needed some support to bring their grades up and meet potential,” Louis said. “We now realize the ideal candidate is a highly motivated student who is already performing at grade level or higher.
 
“Although not exclusively, these students are often first-generation kids or kids from lower socio-economic groups who need additional support and skill development to achieve their goals of post-secondary education. I’ve been amazed at the work ethic of the kids we’ve had in the program for the past several years.” 
 
Over at Wy’east, AVID 7 is taught by Eugene Strobeck, with Olson teaching AVID 8. Lessons include instruction in writing, inquiry, collaboration and reading. Notetaking skills, systems for organizing materials, as well as strategies for students to use when they feel “stuck” on an assignment, are also taught — called “tutorials.”
 
Tutorials, also used in the high school program, “are a way to support the areas of confusion in their courses through a Socratic method that elevates thinking skills,” Olson said. “Tutors and group members ask the presenter questions until they have clarity. No answers are given. Students learn inquiry skills and strategies for learning on their own,” she said.
 
“Tutorials are the cornerstone of the program, but we need four to five tutors for each classroom. Currently, we have three high school tutors for each classroom.”
 
Funding is a challenge — the program receives some money from the school district, but it does not cover its needs.
 
“We buy binders for each student and make many fieldtrips,” Olson said. “This year, we are also trying to provide AVID T-shirts for each student to help promote a sense of community identity within the class.
 
“AVID students generally don’t have adequate funds themselves, which is why they’re in the program in the first place,” she added.
 
To pay for fieldtrips and supplies, the classes must fundraise. Current fundraisers include dances and the selling of items. Recently, Olson and Strobeck set up a Donorschoose.org fundraising account (link was unavailable by press time, but will be shared soon).
 
The group is currently fundraising to send Wy’east’s AVID students on a fieldtrip to Western Oregon University, and a visit to tide pools and the Oregon Coast Aquarium at the end of the year.
 
Students will “sleep with sharks” at the aquarium and visit the college the next day. It has a big price tag, and that’s in addition to the binders already supplied and the T-shirts and other fieldtrips in the works.
 
“It’s a great opportunity for students, some of whom have never seen the ocean,” Olson said.
 
Volunteer tutors are needed at both Wy’east and HRMS.
 
To volunteer, contact the front office and leave a message; Olson at Wy’east, 541-354-1548, and Louis at HRMS, 541-386-2114.

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