pulley system illustration“For most of us, our parents don’t know what there is after high school. Many think jobs are the next step, but they’re really not. AVID helps us with showing our options for college.”

“Play It Smart helps me to reach my full potential. Our coach always asks how we are doing and makes sure we’re doing well. He cares a lot about us, and he knows where we’re coming from. He is always there for us. He is very encouraging and motivating.”

These words come from two 11th-grade students at an urban high school in central New Jersey who are part of two distinct, yet parallel school enrichment programs—Advancement via Individual Determination (AVID) and Play It Smart (PIS). Both programs are directed toward youth who are at risk for negative outcomes but show the potential for academic accomplishment. We feel that the essential practices of AVID and PIS could be incorporated into many secondary schools, regardless of whether or not those programs are formally adopted. 

How Strategies Work

“AVID makes you think about your future, and college is the first step … “ AVID is an in-school academic support program targeting students from underprivileged, minority families who are underachieving in school. This program focuses especially on students “in the middle” who are “the silent majority—the kids who come to school regularly, sit in the back of the class, rarely say anything, don’t cause trouble, and get by with Cs. They are not failing, nor are they the math whiz or star pupil. They are nearly invisible,” says M.C. Swanson in the Education Week article “It’s Time to Focus on the Forgotten Middle.” The AVID program aims to provide support through strong student-teacher relationships, creating a positive peer group for students, and developing kids’ sense of hope for personal achievement. 

“Play It Smart helps us with college by giving a lot of information about different colleges and also motivates us to study and apply for colleges that are right for us.” The National Football Foundation’s Play It Smart program is an educational program that has trained academic coaches to mentor high school athletes, particularly football teams, in at-risk or underserved communities across the United States. PIS functions as an after-school program that uses sports experiences to provide students opportunities to learn not only about personal development, but also gain access to specific skills that enhance their academic and athletic performance. 

Play It Smart offers student athletes a specific mentor/coach who provides academic, athletic, and personal support during high school. Additionally, the program requires participation of the student-athletes in community service as part of efforts to engage them in leadership roles. This program highlights being valued on a team, building problem-solving skills, internalizing and emulating social responsibility, and strengthening the sense of self-worth to enable adolescents’ personal and social development.

Both programs have shown high success rates. For AVID in the 2013–14 academic year, 99 percent of students in the program graduated from high school on time with an average GPA of 3.2. Eighty-eight percent applied to a four-year college/university and 78 percent received an acceptance to a four-year college/university. The results of the Play It Smart pilot study found that participants’ GPAs increased significantly relative to the GPA of their peers and SAT scores were subsequently superior to their peers. Of the 59 seniors in the pilot study, 98 percent graduated from high school on time, and 83 percent went to college. 

Transferrable Skills

Both the AVID and PIS programs aim to offer college preparation for students who are mostly coming from underprivileged families and might be the first college-goers in the family. Part of the AVID program involves regular meetings with AVID teachers about course enrollment, options after graduation, and the long-term value of their education. 

The AVID curriculum focuses on writing, collaboration, organization, and reading in order to strengthen students’ academic skills. Reading and writing techniques are especially emphasized in AVID classes through weekly writing assignments, an essay contest, letter writing, and reports. Students are also urged to work together in groups on presentations, research papers, service learning projects, and fundraising activities in order to learn critical collaboration skills. Similarly, PIS coaches are trained to help students identify transferable skills acquired through sports that can be used for academic preparation, building relationships, and future planning. 

Connection Counts

In our urban high school sample, 350 students (25 percent of the school population) participated in either AVID or PIS, including some students who participated in both programs. We conducted focus groups with a total of 161 students in AVID and PIS in the spring of 2014. In these groups, students were asked what helps them the most in AVID and PIS. Our findings reflect that a key component of both PIS and AVID was the connection to school staff, be it teacher or coach.

A major theme described by the students in Play it Smart was the relationship with their coaches. This meaningful relationship between students and their coaches encourages students to thrive and achieve academically. Another student expressed that “Outside of Play It Smart, the coaches are our friends.” This student further revealed that during the fourth marking period of her freshman year, she was failing all her classes except gym, but after one long talk from her coach about her future, she was motivated to focus and care about her grades. Her story was representative, not unique, and that talk was built on their ongoing, caring, and supportive relationship.

It is this teacher support that appears to make a crucial difference to students. These programs give students the chance to develop meaningful relationships with their teachers, which research has found to be critical in fostering successful academic outcomes. Students in AVID and PIS are keenly aware of receiving this social support, and they value it. As one student noted, “My freshman year I talked to my AVID teacher after school for an hour; we talked about problems at home. He even took me home if it got really late. If you have a problem, he’s the person to go to, even if it’s not about school.” Students’ grades and graduation plans reflect the additional academic and emotional support they are given as part of these programs. 

Sidebar: Making it Work

There is strong support for bringing the essential ingredients in AVID and PIS into all secondary schools. While those programs provide a valuable structure for these practices, schools can successfully incorporate them within their own structures by:

  1. Engaging students on a personal level and learning about the challenges they face inside and outside of school. 
  2. Creating a family-like atmosphere by supporting the development of students’ self-esteem, self-efficacy, and the ability to succeed academically.
  3. Establishing a classroom and school environment where students can improve their confidence and engage in effective learning, including the life skills needed for college and careers.

Sidebar: PL Pointers For Secondary School Principals

Seek out adult mentors who will build positive social and academic relationships with students through individual attention to social, emotional, and learning struggles and successes.

Offer academic tutoring, including a specific time, space, and support for tutoring/studying.

Outline positive expectations and information about college with clear go-to persons who can address the specifics about applications, financial aid, school options, or offer presentations from current college students.

Provide academic organization/learning-to-learn skills by focusing on skills like taking notes following a specific structure, study habits, assignment monitoring, or binder checks. 

Encourage ongoing involvement in team/group contexts so students learn how to be a valued, contributing member of a team, club, classroom, or other group and develop close relationships.

Maurice J. Elias, PhD, is a professor of psychology and academic director of The Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service at Rutgers University in New Jersey. Gwyne White, MS; Didem Aksoy, BA; Sarah DeMarchena, BA; and Cesalie Stepney, MEd, MS, are senior research associate, research assistant, field research coordinator, and research associate and undergraduate coordinator, respectively, at the Social-Emotional Learning Lab at Rutgers University.