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Salt Lake City elementary aims to teach college skills early

Published December 30, 2013 2:44 pm

School • "It's never too early," says Bennion principal, "to help students dream about what they want to become some day."
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Ask 10-year-old Eddy Duvnjak if he wants to go to college, and he'll answer without hesitation.

"Of course," Eddy, an M. Lynn Bennion Elementary fourth-grader, said on a recent school day. "I want a good degree."

At a school where 92 percent of kids come from low-income homes, 28 percent move in and out each year and 19 languages are spoken, it's a significant answer.

Eddy and his classmates may be young, but they've already been learning about college — and how to get there — thanks to AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination). It's a program meant to prepare kids for college by teaching them study, organizational, collaborative and other skills early on.

Salt Lake City's Bennion is the only elementary school in Utah with the program, which is more typically offered as an elective in junior highs and high schools. More than 4,800 schools nationwide offer AVID, including 31 in Utah.

"If our kids can be better prepared as they go to middle school and high school, we believe every student will be better prepared to go to college," said Bennion Principal James Yapias, who implemented AVID at the school about a year and a half ago.

At Bennion, AVID is integrated into everyday activities. Students each have large planners where they track their work and goals. And each morning, kids begin the day by reflecting on their learning.

On a recent day Lynette Miller's fifth-grade class took a few minutes before beginning their other lessons to answer the question in their notebooks: Are you a quality worker and producer?

Hanna Fetzer, 11, wrote, "I am a quality worker and producer, but I really need to work on my handwriting skills."

For the kids it's not just busywork.

"In college, we have to write really neatly so we don't fail," said Anthony Perez, 10.

With AVID, teachers try to connect their lessons to college so kids understand the reasons behind their education.

"It's important for motivation at school," said school counselor Susi Hauser, "because sometimes kids don't understand why they're working so hard in abstract subjects."

Messages about college and the future pervade the hallways of Bennion.

College banners and team colors cover classroom doorways. In the stairwells, signs proclaim, "You say: It's too early to think about college! We say: The steps you take now will help determine your college options later. Start planning NOW!"

Another sign reads, "Bennion students! All of your teachers went to college and so will you!"

The school also provides after-school instruction and partners with a number of groups and businesses, such as Big Brothers Big Sisters of Utah, Goldman Sachs and AmeriCorps to give students extra attention and opportunities. Parents are highly involved, signing contracts committing to their children's learning and meeting for conferences to discuss long-term goals for their kids.

Though it's too early to say how many Bennion kids will actually go to college as a result of all this, early results are promising.

Bennion was named the top-performing Title I school in the Salt Lake City School District for the 2010-11 school year. Title I schools receive federal dollars for serving large numbers of children from low-income families.

The school's overall scores on state language arts and math tests are up since 2011, though Bennion is still slightly shy of meeting previously set overall state proficiency goals. The school earned a C this year as part of the state's new grading system, but Yapias said he sees that increasing in coming years. He said the goal is an A.

Yapias knows that not every student will, or should, go to college. In fact, posters line walls near the school's entrance encouraging kids to also consider careers such as auto technician and nail technician. But he and the school's teachers want their students to know, as early as possible, that college is a real option.

"It's never too early," Yapias said, "to help students dream about what they want to become some day."