UTPA GEAR UP receives $509,378 grant to expand AVID college readiness program
Posted: 01/05/2010
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The University of Texas-Pan American GEAR UP recently received $509,378 in grant funding from the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation to further expand AVID (Advancement via Individual Determination), a nationally recognized program promoting college readiness, which is now in 61 middle and high schools across the Rio Grande Valley.

AVID was first developed in 1980 in California and targets fourth through 12th grade students in the "academic middle" for college eligibility and success. The program is designed to encourage middle achievers - B, C and D students - to earn better grades in more academically rigorous courses. Many of its participants nationwide are from low-income, minority families and are the first in their families to attend college.

"The new grant award that GEAR UP received will be used as seed money for the AVID program in all the Harlingen Consolidated Independent School District secondary schools as well as seed money for Lasara Independent School District. Our GEAR UP project has written proposals to the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation for the past seven years and it has been funded every time," said Dr. Martha Cantu, director of UTPA GEAR UP, which supports and monitors the implementation of the AVID program at the AVID grant schools.

Rio Grande Valley AVID students are pictured participating in a teamwork activity during a recent AVID Camp for Champs held on the UTPA campus.
Currently 33 middle schools and 28 high schools in 12 different school districts are part of the AVID program in the Rio Grande Valley. AVID is in more than 4,000 schools in 45 states nationwide and 15 countries.

"GEAR UP administrators saw the research behind AVID and its documented record of success as a college readiness program, so it was decided to pursue its implementation here in the Valley," said Cindy Valdez, associate director of Academic Services for UTPA GEAR UP and AVID regional director.

Unlike GEAR UP, a college readiness program that serves the entire grade level of students, AVID students are chosen through an application process to participate in the program. AVID students are enrolled in their school's toughest courses, including honors and Advanced Placement and also participate in an AVID elective class, a one hour period each day where they learn organizational and critical thinking skills, obtain academic help from peers or college tutors, and take part in enrichment and motivational activities leading to improved self image and academic success. AVID incorporates a curriculum focused on writing, inquiry, collaboration and reading, an AVID coordinator/instructor at each AVID school and strong parental involvement that includes frequent parent and team meetings.

Teachers who lead the elective class are trained in specific AVID teaching/learning methodologies and all teachers and/or administrators in schools with AVID can participate in professional development through AVID's Summer Institutes, which allows all students in AVID schools to benefit from its college-readiness system.

"Funds from the foundation provide 'start up' monies to help launch the AVID program at schools by paying for the curriculum, tutors, membership fees, parent meetings, college trips, professional development for teachers, and student materials. After two years, each school that received funding must pay out of their own funds to sustain the program. Each year, we have added more schools and now almost every district in the Valley has AVID," Valdez said.

Independent research as well as that by the AVID Special Research Projects Office, established at UTPA and led by Dr. Karen Watt, associate professor of Educational Leadership, indicate the AVID approach is working. Funded since 2007 by the national AVID Center, the office conducts, publishes and disseminates focused state and national research on AVID programs and AVID student performance. Current research projects include the African American Male Initiative and studies on AVID in the middle schools, AVID gender disparity and national studies on AVID schools and AVID graduates.

"We have found that AVID students are more likely to take AP classes, complete their college eligibility requirements, and get into four-year colleges than 'middle performing' students who don't take AVID. Almost all AVID students who participate for at least three years are accepted to college, with three-fourths getting into four-year universities," Watt said.

The AVID program helped Maria Pena to achieve her dreams of earning a college degree. Pena, entered the AVID program as a freshman at Edinburg High School, where she graduated in 2005. She went on to graduate from UTPA in spring 2009 with a bachelor's degree in business administration and is now pursuing a MBA at UTPA. She said without AVID, she is not sure she would have continued her education.

"Thanks to that program I got introduced to many colleges and got the opportunity to learn about different degrees and careers and most importantly I received motivation from the teachers. The tutoring helped me a lot. Throughout the four years, they also brought in speakers. We had lawyers, dentists, doctors, business people, who gave you insight on what they were doing and how they got their degrees," she said.

Pena added that the program also helped guide her through the process of getting into a college and to find the scholarships to pay for it.

She recently pushed her brother Luis, a freshman at Edinburg High School, to get into the program.

"He said it was going to be a lot of work. I said 'I don't care,' it will help you a lot," Pena said.

The Michael & Susan Dell Foundation ( is dedicated to improving the lives of children living in urban poverty around the world. With offices in Austin, Texas, Cape Town, South Africa and New Delhi, India, the Dell family foundation funds programs that foster high-quality public education and childhood health, and improve the economic stability of families living in poverty. The foundation has committed more than $650 million to global children's issues and community initiatives to date.

For more information on the AVID program, contact the UTPA GEAR UP office at 956/292-7501 or visit