Nicole Taylor, an eighth grader at Central Middle School, said she never bothered to do her homework during elementary school. She had more important things to do, such as cook dinner for her siblings when her drug-addicted mother wasn't home.
When Nicole was in fourth grade, she and her sisters moved in with their grandparents in Edgewater. Her mother lived with them sporadically, depending on whether she was using. When they argued, Nicole buried herself in books or listened to rock music. "I didn't really care about my homework," she said.
Since Nicole enrolled in a college-preparatory course, she has become an honor roll student. When she starts South River High School in the fall, she will be taking a full load of honors courses. The 13-year-old credits the Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID) program with helping her focus on her studies and start planning a future.
"AVID turned my life around," Nicole said at the annual AVID leadership conference at Glen Burnie High School on Wednesday. After winning a speech contest, she will be telling her story at the national AVID conference in Atlanta in July. Nicole also will get a $500 scholarship to the college of her choice.
The program, for students in grades six to 12, provides separate classes to teach skills in reading, writing and note taking as well as organization and time management. For homework, students often have to turn in notes they took for other classes and develop follow-up questions to ask their teachers.
Nicole is the type of student that the AVID program was designed to help: youngsters in the academic middle who come from economically disadvantaged or troubled backgrounds. In more affluent pockets of Anne Arundel County, the criteria for AVID have expanded to include students without those problems but who still need help to get through advanced courses, according to AVID coordinators.
The program has been growing throughout county schools. About 5,000 students are enrolled countywide, including 1,100 fifth-graders who started a pilot program this year. Plans to expand the pilot program have been postponed because of budget constraints.
But Central Middle School will get an additional part-time teacher this fall to handle its increased enrollment, said Dot Arida, the school's AVID coordinator. The program has 105 students. This fall, it will have 180 enrolled. Arida said word-of-mouth has helped the program spread.
AVID coordinators are looking for students who, with guidance, could handle more advanced courses. They also look for honors students who are struggling. To be considered, students must want to do better.
"We are looking for that individual determination in some part of their life," said Carol Anne McCurdy, coordinator of academic support for the county school system. "We want to see that spark."
Until this year, Arundel High School had four teachers sharing the job of running AVID. Once the school hired a full-time coordinator, Sandy Bonilla, it was able to recruit more students into the program. Bonilla expects enrollment will increase from its current 70 students to 100 this fall.
One of Bonilla's star students spoke at Wednesday's student-led leadership conference, where representatives from a number of AVID programs attended seminars on choosing the right college, the power of positive thinking, good interview techniques and problem solving.
Damaris Colbert, a junior at Arundel High School, told students about how AVID became her lifeline. Although her teachers kept telling her that she had potential, that's all it was before AVID.
"I never stepped up," Damaris said. "I didn't go after school full force."
A teacher recommended that Damaris start the program in sixth grade. But by the end of the year, Damaris wanted to drop out. Classes had become tougher in middle school, and she felt the pressure.
"I started feeling the weight of the change [from elementary to middle school]," Damaris said. "I thought I wasn't smart enough."
She stuck with the program even after hitting another obstacle in seventh grade: Six members of her extended family died within six months. Damaris clung to the emotional support she received from her AVID coordinators. Her grades fluctuated wildly over the next two years, but she eventually found her way. This year, she earned all As except for one B.
"AVID has been making me a better person every single year," she said.
Bonilla described Damaris as kind, caring and thorough. "I wish I had a room full of her," Bonilla said. "She has drive and ambition."
Damaris will be mentoring freshmen next year to help them adjust to the rigors of high school. She said she wants to major in nursing in college and minor in psychology. She said she doesn't want to stop schooling until she has earned at least a master's degree. "I have this attitude that I want to go all the way," Damaris said.