Becoming AVID learners

GLENDALE — Pam Zamanis’ students divided themselves into three groups — the pros, cons and undecideds. A few minutes later, two students argued the benefits of euthanasia against more than a dozen of their classmates who politely and articulately disagreed.

It was controversial and revealing as students made their case.

“It’s really selfish,” eighth-grader Cynthia Ramirez said. “You’ll affect everyone if you take your life away.”

If the debate seemed high-brow, that’s by design, Zamanis said. She has two classes of Advancement via Individual Determination, or AVID, a instructional program designed to help students prepare for college.

Students in the class would be the first in their families to attend a four-year university. More than 75% of students who continue the program through high school graduate from a four-year college, Zamanis said.

“The class is extremely important in that it does teach critical thinking skills,” she said. “These kids will learn life skills that will help them forever.”

And the group of mostly 13-year-olds said they agree. The class has a variety of unique perks, like field trips, and also differs from other classes because of its workload.

Leading up to their first debate Monday, students spent the weekend learning about Oregon’s “Death with Dignity” law. It’s reading they likely won’t be assigned in another class, students said.

The program is selective. Students must have higher than a 2.0 grade-point average and demonstrate a willingness to participate and learn, officials said.

“And they have to have desire,” Zamanis said. “They are motivated. They know college is important.”

After touring college campuses and setting goals to last through high school, students said they were hungry for more.

“We saw what it was like living in college,” eighth-grader Mathias Puchulutegui said of a recent tour to UC Irvine. “We went around and explored; it was basically a huge lunchtime [and recess].”

As they’re being treated like adults, students said they feel an obligation to rise to the occasion.

“We’re learning valuable skills,” Cynthia said.

Joshua Valerio, 13, has pegged Caltech and MIT as potential destinations five years from now. He wants to be an engineer.

“I get to make things and help people and mess around with all the technology,” he said. “I wanted to choose my elective and learned AVID helps you … prepare for college.”

Mathias said there’s no secret behind the program’s achievements.

“You study hard and stay focused,” he said.

That’s not even the class’ honor code.

“I just came up with that,” Mathias said.

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