College-prep program moving down to middle schools

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Twice a week, students walk into Peggy Foley’s classroom at Kelly High School in Brighton Park armed with homework, ready to break up into groups divided by subject areas. Math is on one side, history another. Tutors mill around and check the work. But instead of looking for correct answers, the tutors check for something else: The students’ homework is to develop questions about their schoolwork, as a strategy to help build critical thinking skills.

Twice a week, students walk into Peggy Foley’s classroom at Kelly High School in Brighton Park armed with homework, ready to break up into groups divided by subject areas. Math is on one side, history another. Tutors mill around and check the work. But instead of looking for correct answers, the tutors check for something else: The students’ homework is to develop questions about their schoolwork, as a strategy to help build critical thinking skills.

Foley’s class is part of AVID—Advancement Via Individual Determination—a national initiative that provides middle-tier students with daily classes on study skills and critical thinking meant to prepare them for college-level work.

Other segments of Chicago’s high school reform efforts have struggled or fallen apart, but AVID seems to be going strong. From an initial small group of pilot schools, the program has expanded to 58 high schools and this year, 17 middle schools. Foley reports that 95 percent of her students go on to attend college.

This year, 10 CPS schools are candidates to become AVID National Demonstration Schools. CPS staff submitted the 10 schools for the award last spring after evaluating their performance in areas such as volunteer participation, achievement in reading and writing, and level of inquiry among students. The title would bring a measure of prestige to neighborhood schools, such as Robeson High School in Englewood, that have long histories of low academic performance.

Final decisions on the national demonstration schools will be made in the spring after the national office makes another round of site visits.

The Southwest Youth Collaborative pressured the district to bring AVID to Chicago six years ago, to give students at neighborhood high schools an academic leg up. While neighborhood high schools still lag far behind selective and magnet schools, AVID has won praise. A Consortium on Chicago School Research survey released last year found that AVID has a positive effect on the grades of freshmen, and that students liked their classes and felt like they were learning something.

AVID is a relatively inexpensive venture. CPS recently committed about $800,000 to support it this year, enough to allow 10,000 high school students and about 550 middle school students to participate.

CPS pays an annual $1,200 membership fee for schools, a one-time start up fee of about $4,500 for materials, and tutor costs. But schools pay the bulk of the costs; on average, about $12,000 each year for the program.

The cornerstone of AVID is teaching students to think critically by using the Socratic method, which relies on guided questioning rather than lecturing. Students work together in class, asking each other questions about their homework.

“It’s not your typical glorified study hall,” says Ron Raglin, AVID district director for CPS. “You pose questions, you ask students to synthesize concepts. You’re creating a culture where students are really thinking through things.”

At Columbia Explorers Academy in Brighton Park, Beth West, the school’s AVID coordinator, says the program has had a slow but smooth start. West has begun weekly binder checks to reinforce the fundamentals of staying organized, and uses weekly progress reports from teachers to monitor her students’ academic performance. So far, though, the program is holding off on typical AVID activities such as field trips.

Tutoring currently takes center stage so students can focus on developing fundamental study skills, such as note-taking. West says the Socratic seminars are next on the agenda, followed by visits with AVID students at Kelly High School.

“It is new to us, so I’m starting to implement the different branches of the AVID program,” West says.

Middle-school years are an ideal time for to start laying the groundwork for college prep, Raglin says.