When students arrived in Corinna Heggen’s class Thursday, she asked for their “points of confusion” – topics, concepts and problems they were struggling with in other classes.
She sorted them into groups with similar points of confusion – two geometry groups and a grab-bag group with issues in social studies and science. The class of sophomores – a special group of Advancement via Individual Determination students – was about to launch into their first tutorials of the year. Tutorials, the keystone of the AVID program, force students to face challenging material head-on.
Heggen, an English teacher and Schenectady High School’s AVID coordinator, said the vast majority of confusion points come out of math classes. Even the group she called “something a little different than math” had students working through math problems. But there the students are working with their most difficult math problems in small groups.
“Why do you want to go first?” Heggen asked one of the students.
“Because I have a test tomorrow,” sophomore Donald Yopp answered.
But Donald wasn’t the only one with a test, and he let classmate Shawn Downs go first. Shawn stood at a sheet of large paper and started to make notes in three columns: point of confusion, what I know and the steps of working through the problem. Shawn was struggling with a problem that asked him to find the slope of a perpendicular line that runs through a different line at a specific point.
“I followed what she did, but I don’t know how she did it,” Shawn said of the problem.
As Shawn presented the problem to a group of four other AVID students, describing what he knew and what he didn’t know about how to solve the problem, his classmates asked leading questions, nudging him toward missed steps.
“What are the points you see that you can do something?” Donald asked Shawn, trying to lead him to plug in the given graph point. “Y equals mx plus b. Now plug in what you know. You know what the y is; you know what the m is; you don’t know what the b is.”
Along the way, Shawn figured out where he had fallen off the road to the right answer: he forgot to do the opposite reciprocal. But the students don’t always get to the right answers, Heggen said. And sometimes they have to go back and work it through with the class’s teacher.
“The point isn’t the right answer; the point is the process of working through the problem,” Heggen said. “They get to these problems on homework assignments and shut down; the point is to get to these problems and keep working through them.... If they get to the answer, there a little added benefit .”
But sometimes they do get to the answer.
“Ericka, did you get to the answer?” Heggen asked a girl standing in front a smartboard covered in math notes.
“Yeah,” the student replied.
“All right,” Heggen said. “Now, down the road when she has a similar problem, she has notes she can refer back to.”
A program focused on college
In its second year at Schenectady High School, there are over 50 freshmen AVID students and around 30 in the sophomore class. Each year a new freshman class will fill in behind until two years from now the AVID program exists at every grade level.
The AVID program focuses on students between the 25th and 85th percentiles who make a commitment to pursuing college. Many of the AVID students would be first-generation college students.
Students are first identified as potential AVID students in middle school, where teachers recommend students to guidance counselors. Students and parents fill out an application, and the high school AVID teachers visit the middle schools in the spring to interview prospective students. They try to build an AVID class of around 50 students that reflects the broader demographics of the high school.
“They are pledging their dedication and motivation to do what is asked of them,” Heggen said. “These AVID students are taking extra steps to say I’m serious, this is serious, and I recognize I need to do these extra things to get to where I need to go.”
The tutorials are just one of the extra things expected of the AVID students. The AVID program is designed to give students skills to help them keep working through – they practice organizational skills with weekly binder checks and they use the regimented Cornell notes method that forces them to return to and review their class notes.
But the key to the program is the focus on college. AVID students visit college campuses throughout the year. Last year, the inaugural class went on trips to both SUNY Cobleskill (including a stop at the dairy barn) and to Syracuse University. This week the sophomores are visiting a state college in Connecticut. Later this month, they will take the pre-SAT and then analyze their results.
“After going to Cobleskill, we are driving home on the bus and they are all saying I want to go there, I want to go there,” Heggen said. “Then you go to Syracuse, and we are driving home on the bus - 'I want to go to Syracuse,' they say.”
As the current AVID sophomores advance through their upperclassman years, they will be asked to think even more carefully about college.
In Justin Hoffman’s freshman AVID class Wednesday, the students interviewed Principal Diane Wilkinson about her college experience. They quizzed her on what she would change about college life and what kinds of support she received from her family. She encouraged them to foster relationships with teachers, get involved in new activities and, above everything else, pursue the things that drive them.
[Schenectady teacher teams key to freshman transition]
“Find your passion; don’t give up on your passion,” Wilkinson told the class. “It took me five years to graduate, but at least I landed my feet on what I was passionate about. Find your passion and work to build your supports that way.”
For the students, the organizational, time management and note-taking skills may be what has the biggest day-to-day impact. “They keep my hole puncher busy,” said Jill Cady, a freshman English teacher with AVID students. But its the focus on college, beginning in the first days of freshman year, that will likely have the biggest impact in the long run.
“It helps with organization; it's taught me to take better notes,” freshman Tajianna McCargo said of her AVID experience. “Some of the work he gives us, it helps us think more about what we want to do, what we want to do in college.”
Reach Gazette reporter Zachary Matson at 395-3120, [email protected] or @zacharydmatson on Twitter.