Yelixa Larios-Lopez's story of a childhood marked by violence and depression had some of the 2,800 teachers gathered in Orlando near tears.
Life was chaotic after the family emigrated from Nicaragua. Dad would come at her with a belt if she spilled a few grains of rice. "I was a useless 13-year-old," she said.
It was a message from God, she said, when teachers tapped her for something called AVID. Now 17, Larios-Lopez is student government president and hopes she's on her way to becoming a pediatrician. "AVID has brought hope back into my life," she said.
Narratives like this have made Advancement Via Individual Determination all the rage for school districts including Hillsborough and Pinellas as they try to make college a reality for minority, working-class and underperforming students.
But what started as a grass roots movement has become increasingly corporate, from expensive contracts with school districts to six-figure executive salaries and conferences at high-end resorts.
Skeptics say the research supporting AVID is not scientifically reliable. Yet districts spend millions on it. Last week's summer institute at Orlando's Ritz-Carlton and JW Marriott drew nearly 600 educators from Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco, costing as much as $1,000 each.
Veteran and rookie teachers swear by AVID's training, which features subject-specific sessions infused with techniques they can take right to the classroom.
"What you get in college, to become an educator, and what AVID provides are night and day," said Christie McMullen, Pinellas County's AVID director.
Is AVID worth the money?
"If it puts kids in college, I don't know how you measure it," said Owen Young, principal of Middleton High School in Tampa. "We put children in the penal system every day."
But the irony wasn't lost as teachers worked through their school plans in the middle of a 500-acre luxury resort.
"We don't usually get accommodations like these," said Seminole Middle School principal Thomas Lechner.
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AVID's oft-told story begins in San Diego with English teacher Mary Catherine Swanson.
Desegregation in 1980 changed the complexion of her high-performing school. She wondered how kids without much support would keep up. So she spearheaded a plan to give them what they might not get at home, from study skills to encouragement.
Over time the system was refined. AVID students today learn to ask high-level questions and advocate for their interests. The school-day elective provides an atmosphere of mutual support. They keep all their papers in thick three-ring binders. Notes are taken on Cornell-style sheets.
"We're teaching them a system so they know there's such a thing as organization," said San Diego teacher Jonathan LeMaster.
In the early years Swanson worked for no money. By 2001, enough was coming into the nonprofit organization to give her a onetime $739,000 payment.
Today AVID's top brass includes the former Texas education commissioner under George W. Bush and the chief financial officer of Pepsi International. It raises tens of millions from summer institutes and contracts.
Hillsborough County's School Board approved an AVID contract on May 22 for nearly $200,000. It requires the district to spend more for training, including the summer institute.
The board heard from students including Chamberlain High School's Donnie McKinley, who at one point was homeless.
"They kept me on the right path and thanks to them, I'm going to college," he said.
Stacy White, a conservative on the board, asked questions before the meeting. He spoke to teachers and students, who vouched for the program. He asked superintendent MaryEllen Elia to send him research about AVID. She did. White was satisfied.
But that isn't always the case. What Works Clearinghouse, an arm of the U.S. Department of Education that scrutinizes educational research, looked at 66 studies on AVID. Sixty-five did not meet the agency's scientific standards. One did, but with reservations. A common reason was a lack of a comparison group.
"That doesn't mean the project doesn't work, it just means we didn't have good evidence," said Jill Constantine, associate director of the clearinghouse's research firm.
Comparisons are hard because students choose and apply to be in AVID, unlike some of their non-AVID peers.
"They did not meet their criteria for scientific study," said AVID executive vice president Granger Ward, a former superintendent in New York and San Diego. "When you look at a scientific study, somebody gets the medicine and somebody gets the placebo.
"The challenge we have, and the challenge I would have as a principal or a superintendent, would be to say, 'You kids get to have AVID. And you, who by the same criteria deserve it, don't.' They're kids and they only come through once."
Complicating matters, he said, is that AVID seeks to spread its benefits throughout the school.
"When we go into a school, we're not going to say, 'Don't teach kids well.' That's our dilemma and we'll live with it."
Constantine said such flaws are not unusual when it comes to evaluating school programs, but it's troublesome that educators do not demand more proof. "We should all push for higher standards of research," she said. "The stakes are so high, so you want to do it right."
At the University of Chicago, researchers tried to get around the control group issue by comparing ninth-grade AVID students with a group who attended school years earlier, before the program existed.
In their yet-unpublished study, they found that if they used this method, AVID had no significant benefit. Ward took issue with that study. "They used schools that weren't AVID-certified," he said.
Teachers sometimes acknowledge the research is anecdotal and claims can be misleading.
Consider these numbers from AVID in 2011: Ninety percent of AVID students met requirements to enter a four-year college after graduation, compared with 36 percent of all students. The rates for African-Americans were 93 percent for AVID, 25 percent overall.
Such statements do not account for those who entered AVID as freshmen but withdrew before their senior year.
"It's like saying 100 percent of our graduates graduated from high school," said LeMaster, the San Diego AVID teacher who helps with the summer training.
But he and fellow teacher Rick Millican agreed that, even if some take issue with the marketing, AVID has tremendous value.
"I believe that in a democracy, higher education is the only sure way to create a better life," Millican said. "The trajectory of a child's life can be changed. Really, for me, it's a vision."
Unfettered by the testing demands of other classes, teachers can help students make life choices. From the first day, LeMaster said, it is presumed they will go to college — "not if, but where."
"It's an inspiring experience. It's part emotional and part practical," LeMaster said. "They develop hope for these kids. They see opportunity for these kids."
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The setting for the training has, itself, attracted controversy.
In 2010 an Orlando Sentinel columnist derided Lake County school officials for housing teachers in "one of the swankiest places in town to lay your head on a pillow." Soon after, the School Board voted to end local hotel stays.
In Lee County, former board member Bob Chilmonik told a television station in 2011 that sending teachers to fancy resorts was "an absolute abuse of taxpayers' money. … It leaves you spellbound."
Aware of the strain on budgets, AVID has shortened its summer institutes from five days to three.
Funny thing: Organizers say the Ritz and Marriott charge AVID the same nightly rate of $169. But, knowing the Ritz's reputation, Hillsborough and Pinellas book only at the Marriott.
Hillsborough also saved taxpayers nearly $25,000 shortly before this year's institute by negotiating a volume discount on the conference fee.
Money was so tight in Volusia County, the superintendent scrapped AVID this year. Students mounted a campaign. They wore T-shirts that said, "Save AVID. Save us." Teacher Jennie Felix wasn't surprised. The district relented and restored the program.
But there was no money for hotel rooms, she said. "So I'm driving home today and back in the morning."
Researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 226-3356 or [email protected]