David Guadarrama didn't start high school thinking about what was coming next. College definitely wasn't in the picture. "I didn't really take education seriously before," he said. "In my freshman year I was struggling to get a 3.0 (grade point average). This year, during my last semester I had a 4.5."
Fueled by scholarships, some financial aid, a hefty push from a college prep program and his own resources, Guadarrama is set to graduate with honors in a class of 282 at Pasco High. To top it off, he has figured out what comes next — the University of South Florida, with thoughts of a career in the science or medical field.
"I'm going to start with biology and see if I like that," he said. "Then I'll take it from there."
He's likely to be better than okay according to Mignon Edwards, adviser for the AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination) program at Pasco High. So are other AVID graduates who have worked hard to realize their potential while sticking together, more like a family than schoolmates.
College is a given for many, but too far a reach for others without some intervention, said Edwards, noting that language barriers, socioeconomics and lack of parents' education present hurdles for many students.
Four years ago, she helped recruit 50 freshmen to enroll in a new grant-funded college preparation course offered at Pasco and Ridgewood high schools. The AVID program was founded in 1980 by Marie Swanson, an English teacher in San Diego, Calif., who wanted to level the playing field for all after desegregation brought a plethora of under-served students to her high-performing high school. Now AVID is in more than 4,800 K-12 schools across the country, including a handful in Pasco County.
"It's a rigorous (elective) course that opens the doors for students to be proactive in their education," AVID teacher Carol Stout said. "The program is for students who have middle-of-the-road test scores that could be swept into the cracks. It's not that they are low-achieving. College is not necessarily on their radar. Most of them are the first in their family to go to college. "
In the ensuing years, all but 13 students dropped out of the inaugural class at Pasco High, many opting for other electives, even as growing enrollment led to a waiting list for underclassmen and more than a dozen teachers opting to sign on for AVID training.
Although the original 50 will graduate, the remaining 13 AVID students have all been accepted to four-year colleges and universities. Among those — the Ringling College of Art and Design, University of South Florida, Full Sail University, Florida Atlantic and Stetson University. All told, AVID students have racked up more than $40,000 in scholarships.
"Oh yeah, we're excited. We're fired up," Edwards said. "To see the growth in these kids is amazing."
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There's Jessica Gamez, 18, a Take Stock in Children scholarship recipient who struggled with clinical depression. She is just shy of receiving her associate in arts degree through duel enrollment at Pasco Hernando State College and plans to study film at Full Sail University in Orlando.
"Miss Edwards had me take a personality test and I realized that I'm a film fanatic," Gamez said. "I might want to write screenplays or direct. I think it's a good way to channel my creativity."
She has seen so may aspects of education because of AVID, so she's really comfortable with her choice," mom Natali Gamez said.
"It's an excellent program. It's really kept her motivated," said her dad, Josman Gamez.
Then there's Eric Martinez, 18, who learned how to deal with an attention deficiency and having to become the man of the family at an early age.
"My father left when I was 8 years old and I haven't seen him since," Martinez said, adding that he wanted a better life for himself and his younger siblings. "I always had the ideology to go to college, but wasn't sure how to get there. My idea about it was very vague. I took a bunch of honors classes because I thought that was the way to do it, then AVID came along. It helped my confidence. Helped me take the right classes and helped with volunteer opportunities."
Martinez was the recipient of a $10,000 scholarship from Withlacoochee River Electric and has been accepted to several schools. To save on tuition, he plans to attend Pasco Hernando State College before moving on to study law — hopefully at his dream school, Florida State.
"I know that without this class I would not be graduating," said Kimberly Cales, 18. "Four years ago I had D's and F's and was not going to pass my freshman year. Now I'm all A's and B's.
Cales, who plans to go into law enforcement, will attend PHSC with hopes of transferring to the University of Tampa.
"These are the teachers I will definitely come back to see," she said of her AVID instructors. "They are always there for you — even for things outside the classroom, like if you need a ride or money for lunch. We're like family."
And Sergio Contreras, 19, who envisioned a better life than the ones laid out by adult role models in his own family who landed in jail.
"They (teachers) saved me. When I cross that stage, I know it's going to be because of them. This is a place to get help, a place to feel comfortable — the best support system," said Contreras, who, after writing an essay on his experience, was selected to speak at AVID's 2014 Summer Institute in Tampa.
Contreras also received a $10,000 scholarship from Withlacoochee River Electric. He wants to be a physical therapist and is waiting on word from his dream school — the University of South Florida. Just in case, he has a fall-back plan — as any prepared student should.
"After all of these years, it's just falling into place," he said. "It's bittersweet. I mean, we finally made it and at the same time, it's over. We're never going to be high school students again. We're going to be college students.
"That's a good thing because I never thought I'd be saying that."
Contact Michele Miller at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 869-6251. Follow @MicheleMiller52.