Born: September 3, 1944 in Kingsburg, California, United States
Awards: EXCEL award for Excellence in Teaching, 1985; Salute to Excellence Award, National Council of States on Inservice Education, 1990; Presidents' Forum Salute, National Conference on School/College Collaboration, 1991; Pioneering Achievement in Education Award, Charles A. Dana Foundation, 1991; Headliner of Year (Education/Creative Teaching), San Diego Press Club, 1991; Woman of Vision Award, League of Women Voters, San Diego, 1992; Valley Forge Teachers Medal for Excellence, Freedoms Foundation, 1993; Golden Bell Award, California School Boards Foundation, 1995; A+ Award, U.S. Department of Education, 1996; named "America's Best Teacher," CNN and Time, 2001; McGraw Prize in Education, 2002; featured on 60 Minutes II, 2002; honorary Ph.D., University of San Diego, 2002.
Convinced that marginal students can meet almost any challenge if they are given the support they need, Mary Catherine Swanson more than two decades ago launched one of the most successful educational reform programs ever seen in the United States and the only school reform program ever launched by a public school teacher. Her program—dubbed AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination)—has transformed thousands of underachieving students into college material.
AVID was started in 1980 when Swanson was chairperson of the English department at Clairemont High School in San Diego, California. When the mostly white school was ordered by the courts to open its doors to 500 minority students, a number of the school's students and teachers left. To accommodate this sudden influx of new students who lagged two years or more behind grade level, the school moved quickly to create "special" classes to meet their needs. Swanson felt certain that this was the wrong approach, and she proposed to Clairemont's principal an experiment to test her hunch: Put 30 of the incoming minority freshmen in the school's most challenging classes, supplementing their daily classwork with special tutoring sessions that she would conduct during one period each day. Although the new students struggled to meet the rigorous demands of college prep courses, they didn't falter, and at the end of the four- year test, all 30 students enrolled in college, 28 in four-year institutions.
Swanson was born Mary Catherine Jacobs on September 3, 1944, in Kingsburg, California, daughter of Edwin, a newspaper publisher, and Corrine, a homemaker. After high school she attended California State University, San Francisco, where she majored in English and journalism, receiving her bachelor's degree in 1966. On August 27, 1966, she married Thomas Edward Swanson, who today is chief executive officer of Community National Bank. In 1977 she earned a master's degree in education from the University of the Redlands.
Swanson began her career in education in the fall of 1966, teaching English and journalism at Woodland (California) High School for a year, after which she joined the faculty at Armijo High School in Fairfield, California, again teaching English and journalism. In the fall of 1969 she began teaching at Moreno Valley High School in Sunnymead, California. In 1970 Swanson joined the faculty of San Diego's Clairemont High School. In all, she taught at Clairemont for 16 years, eventually rising to the chairmanship of Clairemont's English department.
It was during her years at Clairemont that Swanson's idea for AVID was born. In 1980 the school, which had previously served a student body that was 98 percent white, prepared for an influx of minority students, ordered bused to Clairemont by the courts. Many of Clairemont's better teachers, as well as the families of some of the school's best students, quickly moved to other schools. Clairemont's administration readied "special" classes for the new students, who, they felt, had little hope of keeping up with their classmates in Clairemont's regular, rigorous curriculum. The idea of "dumbing down" classes for disadvantaged students irritated Swanson, who was convinced there had to be a better way. She and her mentor, Jim Grove, who taught seminar and advanced-placement English classes, began to look for a way to make integration work for their students without sacrificing excellence.
Swanson proposed that she be allowed to undertake an experiment to see if 30 disadvantaged freshmen could cope with the college preparatory curriculum if she supplemented their education with a special period each day devoted to giving them the tools they would need to succeed. In that special class each day, Swanson would focus on the importance of note taking, writing as a tool of learning, and open discussions between students and teachers about how students learn best. When a student was having particular difficulty with a subject, Swanson would see to it that he or she got special tutoring.
Putting their heads together to come up with a name for the innovative new program, Swanson and Grove weighed a number of possibilities. Finally, Grove pictured the type of student for which they were tailoring the program: an average student from a disadvantaged background who was nevertheless avid to learn. He suggested that the word "avid," derived from the Latin avidus, meaning "eager for knowledge," might make a good label for the program. Swanson liked the idea but wondered what the acronym might stand for. Grove responded that AVID could stand for Achievement Via Individual Determination. According to Jonathan Freedman at San Diego Online, Swanson suggested that they substitute "advancement" for "achievement," because "we are proposing to advance students academically and socially . . . ."
To the surprise of everyone but Swanson, the AVID experiment was a smashing success. At the end of four years, all 30 students went on to college, 28 to four-year institutions and two to local community colleges. All 30 were the first in their families to attend college.
So impressed were local educators with the success of Swanson's AVID program that she soon was asked to spread the program to all the schools in San Diego. In 1986 she left Clairemont High to join the staff of the San Diego County Office of Education, charged with the responsibility of spreading AVID to every school in the county. A recent check showed that all but one of the county's high schools had implemented the AVID program.
The key to the success of Swanson's program is the academic and moral support students receive in the daily special academic elective class, scheduled for one period daily throughout the student's high school experience. In addition to a classroom teacher, these classes offer tutoring assistance in college preparatory courses, with a 7:1 student-to-tutor ratio. Other important features of the support class include two weekly tutorial days, during which students work in subject-specific groups with the assistance of a specially trained tutor, and one motivational day each week. The motivational day, usually scheduled on Friday, is devoted to field trips, outside speakers, and goal-setting or organizational activities.
As designed by Swanson, students are selected for the program by AVID coordinators and site teams. Eligible groups include low-income and linguistic minority students with average to high-achievement test scores and C-level grades; students with special circumstances that could impede their progress to college; and students who would be the first in their families to attend college.
From a single class of 30 students in San Diego, the AVID program has spread from coast to coast and to 14 countries overseas. As of September of 2001, some 65,000 middle school and high school students were enrolled in AVID programs at more than 1,200 schools in 21 states and 14 countries. States with active AVID programs include Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Illinois, Kansas, Kentucky, Maryland, Massachusetts, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia.
Naysayers are quickly silenced by the stunning success of the AVID program. Since 1990, almost 15,000 AVID students have completed high school and gone on to college. According to a study conducted by the State of California, high school students who have been enrolled in the AVID program for at least three years graduate from high school and enter college at a rate of 95 percent, 75 percent higher than the national average. More than 77 percent of AVID graduates enroll in four-year colleges and universities, compared with the national average of 35 percent. Among Latinos, AVID graduates enter college at almost two times the national average, while African American AVID graduates enroll in college at one and a half times the national average.
Swanson and AVID were in the spotlight in the fall of 2001 when both CNN and Time called attention to the success of her innovative educational program. The cable television news network profiled the educator on a program entitled "America's Best," offering this succinct explanation of her educational philosophy: "It's really very simple. Hard work makes people smart." And it offered as a prime example of what AVID can do the case of Maximo Escobedo. Escobedo immigrated to San Diego from Mexico with his parents when he was still a toddler. His parents hoped that Maximo and his seven brothers could get a better education north of the border, but as it turned out, most Spanish-speaking students in the school system got stuck with a class schedule loaded with less- challenging subjects, such as physical education classes and shop. Escobedo was rescued from mediocrity when he was recruited into the AVID program. By his senior year in high school, he had moved into an honors class in English. Escobedo, who today is a successful graphic designer with two daughters, told CNN.com, "I probably got a B or a C, but I was more satisfied with the lower grade in a really tough class than I would have been with a really high grade in an easy class."
In a companion feature by Andrew Goldstein in Time, Swanson was one of 16 Americans cited for their accomplishments and one of only five who were profiled in depth. Goldstein said Swanson's formula behind AVID was simple: "Raise expectations and then give students the support they need to meet them." Ever optimistic about the potential of young people given the necessary academic and moral support, Swanson said to Goldstein, "Never underestimate what kids can do. That's what our schools and teachers need to know."
Swanson and the AVID program have been widely honored over the past couple of decades. She's been featured in every edition of Marquis' Who's Who in America since 1994, cited specifically for her "outstanding achievement in education, thereby contributing significantly to the betterment of contemporary society." In 1995 the California School Boards Foundation presented its Golden Bell Award to AVID "for an innovative, exemplary program which has been replicated in more than 500 schools by educators whose efforts have made a demonstrated difference for students." In 1993, Swanson received the Freedoms Foundation Valley Forge Teachers Medal for Excellence "for designing a program which allows all students to achieve academically and become contributing members of our democratic society . . . ." Swanson is particularly proud of her 1991 Charles A. Dana Foundation Award for Pioneering Achievement in Education. The Dana Foundation singled out Swanson "for heeding the teacher's calling at the highest level of professional dedication in your development of AVID, an imaginative restructuring of schools that has given thousands of students the skills, support, and guidance that they need to fulfill their potentials . . . . " In 2002, Swanson was awarded the McGraw Prize in Education, the highest award an educator can receive in the United States, and was featured on 60 Minutes II.
A particular point of pride for Swanson was the recent decision of her son, a history teacher, to launch an AVID program at his school in Cupertino, California. Swanson herself is kept pretty busy running AVID from its headquarters in San Diego, but she makes no secret of her desire to get back into the classroom. She and her husband live in Olivenhain, California, not far from San Diego.