Patty Rojas, 14, stands in front of a whiteboard before a small group of her peers looking at the question she had written on the board.
“Can any of Thailand’s strategies to slow down birth rates and population growth be applied in other countries like the U.S. and China?” she reads. She works through the problem as her fellow students ask her questions.
“The problem is Thailand had a carrying capacity, which means the availability of resources was limited. It’s like when you have a party and you have food for seven people and 200 show up,” she said.
But sometimes the explanation, which includes comparing Thailand’s Population and Community Development Association with U.S. organizations like Planned Parenthood, leave her with more questions.
“This has so much publicity in Thailand. How come this one does not have so much sparkle?” she asked.
Her teacher, Jennifer Gaddis, poses a question back.
“Maybe at this point, the United States doesn’t have the need?” she said.
She might not have all the answers, but Patty’s way of getting to her answer is just one way Collier County is hoping to change the culture at local high schools.
The district is taking a new approach to education for some students by using a national program called AVID. Advancement Via Individual Determination, or AVID, is a college-readiness system designed to increase the number of students who enroll in four-year colleges by focusing on the least-served students in the academic middle.
The formula of the program sounds simple: Raise the expectations of the students and, with supports in place, the students will rise to the challenge.
The purpose of the AVID program is to identify students in Collier County and ensure that they have every opportunity to be college-ready, according to Irene Benfatti, director of advanced students and gifted learners at the Collier County School District.
“It is about giving them the opportunity,” she said. “We don’t know how many students will go to college. … But we want to raise the level of conversation and engagement.”
The program, which is available in several other counties in Florida _ including Lee _ is open to all students, but district officials acknowledge it is directed at students who have potential and who are committed to hard work.
“They have to apply, they have to sign a contract. There are commitments on the part of the parent,” said Benfatti. “You have to jump through some hoops if you want this.”
Krystal Ayres, the district’s AVID co-director and Springboard trainer, said district officials recruited students in middle schools last year at those schools that fed into the four pilot schools. Students must have at least a 2.0 grade point average to participate.
Sarah Bond, co-director of the AVID program and a gifted specialist with the Collier County School District, said the program focuses on the students in the middle.
“We take those students and we front-load them into honors or (Advanced Placement) classes that challenge them. We give them support. They attend tutorial sessions twice a week,” she said.
The program is being piloted this year at four of the district’s high schools: Lely, Golden Gate, Immokalee and Everglades City. About 50 freshmen from each school take part in the program.
As part of the program, students take an AVID elective, which meets during one class period five days a week. On Mondays and Wednesdays, students receive lessons in the AVID curriculum, which includes lessons on handling conflict management and teaching them study skills, like how to take Cornell notes — a note-taking system that condenses and organizes notes.
Tuesdays and Thursdays, students have tutorial sessions where they break into small groups to help each other work through the problems.
“It is not your typical shoulder-to-shoulder training,” said James Briggs, the grant manager for the program. “The student does a presentation of the problem and other students ask questions. The idea is for the student to receive that ah-ha moment without giving them the answer. We want them to arrive at the answer themselves.”
Gaddis, a Lely High School English teacher and one of the AVID co-teachers, said teachers and tutors who volunteer their time to work with the students are trained to take a hands-off approach.
“We’re there to model good questions,” she said. “It’s amazing. These students are 14, 15 years old and they sit and teach each other unaided.”
On Fridays, the classes take field trips to local colleges or have guest speakers come in and talk to them about college or their careers. “We want the students to start making the connection now,” said Benfatti.
Gaddis said sometimes the biggest challenge is getting the students past teenage apathy.
“We want them to care about setting goals and academics,” she said.
Lely High School freshman Sogeily Gadoua, 15, said she wanted to join the AVID program because she thought it could “help me in the long run.”
“I thought it would help me get into college and to be more organized,” said Sogeily, who hopes to attend Dartmouth College when she graduates.
And it is helping. Sogeily said her grades have improved since the start of the semester.
“In my AP class – I have one AP class and the rest are honors – I had a D and I brought it up to a B-plus, almost an A. And I had a C in science, but I brought that up to an A,” she said. “When I started, I would ask random questions. When I saw that I had a D, I took it more seriously and started to ask better questions.”
Lely High School algebra and AVID co-teacher Alan Davis said he has seen a difference in his classes between the AVID students and the general population.
“When I teach algebra, I will see students taking poor notes or no notes at all,” he said. “But David (an AVID student who is in his algebra class) takes the skills he learns here and takes all of these notes. And when the test comes around, he just blows it away.”
Gaddis said the ultimate goal is that what the AVID students are learning becomes a positive shift in school culture.
“By the time these kids are seniors, one-quarter of our students will be in AVID,” she said. “Other teachers are using the Cornell notes.”
While it is too early to draw any conclusions, school officials eagerly anticipate the results.
A shift in culture is the goal, Benfatti said.
“We want to increase the number of students in the system who are into this higher order of thinking,” she said. “We want the kids to be able to get feedback and give thoughtful feedback.”
Nationally, of the 2009 AVID graduates, 92 percent planned to attend college; 60 percent to a four-year college and 32 percent to a two-year college, according to the program’s web site. Since 1990, more than 65,000 students have graduated high school and planned to go to college, according to the web site.
Patty, 14, said she joined the program to get to college so that she can help support her family both here in the United States and in Venezuela.
“I would like to bring more of my family here,” she said, adding she is thinking about attending Ohio State University to study psychology.
While the schools started with freshmen this year, the program will continue with them as sophomores, as juniors and seniors as new classes of freshmen AVID students come up behind them.
Lely High School sophomore Ryan Bessette, 16, who participated in an AVID program at an Orlando middle school before moving to Naples, said he wishes the program was available to more students than freshmen this year.
“It helped me to get organized,” he said. “It improved my grades. I was a C and B student. … It helped me connect with the school, but also get connected with the community because there was a community service piece. I think it prepares you for college life.”
Ryan said although he doesn’t have access to the program, he is still using strategies like the Cornell Notes to help him in high school.
“It stays with you forever,” he said.
Connect with K-12 education policy reporter Katherine Albers at www.naplesnews.com/staff/katherine-albers/.