For Sergio Contreras, 17, success is all about choices — the ones you make and sometimes, the ones others make for you.
Three years ago the thought of going to college seemed an elusive goal for a kid who had spent his formative years skating through middle school and his summers picking watermelons.
Even so, Sergio knew he didn't want to spend his future toiling in the fields as a migrant worker or laboring on a construction site for an uncle who had started his own business. And he didn't want to end up like his dad or other family members who were doing jail time.
"I have family that are hard-working and some who made bad decisions," Sergio said. "I wanted to make a different path."
Opportunity tapped him on the shoulder in his freshman year when Sergio was one of 50 students selected to participate in a new college readiness program at Pasco High called AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination).
Now as Sergio finishes up his junior year, he has been tapped once again to share the story of the success he experienced through the program when he steps up to the podium as a student speaker at the AVID Center 2014 Summer Institute in Tampa in July.
AVID is an elective program founded in 1980 by Marie Swanson, an English teacher in San Diego who wanted to assure success for all students after desegregation brought a host of under-served students to her high-performing high school. Now AVID is in more than 4,500 schools in nearly 900 districts across the country. In Pasco County, AVID programs are up and running at Pasco and Ridgewood High schools with plans to expand to other Zephyrhills High and Pasco and R.B. Stewart Middle schools.
AVID places a high emphasis on study skills. Students who enroll must fill out an application, submit a writing sample and sit for an interview. Once accepted, they sign a contract promising to fulfill a number of tasks such as maintaining a minimum 2.5 GPA, enrolling in college-prep courses, preparing for and taking college entrance exams, going on college tours and participating in community service.
"It's a program for those middle-of-the-road students whose parents might not know how to navigate the system," said Mignon Edwards, coordinator of Pasco High's AVID program. "It gives them a step up — helps them with a variety of skills: writing, thinking, collaborating, organization, reading and study skills."
Students must be willing to push themselves, said Edwards, acknowledging that only 16 students out of the original 50 in the primary class are still enrolled in AVID. A promising note, Edwards said, is the 23 AVID students in this year's sophomore class and 25 freshman who have signed on with more on the waiting list.
"As we have grown, we learned what we did right, but also what we needed to change," Edwards said. "In the beginning we hand picked students we thought were right for the program, but we realized that students had to be self motivated. They have to want this for themselves. They have to want to go that extra mile."
Sergio proved he was more than willing. When the opportunity came for students to participate in a speaking contest for AVID's summer institute, Edwards encouraged him to give that a shot.
"He has always been a quiet leader," Edwards said. "He always did his work. He was always one to say to the other students, 'Step it up.' "
Word came after spring break that Sergio had been selected as a finalist after writing an essay outlining his experience and submitting a taped speech.
"The program is like a second family that has brought personal growth for me," Sergio said. "Freshman year was really hard because I didn't know how to study. I earned mostly B's and C's. AVID taught me how to improve my study habits, how to take proper notes. It teaches you to give yourself to the teacher, to come to class with an empty cup.
"You have to have some determination. You have to want to do something with yourself. You have to surround yourself with people who are willing to work and make themselves better because those people's drives will make your drive better."
Sergio now has an A/B average. He takes honors classes that he once thought were too tough for him and is a member of the school's HOSA and Interact Clubs. Summer plans include dual enrollment classes at Pasco-Hernando State College. He is slated to join the Health Academy at Pasco High for his senior year and is determined to graduate with a CNA (Certified Nursing Assistant) certificate in hand. He also hopes to attend the University of South Florida — another step in realizing his dream of becoming a physical therapist.
It's all kind of amazing, Sergio said as he reflected on the last few years. "In freshman year I thought, 'How am I going to graduate?' Now I'm almost finished — it's like wow."
Michele Miller can be reached at [email protected]