The AVID program at two high schools in the Anoka-Hennepin district gives students tools to go beyond the middle of the pack.
Kohlman Thompson's journey across a stage at Mariucci Arena on Sunday was the product of years of hard work, determination and big dreams.
He's now a Coon Rapids High School graduate, and aided by a program he entered along the way, he'll move on to the University of Minnesota this fall.
Thompson and 39 other Anoka-Hennepin students make up the district's first graduating class from the Advancement Via Individual Determination program -- AVID for short.
The college preparation program targets junior high school students who are in the middle of the academic achievement spectrum, but whose character, work ethic and determination show that they could accomplish more with encouragement and a few of the right tools. The program is used in 31 other districts in Minnesota and in more than 900 nationwide. All of the new Anoka-Hennepin AVID graduates, from Coon Rapids and Champlin Park High School, are going to college.
Throughout high school, AVID students are expected to take at least one honors class a year, said Coon Rapids High School AVID coordinator Debra Geiger. They have daily sessions, study groups, or classes in study skills, organization, test preparation and college readiness. They get help planning for milestones like SAT tests, filling out college applications and financial aid forms.
Making the adjustment
Lots of AVID ninth-graders have a hard time at first, especially when they find themselves in classes alongside the "high fliers," Geiger said.
"For a lot of the kids that is a real stretch, but we know that taking rigorous courses is really important for getting them ready for going to college and for success in life," she said, adding that in the beginning, students report feeling stupid or discouraged. "There's a big emotional element in that, but it's learning to take risks. It's learning to have confidence in your academic self."
Not all of them see it through. At Coon Rapids, the class of 28 AVID freshmen shrank to 16 graduates.
Those who have seen the program through to graduation have something in common, Geiger said: "the ability to imagine a future of success, and to be driven to want to achieve that. And an understanding that it's going to take hard work to do it."
Thompson admitted that the program was hard at first. Sometimes he didn't understand why a certain skill -- note-taking or binder checks, for example -- was all that important.
"I was in there thinking, this isn't necessary," he said. "I didn't think we were going to do this in college, so why are we doing it now? But I knew that in order to complete this program and get to the other things I wanted, I had to stick with this."
Now, he said, he thinks the organizational skills and the extra challenge have put his head in the right place as he heads for college. He also has the added help of several academic scholarships.
Geiger recalls Thompson as a freshman who was constantly writing rap lyrics, getting up and going to the dictionary to find new words.
As a senior, Thompson said he hopes to be an English teacher.
That's music to Jeff McGonigal's ears. The associate superintendent for high schools was Coon Rapids' principal when the school picked up the AVID program. He said it's best to nurture dynamic future teachers while they're still students. But it's more than that. McGonigal said he had been reflecting on Thompson's high school career during another recent celebration.
"I remember him as a ninth grader," he said. "To see him at this point in his life with so many doors open to him was pretty emotional for me."
One of Thompson's motivators has been the pride his parents and older siblings hold for him. Each achievement, each honor, has been enshrined on their Facebook pages, he said.
"I want my parents and family to want to keep on saying positive things about me," he said. "I want them to be proud of me."
He's already started grooming his two younger brothers, Jared and Tyler, who are only 8 and 5.
"I talk to them about it all the time," he said. The elder of the two, Jared, says, "'Hey you're going to college, right?' Then I ask him, 'Are you going to college?' He says, 'Yeah, I'm going to college, just like my big brother Kohlman.'"
Maria Elena Baca • 612-673-4409