DADE CITY — By his own admission, Sergio Contreras didn’t devote the kind of time to academics he should have in middle school.
He blew off assignments or gave less than a full effort in class.
It wasn’t that he lacked the ability to do the work. Sometimes he just chose not to exert himself.
“I was like between being a good student and a bad student in middle school,” the 17-year-old Contreras said. “I wasn’t an over-achiever.”
That has changed drastically, in large part because of a program called AVID that Pasco High School began offering Contreras’ freshman year.
Contreras, now a junior, was practically the template for the type of student the program sought: Someone capable of top-level academic work, but who needs a little extra support to get organized, motivated and focused on going to college.
AVID, an international program that is also offered at Ridgewood High in New Port Richey, stands for Advancement Via Individual Determination. The last word is key. The school expects a lot from students who enter the program. They take honors and Advanced Placement classes as the program tries to ready them for college, a goal many of the students might not have considered otherwise.
“It is not a remedial program,” said Mignon Edwards, the AVID coordinator at Pasco High. “They have to want it and step up.”
AVID’s history dates to 1980, according to the program’s website at www .avid.org.
Federal courts had issued an order to desegregate schools in San Diego, which meant large numbers of inner-city students were sent to suburban schools. Mary Catherine Swanson, who was head of the English department at high-achieving Clairemont High School, supported the court’s decision but worried about how those students would survive the academic rigor at her school.
So she proposed AVID as an academic elective and started with 32 students.
Today about 700,000 students are involved in AVID at 4,900 schools and postsecondary institutions in 46 states, the District of Columbia and 16 other countries or territories, according to the website.
Parents sign contracts saying they will support the students.
The Pasco High program started in 2011 with two classes and about 60 freshmen. Now that original group is down to 18 juniors as many students dropped the program, in some cases because they could not cut it in the honors and AP classes, Edwards said.
She describes those who remain a gritty bunch.
“They are willing to do whatever they need to do to stay in AVID,” Edwards said. “They’ve got a lot of determination.”
In addition to the juniors, the program has 25 freshmen and 22 sophomores.
One of the AVID students’ first assignments as freshmen is to walk into the classroom, shake hands with the teacher and introduce themselves, making eye contact. As simple as it sounds, that’s not something teenagers normally do, teacher Carol Stout said. Bit by bit, though, they become comfortable speaking to adults and improve their communications skills.
“They are very good students,” Stout said. “We make them go above and beyond.”
The students often come from families where there’s little emphasis on planning for college and AVID works to change that mind-set. The students have taken field trips to Saint Leo University, the University of South Florida, the University of Florida and Florida Gulf Coast University.
Jessica Gamez, a 17-year-old junior, said her family is accustomed to women staying home and not becoming educated.
“I came from a background where it’s very hurtful for the woman to go and be more educated than the man,” she said.
Gamez already is in line for a Take Stock in Children scholarship that will help pay for college. She said it saddens her to see teenagers she grew up with who aren’t trying in school and could have limited opportunities as a result.
“You want to say, ‘There’s so much more than small town life,’ ” she said.
The AVID students learn note-taking skills and are required to keep their classwork in a three-inch binder, which helps them develop their organizational skills.
Eric Martinez, 16, a junior, uses his original binder from his freshman year, with a few strips of duct tape helping to hide the wear and tear.
“It’s a little dented,” Martinez said. “It’s been through a lot.”
Moises Guadarrama, 14, a freshman, wasn’t wild about the idea of becoming part of AVID, but his 16-year-old brother, David, was in the program and encouraged him.
“It does help you in classes,” Guadarrama said. “I feel I am in a big, happy family.”
In addition to their classes, the AVID students have tutorial sessions where some of the school’s top-performing students assist them with their trouble spots. The tutors earn volunteer credits.
One tutor is Rebecca Newlon, a 16-year-old junior who was giving algebra pointers to AVID students in a recent tutorial session.
Newlon said her reward goes beyond the volunteer credit she receives.
“I get to help people, which I really like to do,” she said. “Math is my favorite subject, so I don’t mind helping people with it.”
Pasco Middle plans to add an AVID program next year, which delights Edwards. That means potential students will be identified at an even earlier age, she said, and be further ahead in their skills by the time they reach the high school.