By: Jennifer Gragg
Going to college is easier if your parents went. However, students in the academic “middle” don’t always have this leg up.
“These are the students who do just fine but often don’t come from a college going culture,” says Kate Brien, an AVID teacher at Madison East High School. “They might not even know that doing well means they could take honors or AP. If no one’s telling them that, they don’t know.”
The AVID/TOPS program bridges this gap.
AVID, Advancement Via Individual Determination, works in school districts in 44 states. In Dane County, MMSD runs the program. Any student with a GPA between 2.0 and 3.5 can apply for admission.
The admitted students attend an AVID class every school day, and the week is broken down into three sections.
On Mondays and Wednesdays, students learn strategies for academic success. These days cover anything from reading skills to studying tips. Activities vary on Fridays. More often than not, students tour colleges or do community service work. Tuesdays and Thursdays are reserved for college student tutors. Tutors work with small groups of students and encourage them to participate and problem solve.
“The kids come in with a well-developed question around an issue that they don’t understand. It could be for any of their classes,” says Brien. “They bring that to their group and tutor and the other students help guide them towards a greater understanding in a Socratic way by asking questions of the presenter.”
The learning even continues outside of the classroom. The program requires that all AVID students participate in the TOPS program. Teens of Promise, run by the Boys and Girls Club of Dane County, gives students extra resources for success.
Incoming or graduating high school seniors can apply for internships through TOPS. These internships take place with local businesses and organizations recruited by the Boys and Girls Club.
Students go through Job Ready 1 and Job Ready 2 to prepare for their internships. These sessions provide students with job skills such as interviewing techniques and proper job etiquette. The work only begins there.
“They [students] get a summer employment coach,” says TOPS Program and Internships Manager Ronnicia Johnson-Walker. “The coach checks in with them regularly, does a site visit of where they’re working, and keeps in contact with their boss to make sure that they have a good experience.”
TOPS also provides mentoring services to students who are between their sophomore and senior years of high school.
“It is a one on one mentoring model,” says TOPS Director Langston Evans. “The mentors are recruited from the community and must have a college degree. They meet with their students at least once a month.”
The pairs can do any number of different activities when they meet up. TOPS mentor Molly Reinhard and her mentee both enjoy staying active, so they go on a lot of bike rides together. Yet their most important activity doesn’t involve much moving.
“The biggest thing that we do is just talk,” says Reinhard. “You really have to get to know one another and build a natural relationship.”
Reinhard understands the importance of offering resources to students. As a child, her family moved about 17 times. The transitions between schools of different sizes and atmospheres took their toll on her.
“I understand how easy it is to get lost,” says Reinhard. “People might look at me today and see someone who they assume may not have faced any bumps in the road, but I almost flunked out of high school. It was only because I had a supportive family and teachers who were willing to help me that I ended up not failing. If I didn’t have that support structure, who knows where I would be today.”
Reinhard’s experiences won’t be shared by all students. Different students struggle in different ways. But mentors can help by empathizing and providing resources.
Requiring students to take both AVID and TOPS gives them a wide range of skills.
“I believe it’s kind of the best of both worlds,” says Johnson-Walker. “AVID gives you that academic experience and TOPS gives you that real world experience. So it allows you to not only be successful as a student but to also be successful as a person in the community.”
WISCAPE, a research center for education at UW Madison, offers proof of the program’s effectiveness. WISCAPE conducts yearly research on the AVID/TOPS program.
The 2013-2014 study shows promising results. Involvement in the AVID/TOPS program improves students’ behavior, and attendance. It also increases enrollment in honors and AP classes.
The program also carries results that can’t be measured. Reinhard sees a lot of personal growth in her mentee, who is graduating from high school.
“She’s more confident now. I’ve seen her mature a lot in the past couple of years,” says Reinhard. “She’s ready to take on whatever’s next.”