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LPS expands college-readiness program that saw early success at Northeast to more schools
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LPS expands college-readiness program that saw early success at Northeast to more schools

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AVID class, 10.21

Eighth grade student Jirsa Fujan (left) leads a group discussion during an AVID class, a college-readiness elective, Thursday at Mickle Middle School.

The eighth grade students in Sarah Kauffman's class at Mickle Middle School on Thursday are busy putting their heads together.

It's a sleepy, fall morning, but the students are hard at work, gathered in groups around whiteboards spread throughout the room, working together to solve math problems.

What do you do, one group asks, if the exponent in your equation is a negative number? Another group of students follows along on a worksheet as one of their peers walks them through a helpful shortcut he uses to solve a particular math question. A teacher and college student observe, occasionally jumping in to provide help.

AVID class, 10.21

Eighth grade student Omari Clark leads a group discussion during an AVID class, a college-readiness elective, on Thursday at Mickle Middle School.

There's an air of quiet determination and collaboration in the classroom, where a style of teaching new to the school is at work.

It's called Advancement Via Individual Determination, or AVID, a nationwide college-readiness program piloted at Lincoln Northeast High School last year and expanded to Mickle, Dawes and Culler middle schools and Lincoln High this year thanks to Lincoln Public Schools' massive windfall of federal coronavirus dollars.

The curriculum in the elective class helps diverse students learn key organization and study skills while also preparing them for the rigorous coursework of Advanced Placement or differentiated classes so they can succeed in college.

And, like Thursday morning at Mickle, students also receive support from peers, teachers and college tutors through twice-a-week workshops called tutorials where students can find answers to questions that might be stumping them in other classes or simply learn something they're curious about.

"I think you really have ... to make it a safe place where they feel that they're able to be vulnerable, so it's different than their other classes," Kauffman said.

Schools identify and recruit students — primarily from historically underrepresented backgrounds — who might not have been selected for advanced classes but show potential to succeed in those classes when paired with AVID techniques.

That mission is especially important as LPS looks to close student achievement gaps based on race, including in AP/differentiated enrollment and graduation rates.

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"(AVID) does a really good job of shining a light in places where we haven't before," said Jon Davidson, AVID coordinator at LPS. "That's what I noticed when I walk into classes all across the district now. These are students that represent our gaps."

The program started nearly 40 years ago when a teacher recognized that students needed the skills to be successful once they graduated and go to college. So a curriculum was developed, and AVID took off. It's now being offered in 48 states.

But it wasn't until last year that it was first introduced in LPS.

"It had some great results last year in the middle of a year, where it was kind of crazy for a lot of different reasons," Davidson said.

Northeast students enrolled in AVID last year, for example, were less likely to fail classes and miss school and had higher GPAs than their peers. They also accumulated more credits than non-AVID students.

The early success convinced the district to expand the program to four schools this year and Schoo Middle School and Lincoln Northwest High School next fall with $600,000 in federal relief money.

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This school year, there are 502 students taking the AVID elective, 63% of whom would be first-generation college students and 92% of whom qualify for the federal free- and reduced-lunch program.

The demographic breakdown is diverse as well. Hispanic/Latino students make up 31.1% of students, followed by 21.6% white, 18% Black, 15% mixed race and 13.6% Asian. Of all 42,000 LPS students, 63.5% are white.

There are 15-20 AVID teachers in the district who complete a three-day training workshop over the summer to learn the curriculum.

In a normal year, students also get a taste of college life through field trips and speakers and working with college tutors. Last year, much of that was done virtually, but this year tutors and speakers are able to return to classrooms.

Liz Larsen, a junior speech pathology major at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, found out about AVID online.

"I actually had no clue what it was, and I looked it up and it seemed like a really awesome program," she said.

So she went through online training and became a tutor, bouncing between classrooms around Lincoln — including Kauffman's eighth grade class at Mickle — to help students.

"I feel like I have a lot to give to the students, because they have a lot of potential at this age and just to help them build those qualities," Larsen said.

Mickle eighth grader Amari Heran signed up for Kauffman's AVID class at her mother's encouragement. Her sister took the class at Northeast and enjoyed it.

"I said 'Yeah, sure, I'll try it out,'" she said. "And so far I really like it. ... It can be a pretty stressful and difficult class, but I learned to get over it and do what I need to do, and it makes me happy that I can do that."

AVID class, 10.21

Eighth grade student Amari Heran writes down discussion points during an AVID class, a college-readiness elective, on Thursday at Mickle Middle School. The program, piloted at Lincoln Northeast last year, was expanded to four schools this year with federal coronavirus relief funds.

She said AVID helps her learn important leadership skills she'll need in college and how to help others. Her favorite part is getting to know classmates she might not have met otherwise.

"I've actually met pretty cool friends that I've never talked to before," she said.

Kauffman, who taught AVID courses at a school in Wichita, Kansas, came to Lincoln last year. But she missed teaching the course that helped change her students' lives in Kansas.

"I was really sad when I moved to know that ... I had to close that chapter of my teaching career," she said.

But then she heard the program was just starting out at Northeast with plans for it to grow, so she reached out to Davidson last winter and got the ball rolling. 

Davidson, who spends most of his days on the ground at AVID schools, was an AVID teacher in Texas before moving to Nebraska. He said he still receives graduation announcements from former students — tangible signs of the impact AVID has.

"AVID tends to draw on that teacher that wants to build a relationship with a student and have that long-term impact," he said. "We're teaching them skills that they need to be successful, and really walking with them and supporting them. 

"And it's really amazing once they see, 'Oh, wow, I can really do this.'"

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Contact the writer at zhammack@journalstar.com or 402-473-7225. On Twitter @zach_hammack

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K-12 education reporter

Zach Hammack, a 2018 UNL graduate, has always called Lincoln home. He previously worked as a copy editor at the Journal Star and was a reporting intern in 2017. Now, he covers students, teachers and schools as the newspaper’s K-12 reporter.

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