The St. Paul school district announced Wednesday that it will be receiving about $1.4 million from the Travelers Companies Inc. to help expand a program for students preparing for college and invest in leadership development of principals.

Most of the funds, the district said, will be directed toward the Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID) program, which the district already runs in 11 secondary schools. AVID, an elective class, is directed at students in the "academic middle," teaching them study skills to prepare them for more rigorous course work and college.

"Travelers is helping pave a new way for people to work with the district," Superintendent Meria Carstarphen said at a news conference at St. Paul's Highland Park Senior High School. "It will help us get on the front end of closing the achievement gap."

"The goal is to help build a sustainable system that will last," said Andy Bessette, executive vice president and chief administrative officer for Travelers. "We are supporting initiatives that aggressively address the achievement gap, and increase academic and career success for under-served students."

In November, at her state of the district address, Carstarphen said that corporate partners such as 3M, Ecolab and the McKnight Foundation have agreed to designate the district as a "strategic partnership priority." That means they'll align their investments with the district's strategic priorities, such as ensuring that teachers are culturally proficient and helping ease student transitions from elementary grades to junior high and high school.

The district said Tuesday it expects to make several similar announcements in the next few weeks, with more investments coming from these "strategic partners."

Bessette said that Travelers chose to invest in college readiness initiatives because it has a long relationship with the district doing just that.

"If you can start to impact kids in fourth grade, to get them to start thinking about college, you have a much better chance to get to them," Bessette said.

Last year, Travelers gave $100,000 to the district's AVID program.

The AVID program will expand over the next five years, and will ultimately serve 5,640 elementary and 800 secondary students annually. The program's goal at the elementary level is to improve student performance and attendance.

The principal leadership development programs that Travelers will fund focus on student achievement and strategic planning.

After the news conference, Highland Park sophomore Darrell Hill said that he thinks AVID will "be a great opportunity" for the students in the district who will have access to the program, because "they're going to get skills like note-taking and organization, which really helps you a lot."

Emily Johns • 612-673-7460