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Hernando County program aims to lift students in “the middle”

The AVID program, a staple in many Florida districts, comes to Weeki Wachee High, thanks in part to a $5,000 grant.

WEEKI WACHEE — In late July, Stacey Swihart, an assistant principal at Weeki Wachee High School, was telling the Hernando County School Board about a new academic program when she flipped to a slide that made the county look like an island.

It showed a map of Florida with more than half its counties colored blue — meaning that school districts there had schools with Advancement Via Individual Determination programs, more commonly known as AVID. The program targets mid-performing students, ones who may make Bs and Cs but not scratch the tops of their classes. It’s meant to help them build skills for college and other post-secondary options while taking more rigorous classes.

And save for Hernando County, the map showed, every Gulf coast school district from Manatee to Taylor counties had the program, as did many districts to the east.

But now, Swihart told the board, thanks in part to a grant of more than $5,000 from the nonprofit behind AVID, her school would be the first in Hernando County to get the program. She touted the program as a way to attack the district’s achievement gap. That set of statistics shows that Hernando’s students of color, economically disadvantaged students, students with disabilities and students learning English pass state exams at rates far lower than their peers.

And Swihart, who previously oversaw AVID students in Citrus County schools, said in an interview that the program’s hands-on structure gives students more ownership over their own learning.

“I’ve never seen a program impact students and empower them to navigate their way through” like AVID has, said Swihart, who’s worked in education for 19 years.

The students who take AVID come from what she described as “the middle." They perform solidly academically and could succeed in honors or advanced-placement classes, she said, but they might lack study skills or they haven’t been pushed to try those classes. In the new program, they attend those classes as well as an AVID elective, where they help each other through difficult concepts and build research and note-taking abilities.

The program also includes field trips to colleges and universities, as well as visits from members of the military and windows into technical education, Swihart said. The program includes ninth- and tenth-graders, who may be just beginning to consider life after high school. Some are in line to become the first in their families to attend college, she said. The path forward for them may not be as clear as it is for some of their peers.

“Maybe they don’t have parents who have gone and had that experience,” she said. “They may not realize all the things that are available to them, because they haven’t thought about it.”

In the July board meeting, board chairwoman Susan Duval said she’d tried to bring the program to Springstead High School when she was principal there, but there wasn’t enough district support for it at the time.

“That was kind of a crushing blow, let me tell you,” she said. “It is an honor today to be on a board that might see something come to fruition.”

New applications for AVID will open in the spring, Swihart said. But because of the timing of the grant, administrators had to fill the initial classes over the summer, calling the families of students who might fit the program. Fifty parents attended a summer meeting, Swihart said, and many told their friends.

A month-and-a-half into the school year, Weeki Wachee has 54 AVID students spread over two elective classes. Swihart said she hopes the program can spread to other high schools in the district, as well as to middle schools.

On a recent Thursday morning, students were clustered around lab tables in an AVID elective class, helping each other pin down concepts from their other classes. At one table, a sophomore named Gina Fell was grasping at essay structure, while sophomore Princess Hester asked questions that would help Fell come to the answer.

Fell took the class hoping to build skills for college and after. She plans to become a mechanic and eventually own her own shop. She was skeptical of the class’s organization, built around huge three-ring binders split neatly by tabs, but admitted she’s come around. Hester wants to play college basketball and knows she’ll need sharp study skills to balance athletics and academics.

Both said the class made them feel more confident in their other classes. And because the students have different classes outside of AVID, they learned about subjects they weren’t even taking.

Earlier this year, Hester said, she bombed a test in honors Algebra II, her hardest class. She wasn’t sure what to study, so she studied everything. When it came time to take the test, she said “it was just an overload.”

Afterward, she learned a new style of note-taking through AVID. Before her next test, she looked over her organized sheets of notes and realized she knew what she needed to. She said she wound up with the highest grade in the class.