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TORII STATION, Okinawa — “One world, one binder.”

One of the first lessons AVID teacher Brian Swenty tries to instill in his students at Osan Air Base, South Korea, is about organization.

“Many of our kids experience immediate success just by getting organized,” Swenty, 32, said of his Advancement Via Individual Determination class, an elective offered in DODDS middle and high schools.

The program is designed to help “middle performing” students develop the academic skills and personal character needed to be successful in the grades they are in and prepare them for the next academic step to come, including college.

Swenty was one of 35 AVID teachers who gathered last week at the headquarters of Department of Defense Dependents Schools-Pacific on Okinawa.

By all accounts, the program is successful.

Melanie Bales, 47, the Pacific AVID coordinator, said that when compared to their counterparts, a greater percentage of AVID students go to college and graduate.

Bales said about 10 percent of DODDS middle and high school students are enrolled in the program. Children either are recruited into the program, or are admitted after testing.

Ed Fielder, 56, a middle school teacher at Yokosuka Naval Base, Japan, said students in the program must agree to a set of terms, including taking rigorous classes. All the requirements are laid out and students must sign a contract agreeing to meet them.

Fielder said a large part of the program has to do with raising the expectations that the students have of themselves, and the second part of the program is helping them meet those expectations.

“We motivate them, and then we monitor them,” Fielder said.

AVID teachers said they try to develop the academic infrastructure students need to be successful. Students are taught organizational skills, time management, the process of writing and Cornell Note Taking, designed to help students memorize course work and analyze it.

Along with academic skills, the teachers said, they help students develop aspects of their character that are essential to academic success, such as team-building and social skills, and personal responsibility.

Thelberstine Buford, 46, a teacher at Daegu American School in South Korea, echoed Swenty’s thoughts that organization is the key to academic success.

Successfully maintaining “The Binder,” as it is called, is worth 50 percent of her students’ grades, she said. All the work that students do for class, including notes and homework, is required to be in the notebook.

A large part of classwork for AVID students is getting them ready to apply to college and be successful there. Students study for entrance exams, learn about financial aid and even go on field trips to colleges and universities in the States.

“We spend a lot of time just getting them used to the culture of college,” said Swenty.

The program isn’t without its challenges, however. Swenty, Fielder and Buford agreed that the program has a high turnover rate because military children tend to move around a lot.

“In a stateside school, if [a student] gets in AVID in the seventh grade, they’re going to stay in for six years,” Bales said, adding that many AVID students in DODDS stay in the program for only two or three years before they move back to the States.

Helping with SAT prep

One of the most dreaded parts of the college application process for many students is taking the SATs.

A student’s SAT score, along with his or her grade-point average, are considered by college admissions officers to be the best predictor of academic success at the university level.

AVID instructors try to mediate students’ fears by exposing them to the SAT pretest, or PSAT, as early as middle school. Nevertheless, SAT scores fell in 2007 among students in Department of Defense Education Activity schools.

Students in DODDS-Pacific scored slightly better than seniors nationwide in the SAT’s critical reading portions, but scored lower than the national average in math and writing, according to exam figures released earlier this month.

In South Korea, Okinawa, Japan and Guam, more than 650 students averaged 504 in critical reading, 502 in math and 485 in writing.

Last week, in an interview, Pacific AVID coordinator Melanie Bales said the test has changed and requires students to spend more time preparing for it than in the past.

She added that AVID students receive special attention in critical reading and writing, two skills essential for taking the test. They are also quizzed extensively and taught test-taking strategies.

— Will Morris


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