Guadalupe Genis, Sammy McMahon and Edward Dominguez, ninth-graders at Nicollet Junior High in Burnsville, have a similar story to share about their elementary school years: They weren't great students and didn't believe they could do well in school.

Then, in sixth grade, visitors from a program called AVID came to their classes. For the first time, all three saw a chance to be successful.

"I took it as, I think I can better myself and set an example of what you can do," said Dominguez.

Genis had always felt that people wouldn't think she was smart because she was Latina. The program "gives you hope and makes you set goals for yourself," she said.

Today, they are all on the honor roll, signed up for challenging classes and planning to be the first in their families to attend college, which they attribute to AVID.

Many south metro school districts have signed on with Advancement Via Individual Determination, or AVID. It's a 35-year-old program started in California that aims to "close the achievement gap by preparing all students for college readiness and success in a global society," said Jennifer Kuras, AVID's Upper Midwest director.

While Minneapolis, St. Paul and Brooklyn Center schools have had the program for nearly a decade, most of Minnesota's 141 AVID secondary schools have joined in the past seven years, Kuras said.

Lakeville, Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan and Burnsville-Eagan-Savage have all implemented AVID at the secondary level.

Helping students in the middle

AVID helps prepare students who are academically in the middle — B, C, and even D students — by providing organizational and study skills they may not have learned elsewhere, Kuras said.

"It was really kind of a novel approach," said Rep. Carlos Mariani, DFL-St. Paul, director of the Minnesota Minority Education Partnership. "As opposed to focusing on the high fliers or those with the highest academic deficiencies, if you will, this program targets students in the middle."

The program isn't explicitly geared toward students of color, but minority students account for 85 percent of AVID participation nationally, which is why many schools find it a useful tool in targeting the achievement gap between white and nonwhite students.

The skills are learned during an elective period during the school day. That makes AVID different from other college readiness programs like Upward Bound or College Possible, which are after school.

The program creates a college-going culture, where students learn how school works, what colleges expect academically and the nuts and bolts of choosing and applying to one. Often participants are first-generation college students, low-income students or students of color, Kuras said.

The strategies behind AVID aren't revolutionary, said Stacy Wells, integration and equity coordinator for Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan. But the way the program has packaged everything together is "what makes it so unique," she said.

AVID also becomes a support system because students have a peer group with shared goals. Wells said that when she conducts interviews with AVID seniors, "One piece that always comes out is that AVID is a family."

AVID classes typically stay together and have the same teacher while at a school. Some districts start it in seventh grade and others in ninth, though the program has curricula for younger students, too.

Genis said that her AVID teacher of three years, Danielle Christy, "is like a mom to us. If you have a bad grade, she'll make you go talk to the teacher and fix it."

Nationally, the program boasts impressive statistics: Of the 34,234 AVID students graduating in 2013, 86 percent were accepted to a four-year university and 77 percent took at least one advanced course that year. Seniors had an average GPA of 3.2.

In Lakeville, now in its sixth year with AVID, 100 percent of the three graduating classes are attending a postsecondary institution, said Cynthia Hays, Lakeville's equity coordinator.

Bridging the gap?

For some AVID teachers, there's so much excitement surrounding the program that Washington Post columnist and education writer Jay Mathews noticed "an almost cultlike enthusiasm for their work."

Are there any negatives to the program? Possibly, according to Jim Bierma, a University of Minnesota professor and school counselor for 21 years. Bierma also directs Ramp-Up To Readiness, a University of Minnesota college preparation program. AVID is very expensive, he said. "I think that's one of the downsides of it."

This year, the Rosemount district spent $283,364 on AVID, including membership fees, elective teacher salaries, substitute teachers, college tutors, curriculum, professional development and transportation for field trips.

In Burnsville, the total was $523,000 for similar costs, said Lisa Rider, director of business services. All of the program's "core needs" are covered by integration funding from the state.

And even though Lakeville, Burnsville-Eagan-Savage and Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan have had AVID for anywhere from four to nine years, the achievement gap between white and black or Hispanic students still ranged from 19 percentage points to more than 40 on 2013 reading and math MCAs, according to the Minnesota Department of Education.

"We indeed have an achievement gap," said Renee Brandner, principal at Nicollet Junior High. "I think most schools in Minnesota are still challenged."

There are several reasons the gap persists, including the growing diversity of the suburbs. Also, the state continues to make the MCAs more rigorous, making annual comparisons hard.

Brandner noted that, other than seventh-grade math scores, seventh- and eighth-grade AVID students at Nicollet scored slightly higher on math, science and reading MCAs in 2012-13 than non-AVID students.

But another reason the program hasn't made a larger dent is the relatively small number of students enrolled in AVID. In the Rosemount, Burnsville and Lakeville districts, just 200 to 400 students participate.

It can also be hard to measure achievement gap progress made by AVID because the program seeks out motivated students with potential, Brandner said. Typically, counselors or teachers identify students to apply, and students must go through an interview process.

Wells said one concern she has about AVID is that "it can only touch so many students."

Mariani said calling out AVID's limited scope is "a fair criticism" of the program. However, its small-scale successes are significant and "better than what we have right now," he said.

Bierma said he's seen the program reduce the achievement gap when implemented well at schools in Minneapolis and St. Paul. Success relies on how well an academic program is put into practice, he added.

But for students like McMahon, progress can be measured on an individual level. She now believes she can make it to college even though her parents didn't go. "I think [my parents] have seen a real difference [in me] not only at school, but also in my character," she said. "They really wish they had had this class in high school."

Erin Adler • 952-746-3283