Yireh Rivera from Mr. Amador’s fifth grade shows off her organized and tabbed binder

Although Northlake Elementary sits in the center of Lake Highlands, with its burgeoning elementary schools and exploding home values, parents and staff in recent years have grappled with ways to keep homeowners nearby choosing the school for their children instead of requesting transfers or opting for private. Richardson ISD discussed making Northlake a magnet, but administrators, teachers and parents there have implemented a creative new option – over the summer Northlake became RISD’s first and only all-AVID elementary school.

AVID, or Advancement Via Individual Determination, originally came to RISD’s upper grades in 2003 as a way to encourage bright students whose parents had not attended college to enroll in challenging Advanced Placement (college prep) courses they might have believed they couldn’t handle. The program supports students with a system of techniques, including organizational skills, note-taking methods and study skills. Students learn to organize their backpacks, manage their time using a planner and pull together school work in tabbed notebooks, and teachers do regular checks to make certain kids are on track. Kids also learn techniques for goal-setting and communication.

AVID teaches students the Cornell note-taking system, devised in the 1950s by Walter Pauk, an education professor at Cornell University. Students divide a page into three sections, and take notes in the largest part. Main ideas, vocabulary words and anticipated exam questions are jotted in the “cues” section during review, and a summary is written at the bottom. The goal may be to recall what they need for the fourth-grade science test, but Lake Highlands High AVID grads say they’ve taken the helpful tool with them when they headed off to universities all over the country.

“Everybody wants their kids to be successful,” says Mary Kellagher, principal at Northlake since 2013. “Everybody wants their kids to have opportunities and leadership qualities, so we looked at different programs that highlight these things. We looked at other options, too, but AVID met the needs of all of our students, not just our low socio-economic kids. It’s really good for all learners. We wanted to find something fresh for our campus.”

“The K-6 model at AVID is fairly new,” explains RISD AVID director Joan Swim. “In secondary schools, AVID is a pull-out elective. In elementary schools, it’s threaded and embedded throughout the curriculum, so every student is touched by its instructional strategies.”

Stephanie Spoon, part of Northlake’s AVID team, says the goal is to equip students – even young ones – to have a larger stake in their own education.

“Our teachers are very intentional with each step of the lesson, and AVID helps them organize their planning – then the kids take control,” says Spoon. “It’s heavy prep, then the kids run the classroom.”

“That’s been my biggest ah-hah with AVID,” agrees Kellagher, “the independence it builds with kids. They are taking ownership of their learning. You can see it in first grade. This isn’t a different curriculum – it’s about the how. Kids are leaving organized. It’s a total organizational system.”

Each year in April, the Lake Highlands Women’s League, Exchange Club of Lake Highlands and other organizations award thousands of dollars in scholarships to LHHS students with impressive accomplishments. Over the last ten years, an increasing number of these recipients have been AVID kids.

“AVID is where I started to gain confidence,” said Danait Tesfaye in a 2011 Advocate interview, explaining her move to America from Ethiopia in the 8th grade after her father, a former Ethiopian politician, was imprisoned during the country’s civil war. “I felt welcome and made friends. They praised my English and gave me confidence, and it continued to improve.” Tesfaye was headed to Texas Women’s University.

“My teachers here in AVID,” said Moo Hser, who came to America from a Burmese refugee camp, “every one of them have changed my world in a good way.”

Of Northlake’s 600 students, 83 percent are economically disadvantaged and 70 percent are considered at risk of dropping out. Almost 45 percent have limited proficiency in English.

At the secondary level, AVID encourages students to challenge themselves by enrolling in college prep courses, and Northlake’s walls are covered with college pennants and posters. Northlake, though, broadens the goal to achievement – no matter what the arena.

“We talk about and highlight colleges, but we also talk a lot about career paths,” says Kellagher. “It’s about how to be successful, whether you go to college or trade school or the work force. All of the strategies are going to help you be successful.”

Principal Mary Kellagher checks the binder of Zauria Harvey, a fifth-grader in Mr. Amador’s class.

Even first-graders, like Blessing Aziagnon from Ms. Dickerson’s class, take ownership in their education with AVID.

Cornell notes