District officials are considering expanding the AVID program to four elementary schools.
Jasmine Soto, 13, vividly remembers how disorganized her life was. She constantly lost her homework.
"I was throwing stuff in my binder, my backpack. I couldn't find anything," said the eighth-grader at Oltman Middle School in St. Paul Park. Her grades were suffering.
That all changed after she enrolled in her school's Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID) program.
In the class, she learned how to prioritize her academic life.
Take, for example, her giant green three-ring binder. In it, she now carries a well-used planner, a pack of writing implements, and her notes and assignments, all categorized by subject.
Her teachers say Jasmine is now one step closer to being a successful college student, too.
AVID, now in its fourth year in South Washington County Schools, is in operation at all of the district's middle and high schools for the first time this year, and administrators are considering expanding it to four elementary schools this fall.
About 345 students in the district are enrolled in the program.
South Washington spends about $500,000 a year on the program. That funding is likely to increase next year. Most of that money comes from integration funds -- state money set aside to increase integration and close the achievement gap between white and minority students.
The 21-year-old national program is being used at 82 schools in Minnesota. It is known for its targeted approach to lowering the college dropout rate.
The program targets "statistically underserved" students such as minority and low-income students and those who would be the first in their family to go to college.
"Everyone assumes someone else taught these kids what it takes to be successful in college," said Gina Gamnis, who teaches AVID at Oltman half of the day and directs the district's program the other half. "We're not doing our job if we're only preparing the top 10 percent of our students for college."
Almost all of the teachers at Oltman Middle School have received AVID training on how to incorporate college-readiness skills into their classes.
"We've changed the culture here," Gamnis said. "This is a school that prepares all students for college."
On a recent morning in Gamnis' class, students worked in small groups using Ipods to search the Internet on ways to overcome test anxiety.
The class is student-centered and student-driven. "We have to be responsible for what we do," said Mitch Leyde, a 14-year-old eighth-grader. "Teachers can't hold our hands forever."
Gamnis' class is lined with college pennants.
At the high school level, students take practice ACT and SAT exams and travel to several colleges throughout the state for tours and talks with admission counselors.
As for expanding the program to elementary schools, Gamnis said, "It's never too early to be thinking about college. The skills students are learning in here are useful for all kids."
At Oltman Middle School, the principal now has the entire school use giant three-ring binders to organize themselves.
As for Jasmine, her grades are steadily improving.
"I'm preparing for my future," she said.
Daarel Burnette II • 651-925-5032, Twitter: @DaarelStrib