Commentary | Education

Lessons—‘Scaffolding’ Is Raised, and So Are Sights

These pieces originally appeared as a weekly column entitled “Lessons” in The New York Times between 1999 and 2003.


‘Scaffolding’ Is Raised, and So Are Sights

By  Richard Rothstein

SAN DIEGO — Paul Arreola, 15-year-old son of Mexican immigrants (his mother is a garment worker, his father a janitor), was not doing poorly at Southwest High School here. He expected eventually to graduate, then perhaps get a community college education leading to a job somewhat greater in status than his parents’ work.

But now Paul aims higher. He sees a full university education in his future because he is in AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination), a curriculum purchased by 1,000 schools around the country.

AVID (, begun here in 1980 by Mary Catherine Swanson, a high school English teacher, is not directed at failing “at risk” students, on whom so much attention usually focuses. Rather, it singles out the often ignored adolescents who are below middle class but not among the most disadvantaged.

AVID aims to raise the sights of those youths who would be the first in their families to go to college. It seeks out students like Paul, with low grades but close-to-average standardized test scores, suggesting hidden potential.

Mrs. Swanson notes that children from low-income homes rarely even imagine college, because they don’t have the support — “scaffolding,” she calls it — that inspires them to succeed.

AVID students must take advanced placement and honors classes, whether prepared for them or not. AVID then provides the necessary extra tutoring. It is hard work, but Paul Arreola says he sticks with it because Mark Carpizo, an AVID teacher, told him that “if you don’t go to college, you’ll be working at McDonald’s, but if you do go, you’ll be sitting in an office.” That may be obvious to middle-class students, but was a revelation to Paul.

AVID is not extracurricular. Its classes are part of the school day, taught by regular teachers who stay with students through their high school years, giving continuity to personal and academic relationships.

Twice weekly, four undergraduates from nearby universities tutor in Mr. Carpizo’s AVID class. Former AVID students are recruited for the jobs, because they illustrate to young people like Paul that college is attainable. The tutors are trained by AVID to show students how to form groups that use Socratic methods to solve problems by mutual questioning. The collaborative study creates a shared ethos of academic achievement, a culture that is rare among students from low-income families.

Southwest High’s AVID classes also include motivational talks by successful minority adults, help with college applications, practice SAT tests and trips to college campuses, places that most AVID students have never seen. The formula seems to work, as most go on to four-year colleges.

Each week, Mr. Carpizo inspects and grades all notes taken by AVID students from their textbooks and other classes. Notes must be formatted with pages divided vertically and details recorded on the right, summaries and the students’ questions on the left. For tutoring sessions, students must list topics on which they need help, and among the grades that Mr. Carpizo gives are those based on whether they picked topics and used study groups wisely.

Andres Alatorre, a senior, is also in AVID. His math tutor, Alejandra Gonzalez, a sophomore at San Diego State University, recently helped Andres complete financial aid forms for college. When he complained that advanced classes were too hard and he didn’t have time to study while coaching children’s soccer, Ms. Gonzalez told how, as an AVID student herself, she had balanced cheerleading with advanced classes. Andres didn’t drop his tough courses.

Twenty years ago, Uri Treisman, then a Berkeley teaching assistant and now a University of Texas professor, noticed that his largely high- scoring Asian-American students studied together, while African- Americans, lower-scoring as a group, studied alone. By getting the black students into study groups, where academic values were the norm, he elicited achievement that his teaching alone couldn’t produce. AVID systematizes this insight, and Dr. Treisman is now on AVID’s board of directors.

Accounts are occasionally given of other teachers like Dr. Treisman whose minority students’ accomplishments have been extraordinary. Samuel Freedman’s 1990 book, “Small Victories,” described Jessica Siegel, a New York City teacher who also played mother, mentor and tutor to the immigrant adolescents she pushed onto college-bound pathways. The feature film “Stand and Deliver” portrayed Jaime Escalante, a Los Angeles teacher who led an improbable group of Hispanic teenagers to proficiency in calculus.

It is easy to dismiss such stories as describing the singular efforts of superheroes. But what AVID shows is that high minority achievement can be more ordinary when schools not only insist on academic rigor but also offer personal support. AVID offers a blueprint for this scaffolding.

Return to the Education Column Archive

See related work on Education

See more work by Richard Rothstein