This story was produced in collaboration with the Hechinger Report.
Standing in front of Ridgeview Charter Middle School in this Atlanta suburb, you can't help but notice the opulence of the homes that surround it. Soaring turrets. Columned entrances. Lush lawns. These are folks who clearly have bitten off a sizable chunk of the American dream.
Inside the doors of the middle school, there's a different American story playing out. With a student body that is nearly 70 percent Hispanic and black, and with slightly over half of its 1,100 students categorized as low-income, this is an institution that is not serving the homes around it. Most of the students at Ridgeview live in modest apartment complexes a few miles away. If they have school-age children, the residents of the ornate homes tend to send them to private schools outside the neighborhood.
In Sandy Springs, Georgia, the public schools have had to confront a phenomenon that more and more suburbs around the country are facing, one long familiar to American cities: dwindling percentages of white students. At Ridgeview, as its share of white students decreased, its Hispanic population grew. Now Hispanic students make up nearly half the school; white students are about 30 percent; and black students, close to 20 percent.
The performance of minority students on standardized tests at Ridgeview historically has lagged behind that of white students, according to staff, who note that black and Hispanic students are much more likely to come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds. On the latest statewide standardized test in reading, on a scale of one to 100 indicating level of proficiency, Hispanic students received a score of 42 and black students received a score of 60, while white students received the highest score of 100, for example. The same yawning gaps can be seen across the Fulton County School District, where Ridgeview is located, and on a national level.
Over the past decade, school officials in Fulton County, Georgia's fourth-largest school district, have experimented with so-called personalized learning, tried integrating English language learners into mainstream classes, and introduced high school-level courses in middle school. But like many other districts around the country, officials here are now turning to a massive non-profit college-readiness program to narrow the gaps. It's called AVID, and its administrators say it's reaching nearly two million students at more than 6,400 schools in 47 states.
AVID (which stands for Advancement Via Individual Determination) is animated by a simple belief: Once children begin to see some success in school, their self-perceptions will shift so dramatically that they'll commit to becoming stellar students—and this commitment will propel them through college. It is designed to expose students to organizational skills, peer support, and leadership activities. AVID now has a $75 million annual budget and many years' worth of independent studies and thousands of individual examples suggesting that it works.
A 2017 study by the Houston Independent School District, for example, found that students participating in AVID in 2015–16 enrolled in higher-level courses and received higher scores on AP exams and on standardized tests than those who did not. An independent study conducted in Washington state showed similar results. In Fulton County, where AVID is now in its fifth year, school leaders say it's too early to see an impact in college-going rates but that AVID students are receiving better grades and are deciding to tackle challenging classes in high school.
"AVID has helped to transform the way the staff thinks about kids," says Oliver Blackwell, who has been the principal at Ridgeview for three years. "For our teachers to sit around and passionately say that we have to believe that our kids can go to college is big, because that may not have always been the case. I know that sounds terrible when thinking of educators, but it's true. Sometimes we can allow ourselves to be limited by stereotypes. I think that kind of change in thinking has happened at the school in recent years."
Such subconscious stereotyping is hardly unique to Ridgeview. Many middle-class white students arrive at school with "insider knowledge"—of how to pick classes, take tests, and complete homework—that some of their less-advantaged peers lack, says Lea Hubbard, chair of the Department of Leadership Studies at the University of San Diego. Teachers pick up on that insider knowledge and reward it, she says, exacerbating the achievement gap.
AVID was designed to systematically help disadvantaged students compensate for their lack of insider knowledge. The program enrolls a subset of students in each of its schools—200 at Ridgeview—in a special elective. The course uses positive reinforcements from teachers, peer support, and a focus on "executive" skills (such as outlining, note-taking, and organizing) to give students a newborn confidence that they can be high achievers.
An essential tenet of AVID's approach is that a successful student is an organized student. That's especially true for students in the academic middle, the B and C kids, for whom AVID is most transformative, say teachers and administrators. "AVID gets those kids and really pushes them to where they can achieve at their full potential," said Jessica Burgess, a seventh-grade English teacher at Ridgeview.
But AVID does have its critics. David Spring, a college professor in Washington state who helped to found an organization called Coalition to Protect Our Public Schools, questions AVID's data. He says the program is just another in a long line of "charlatan, snake-oil" programs that have emerged over the last half century as "magic bullets" to close the performance gap between middle-class white students and low-income minority students.
"In those 50 years there has been only one program that has shown any validity at all in helping low-income and minority students: lowering class size," says Spring, who wrote a book attacking programs like AVID called Weapons of Mass Deception. "[E]very dollar you put into AVID is a dollar you take away from lowering class sizes."
Dennis Johnston, AVID's chief research officer, said the program has many scientifically rigorous studies showing its positive impact and that it is not being adopted at the expense of lower class sizes.
Students who sign up for AVID quickly learn that the most important utensil in the AVID kitchen is the big white binder.
Vanessa Everhart, an eighth-grader at Ridgeview, snapped hers open on a recent afternoon to reveal a pile of papers—tutorial request forms, highlighted history readings, a daily calendar. Everhart proudly pointed out how neatly the voluminous stack was placed inside, organized with a three-hole punch.
The binder's appearance was not just a sign of an eighth-grader's fastidiousness. The papers—and the orderliness—are essential tools in AVID.
Teachers at AVID schools believe so much in the binder that they regularly take up precious minutes of class time for "binder checks." Everhart said when she was in sixth grade, she had no sense of organization or the need to create a schedule for studying and tests. Because she would typically just stuff notes and assignments into random folders, "I would lose papers left and right." Not anymore.
"The teachers do a shake test," added eighth-grader Tai Freeman, peering over Vanessa's shoulder. "Your binder is really organized if, when you shake it, nothing falls out. That's a perfect binder."
AVID was founded nearly four decades ago by an English teacher in San Diego, Mary Catherine Swanson. When the city was placed under court order to integrate its school system in 1977, Swanson realized that the number of black and Hispanic students at her institution, Clairemont High School, would rise overnight from eight to about 500. After visiting the high school many of these students were coming from, and observing that most of their instruction was remedial, Swanson knew they would struggle at Clairemont. She decided to take pre-emptive measures.
"I asked kids if they would be willing to go into hard classes if I helped them do well there," Swanson said. "And if they said 'Yes,' I took them. It was as easy as that."
Swanson had been inspired by research out of the University of California–Berkeley on the role of peer group support in getting students of color to push and pull each other to academic success. She crafted the AVID program based loosely on that model, with the cohort of kids in the elective giving each other helpful nudges. Soon the standardized test scores of the school's minority students began to soar, and Swanson's program began to get attention outside of Clairemont.
Los Angeles Unified School District (64 AVID schools), Hillsborough, Florida (94), and Northside, Texas (77), are some of the largest adopters, according to AVID officials; it is also being used as far away as Australia and in United States Department of Defense schools around the world.
Once a district signs on, it pays for a team of educators—typically teachers and school administrators—to attend a three-day training. When the educators return to their buildings, they recruit a core group of students they think will benefit most. Those students sign a contract, pledging to pass all their classes and maintain satisfactory "citizenship" and attendance. They also commit to participating in extracurriculars and to presenting themselves as leaders "by demonstrating responsibility and respect."
Each participating district assigns an employee to oversee the program's implementation. The idea is that once schools have sent a critical mass of their teachers to the AVID trainings, the program's philosophy will permeate the school and reach students who aren't in the elective.
Leaders in suburban districts with fast-changing demographics like Sandy Springs say the program has helped elevate the leadership of minority students in their schools, altering perceptions of these students among teachers and classmates.
"AVID students have a level of citizenship they have to demonstrate in a way that helps other kids who may have bias and stereotype around kids of color. That actually helps shift the entire school culture in a positive way," said Libby Miller, a district official overseeing the implementation of AVID in North Clackamas, a suburb of Portland, Oregon, that has a black and Hispanic population of about 20 percent (roughly 30 percent higher than it was 12 years ago and six times what it was 20 years ago). "They are seen as leaders and college-going, where maybe the stereotype wasn't that way before."
In the AVID elective at Ridgeview on a recent afternoon, teacher Jessica Burgess was using worksheets to hammer home proper comma usage with her seventh graders. The students, divided into four groups, exchanged papers and corrected each other's work while Burgess and an assistant teacher roamed the room to answer questions.
"Teaching coordinating conjunctions to seventh graders is a nightmare," she said, pausing in a corner as she observed the groups. An oversized copy of the AVID student contract hung on the wall behind her.
Using a method she learned from AVID, Burgess has taught the students how to revise and correct their own work. "That puts it on them, not on me," she said.
At Ridgeview, where nearly 60 of the school's 88 teachers have been trained by AVID, the concepts are being used throughout the school, according to Blackwell. Ridgeview's students feed into nearby Riverwood International Charter high school, which also runs the AVID program. A total of 27 schools (out of 106 in Fulton County) are using AVID.
Ridgeview students are old enough to notice the big fancy houses around the school—and the fact that kids in those houses rarely attend their school.
"I don't understand why people think this isn't a good school," said Vanessa Everhart.
"We have good classes, good courses, good teachers...."
Her voice trailed off.
Anita Jackson, an eighth-grade math teacher, has seen the school's radical transformation in the 26 years she's been at Ridgeview—from overwhelmingly white to, in the last decade, majority students of color.
"I've seen people leave because of fear of the unknown," she said. "And [neighborhood residents] keep building the mega mansions around here, while our children who live in the apartment complexes are struggling to pay the rent."
Added Blackwell: "But AVID absolutely changes the way they look at themselves."