Editor’s Note: This is the third and final part in a series on the AVID learning program in area schools.
WATERTOWN — Normally, the AVID educational program would start up in a single high school grade, then expand into the higher high school grades and down to the middle school level, with the ultimate goal of going district-wide.
In Watertown, AVID broke the mold by simultaneously kicking off both an eighth-grade elective class at the middle school and a 10th-grade elective at the high school.
Leigh Ann Graf, instructional coach and AVID site coordinator at Riverside Middle School in Watertown, played a key role in bringing AVID to her school and the Watertown Unified School District as a whole.
Graf, who became familiar with AVID as an English teacher in Sun Prairie, where the program already had been established, saw the fruits of the program in her past district and immediately got behind the effort to bring it to Watertown.
Encouraged by the program’s established and measurable success in other districts, decision-makers in Watertown gave the idea the go-ahead. The district had to seek special permission from the national program to start it at the high school and middle school in the same year, Graf said.
The program at Riverside Middle School has been a measurable success, she said. AVID elective students at Riverside Middle School saw decreased tardies and greater-than-anticipated growth in their scores on the STAR standardized tests, she noted.
Participants also saw their grades rise, with more ‘A’s than they previously had recorded, Graf said.
“We wanted to target B and C students who were capable of more with good supports,” she said.
The instructional coach said that AVID elective students at the middle school really “bought into” the program.
The staff response also has been really positive, Graf said.
Some districts have a number of different initiatives going on at one time, she said. Even though all have positive goals, that can result in a muddying of the message, with different priorities and terminology in use in different classes and at different levels.
Watertown is concentrating on AVID, which focuses on a manageable number of high-yield strategies to improve student organization, focus and depth of study.
“AVID is brilliant in the way that it neatly packages the best techniques in education in an easily digestible way,” Graf said. “It also provides a common language and common expectations throughout the school community.”
As a result, students are coming to class prepared and ready to learn, she said.
Organization is a key piece at the middle school level. Sometimes, students at this level have skated through prior grades with a minimum of studying and organization, relying on their memory to come up with correct answers. But as the rigor of the curriculum increases from grade to grade, this breezy approach fails to serve most students.
Assisting with the organization element, AVID trains all students to use a binder that’s organized in a precise way, instilling habits that coordinators hope will last a lifetime.
“Focusing on binders and tables of contents at the start of the school year can take away time from the initial lessons,” Graf said, “but it winds up saving time later when teachers don’t have to run off an assignment or send kids to their locker to go get their homework.”
In addition, an early focus on AVID learning strategies takes more time up front, but classes gain that time back when they circle back to a topic they have discussed before and students demonstrate greatly increased understanding.
“A lot of programs fail because they put teachers through initial training, then just leave that couple of people to carry the torch for the program in future years,” Graf said.
In contrast, AVID provides ongoing training and resources.
At the school and district level, teachers meet weekly to reinforce proven strategies already in use at the schools, both in the AVID electives and throughout different departments.
With these positive results in mind, Watertown will be expanding the program to all grades at the high school as well as the eighth grade AVID elective class next year.