Program 'a foundation for everything'

AVID helps underserved students lay the groundwork for success.

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WALLA WALLA -- Advancement Via Individual Determination is a federal program that seeks to reach and support underserved students who have the potential to reach and succeed in college.

Mira Gobel, associate principal at Walla Walla High School, said AVID students are often those who show the potential to be earning As and Bs, but are making Bs and Cs, or even Ds for various reasons.

"They have the desire, but they don't have the resources or support," she said.

At the core of the program is the belief that with the right structure, curriculum, and staff, those students can realize their potential to finish high school and reach higher education.

The AVID program launched locally three years ago with two classes of students: one in ninth grade, the other in 10th. Students committed to taking AVID as an elective course each of their years in high school. Through the classes, students learned everything from note taking, to study habits, to how to juggle multiple courses.

"I would say AVID is a foundation for everything," said Jose Beleche, a graduating senior who heads to Whitman College this fall. "Organization skills, study skills, just life skills."

"It's informative," said Janella Bermudez, who graduates as one of three valedictorians. Bermudez will attend Gonzaga University in the fall. "You just feel more organized."

Tapping students' potential is the heart of AVID.

"Kids say, 'I had no idea how to be a good student,'" Gobel said.

For Gobel, seeing the first group of AVID students finish high school and head to college is particularly emotional. Gobel spoke to senior AVID students during a recognition night held last week. An immigrant herself, she shared her personal struggles adjusting in high school, standing out for her looks, and frustrations at not grasping her new language.

"It is very personal for me," said Gobel, who came to the U.S. when she was 17. "I see me in them."

Each student has their own unique life challenges that were keeping them from realizing their potential.

"What makes these kids stand out, for one, is the challenges they face in their lives," said Diana Erickson, bilingual coordinator for Walla Walla Public Schools. Erickson also dedicates time to serving Wa-Hi's Latino Club.

"One of our goals is to make these kids not so invisible," said Bill Erickson, who volunteers and advises the Latino Club, and is Diana's husband.

Over the years, the Ericksons have together helped take students to regional science bowl competitions, summer engineering camps and leadership conferences.

Gobel said the AVID program works best when it is a four-year program. The class of seniors now graduating began with 32 students in 10th grade. Gobel said that first year in high school, the ninth grade, makes a difference toward retention. Some of those students left to finish high school outside of the program, while others moved and a few pursued other paths.

Yet next year's seniors, who began AVID as ninth-graders, will be the 27 students who began the program initially, Gobel said. All are expected to go on to college.

Gobel said the AVID program will also expand through middle school, with a potential to reach students at the elementary level in the future.

Along with AVID is another program that strives to get students through school and into college.

Max Weber is director of the TRiO-Educational Talent Search program at Wa-Hi. The federal program targets low-income middle and high school students who would be the first in their families to go to college.

Weber said there are 11 students among the AVID graduates who have also belonged to the TRiO/ETS program.

Among the ways the program helps students is by coordinating visits to college campuses. Weber said this year alone, students went on 27 college tours.

"I'm kind of known as a trip guy," he said. "That's what I do."

Like AVID, the success of TRiO/ETS hinges on getting students into higher education. The target rate is getting at least 75 percent of TRiO/ETS seniors to attend college. Weber said for the last three years, more than 90 percent of his student have gone on to college.

Gobel said the AVID program goal is to get 100 percent of the students finishing high school and into higher education.

Bermudez, who visited several schools during high school as part of AVID and TRiO/ETS, chose Gonzaga from among other campuses.

"Ever since I took that campus tour, I felt I could be there," she said.

Maria P. Gonzalez can be reached at mariagonzalez@wwub.com or 526-8317.

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