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Straight Up Conversation: AVID CEO Sandy Husk

Sandy Husk is CEO of Advancement via Individual Determination (AVID). One of the nation's largest programs working to close the opportunity gap, AVID trains over 70,000 teachers a year on instructional strategies. Today, AVID serves more than 6,000 schools and two million students a year. Before taking the helm at AVID, Sandy served as superintendent of Salem-Keizer Public Schools, Oregon's second-largest district. I've heard a lot about AVID over the years, but never really understood what they do. I recently had the chance to chat with Sandy about just that. Here's what she had to say.

Rick Hess: Sandy, I've heard about AVID but have to admit that I've never really understood just what it is. So, can you enlighten me?

Sandy Husk: AVID started back in 1980, in the wake of broad-based school busing in Southern California. Our founder, Mary-Catherine Swanson, was teaching at a school grappling with the challenge of serving a different student population than it had historically. Mary-Catherine was deeply committed to setting high expectations for all students—including those bussed in from economically disadvantaged areas of the city. She believed that if students were willing to work hard, she could teach them the skills needed to be college-ready. Her focus on improving their writing, time-management, and note-taking skills led to substantial results—so good, in fact, that she was initially accused of cheating the system! Mary-Catherine's ability to repeat such outcomes brought interest in the instructional practices she was using. Nearly 40 years later, AVID continues to share these methods with educators—and work with teachers, students, and researchers to develop new ones. AVID doesn't work with students directly, but rather provides educators with training, resources, and ongoing support.

RH: How many AVID schools are there? How many students?

SH: Nearly 6,800 schools across the country have invited AVID to work with them. Though we are best known for our high-school initiatives, our work extends to teachers starting in kindergarten through higher education. In total, we're reaching nearly two million students each year.

RH: How do these schools get involved with AVID? Once a school becomes an AVID school, what's their commitment entail?

SH: The majority of "AVID schools" come to us through word of mouth. But we're increasingly working to identify schools and districts that have demonstrated a commitment to addressing equity gaps, teaching soft skills, and investing in teacher effectiveness and student leadership. Our model is a bit unusual in that a school can't simply send educators to an AVID training. The school must commit to training a small group of educators—called a "site team"—during the first year to help build support and understanding among the school community. After that first year, schools can choose to continue working with AVID, gaining access to data collection and analysis tools and ongoing professional learning. We also provide coaching instruments and data aggregation support.

RH: So once a school partners with AVID, what's that mean for students? Are all students in a school involved in the program?

SH: The hallmark of the AVID program is the AVID Elective. The AVID Elective is intended for those in the "academic middle"—not necessarily straight-A students who are successful without much guidance or support, but rather students in the B or C range that are willing to put in effort and, with a toolkit of learning strategies and teacher support, could become high achievers. The typical AVID students are low-income students of color, and are often the first in their family to go to college. The skills and strategies taught in the class, such as organizational skills, time management, and communication, are appropriate and effective for all students, but those meeting this profile tend to benefit most. On average, roughly ten percent of students on a campus are enrolled in the AVID Elective. To participate, there is an application process that varies in each district. It generally includes open-ended questions giving students the opportunity to express goals, assess their achievements, and share what they desire to learn in AVID. The application often leads to an interview and teacher references. AVID's instructional practices are applicable to any subject area, so students schoolwide can benefit, not just those enrolled in the AVID Elective. In fact, we typically see AVID-trained classroom teachers apply AVID strategies beyond the Elective course—and these practices often catch on across campus. Because of this, many of our partners that implement AVID schoolwide tell us that all of their students are AVID students.

RH: Can you say a bit about those "remarkable results"? What's the evidence that AVID works?

SH: AVID's effectiveness is often measured by increases in enrollment in rigorous courses and success in those courses, as well as college acceptance, enrollment, persistence, and six-year college graduation rates. 2016 AVID graduates enrolled in college at a rate of 71 percent, higher than the national average of 69 percent. AVID's two-year college persistence rate was also 85 percent for the class of 2015, compared to 78 percent nationally.

RH: Let's stay with this point just a moment longer. What kinds of research or evidence is there which convinces you that AVID makes a difference for students?

SH: One of the benefits of AVID membership is our ability to collect and share data. This information enables us to track indicators of student success and share the impact of the valuable work done around the country. Consistent with the research literature, we've found that student exposure to rigorous coursework and their ability to successfully engage with and complete college-level courses while in high school is indicative of postsecondary success. When we compared AVID graduates and non-AVID graduates in Florida, for instance, we saw that higher proportions of AVID students enrolled in rigorous courses such as Advanced Placement, and while they scored lower on the exams, they enrolled and persisted in college at higher rates. This is happening even as 86 percent of our overall AVID Elective seniors identify as an underrepresented race or ethnicity in higher education.

RH: When you say that a student becomes an "AVID student," just what does that mean?

SH: Within their school communities, AVID students stand out. They shake teachers' hands on the first day of class and ask to sit up front. They look adults in the eyes, and tend to exhibit higher levels of agency over their learning. Our students are not only prepared to manage their own academic path, but can also think critically about how to make the most of their journey through college, career, and life. Students in the AVID Elective continue to excel based on the habits and behaviors that they are learning, and continue to challenge themselves by taking more rigorous courses. These students are also often engaged in leadership roles on campus, and build positive relationships both on and off campus.

RH: It sounds like AVID is geared toward college-bound students. Is that a fair characterization? 

SH: Our roots are in supporting students' transition from high school to higher education, and that remains a mainstay of our mission—but we prepare all students for their future, whether they start at a college or university, or pursue a technical certificate or career. Regardless, we prepare them for success in a rigorous professional and educational environment—which they may not feel prepared for when they enter high school. As a result, nearly 90 percent of the AVID Elective seniors apply to four-year colleges. Remember, these are first-generation college students, so the process of completing the application alone develops important skills. What's rewarding, though, is that 90 percent of those students are accepted to those colleges.

RH: Is there a fee for schools to become a member of AVID?

SH: There's a membership fee for any school that wants to gain access to our vast library of tools and curriculum. For our K-12 campuses, we offer tiered pricing depending on the number of schools within the district—this is on average about $3,200 per year. There are also expenses to assure quality implementation. For example, our Summer Institute trainings have a tuition cost of $800 to $900 per educator.

RH: Can you say a bit more about these trainings, and the nature of AVID instruction?

SH: Our Summer Institutes, which are attended by more than 40,000 educators every summer across twelve locations, are one of the best-known components of our work. I think that's because we practice what we teach. We use the same high-engagement strategies in teaching our material as teachers will use back in the classroom. It's not a "stand and deliver" training—we ask the attendees to be students, and practice how to teach and learn with our tools. One of the other major benefits of our institutes is that school site-team planning time is integrated with the coursework. Teams from each campus create an implementation plan for the coming year. In addition to our Summer Institiutes, we offer year-round leadership trainings, which are attended by around 30,000 educators each year. AVID is about sharing instructional practices that have been proven effective with teachers—practices that are validated by their peers. We're not reinventing the wheel; we're scaling and sharing what works. The heart of AVID training is building relational capacity with students and colleagues, and elevating engagement in any classroom, no matter the subject.

RH: A lot of this language is used by plenty of professional development providers—many of whom don't impress. In your mind, what distinguishes AVID from these other providers? How do you decide which practices have been "validated" by educators—and which kinds of strategies to "scale and share"?

SH: Our trainings are unique because we priortize practitioners teaching practitioners. Strategies shared during AVID professional development, such as focused note-taking, collaborative study groups, and inquiry-driven problem-solving, are selected because the very practicitioners teaching the strategies are sharing first-hand experieces from their own classrooms. Their proximity to the classroom ensures that the highlighted practices are both authentic and relevant.

RH: You and I both know that there are lots of programs, interventions, and school models that claim to deliver remarkable results. To your mind, what sets AVID apart from all those?

SH: What makes AVID unique is our emphasis on building relationships between teachers and students.  In the classroom, these relationships are developed through the atmosphere created by the teacher-whether it's standing at the door and greeting them, or providing opportunities for students to participate in and reflect on conversations or team-building experiences. The key to all of this is ensuring that each individual is known and valued—there are no invisible students—and a community is built. Strong relationships help both teachers and students set and maintain high expectations and support each other to reach those goals.

RH: Last question: What's ahead for AVID over the next few years?

SH: We're constantly taking what we have learned from new academic findings, policy changes, educators, and global trends to shape new and better ways to close the opportunity gap. One thing our educators are really excited about is our push into the digital space. Classrooms today have more access to technology than ever before, yet our teachers and school leaders are feeling ill-prepared concerning how to best leverage these new tools and resources. We are launching our first digital teaching and learning PD offering this summer, and the reception has been outstanding. But mostly we are looking forward to impacting more students through providing world-class professional learning for educators. We want to continue to close opportunity gaps for as many children as possible and believe our methods provide an excellent path for this to occur.

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