Helping Kids Make the Transition

The AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination) program is all about providing structure and support to kids who face disenfranchisement in school, so they graduate and make the transition to college – typically becoming first-generation college students. And this spring has brought another huge transition for AVID students and their tutors, turning their in-person relationship into a “Google Meet relationship.”

For the UNC Asheville students who provide the tutoring to some 350 AVID students in Asheville City Schools, it was a transition that had to be made almost instantly. UNC Asheville students Julia Rhodes and Tatyana Barrett were the two AVID tutor leaders suddenly faced with the need to move all of the tutors’ work onto online platforms. “The weekend that we got the notification that everything was closing, I told Kim [Kim Kessaris, UNC Asheville’s AVID tutoring coordinator], ‘hey I’ll try to make a training video for Google Meet,” recalled Rhodes. “I had never used Google Meet before! But that Monday, we were training all our tutors – we’ve all been learning it on the fly.”

The Bulldog-Cougar Partnership

UNC Asheville has had a long-term partnership with Asheville City Schools (whose mascot is the cougar). For 20 years, the city schools have funded the tutoring in the AVID program that is provided by UNC Asheville students, about two-thirds of whom are paid for their time. The other UNC Asheville student tutors participate in a service-learning course that is part of their teacher education. It is a true symbiosis, providing not only student jobs, but truly meaningful experience for our Bulldog college students, while being invaluable as not just tutors, but mentors for the Cougars in the AVID program.

This special relationship made the quick transition by UNC Asheville’s tutors extra important.

“Seeing their tutors every week has added a sense of normality for the students – it’s extra support in a really chaotic time. We’ve added extra backbone,” said Rhodes. “The first week, it was just kids venting – ‘yeah, I hate it, my teacher’s assigning so much work, I don’t know what to do, my siblings are loud,‘ and we said, ‘yeah, I get it – we’re right there with you.’ Our focus wasn’t schoolwork, it was ‘let’s figure this out together.’ And that’s what we’ve been doing.”

Kessaris says this approach is in keeping with UNC Asheville’s AVID training. “We came from the philosophy or value of support first, so every conversation starts with ‘How are you doing? How’s your internet connection? Is there something you need? Do you need to communicate with me privately about something?’”

And that supportive relationship enables the academic help. “Four days a week, we have five Google Meets going simultaneously with a tutor in each one,” said Kessaris. “They have a shared Google doc for their notes and we’re noticing the students being more proactive about looking up things and pasting them into the document, building knowledge collaboratively. We’ve been doing that in person but it’s more evident sometimes in this format, and the tutor continues to guide by suggesting questions – sometimes doing direct teaching, but usually using the inquiry-based model that we do in person. What I’m hearing from the students is that it’s helping them retain the information.”

“We’ve seen some really fantastic interaction with the students,” said Rhodes, “but obviously, we miss face-to-face as well.” Rhodes was speaking both of her experience as a tutor last year, and as of one two tutor leaders this year, spending two full days each week and part of a third working with this year’s tutors as a large-scale part-time job.

Now she is ready to take her newly gained experience with technology and add it to her tookit when she begins her student teaching next year, leading toward a career teaching middle school.

“I love middle schoolers – they’re so funny – the funniest people I ever met. You have to have a very specific energy to teach middle school – everybody else thinks you’re crazy,” she said.

Student Teachers Also Make the Transition

COVID-19 not only forced an abrupt change for students at every level, but also for their teachers, and for those just learning to teach – the student teachers.

UNC Asheville has 33 student teachers this spring in different Buncombe County, Madison County, Henderson County, and Asheville City Schools, as well as the Evergreen Community Charter School. Their work and learning has been made more difficult by the coronavirus, but it has provided an invaluable experience, according to Professor Nancy Ruppert, who chairs UNC Asheville’s Department of Education and who supervises the student teachers.

“Being able to learn alongside their teachers, about how to even think about this, has been a real opportunity,” she said. “It was fortunate that COVID came in week 10 instead of week four, so our students had already created relationships with the teacher in the classroom, and already knew a lot about their students. Our student teachers have to do an electronic portfolio that is nationally scored and they had already completed the hard part including videotaping and assessing student learning. In addition to completing the portfolios, most candidates were able to create video lessons, and work virtually with their teachers and students, and most are continuing to learn to teach online.”

In leading the weekly meetings of the student teachers, where they share experiences and problem-solve together, Ruppert is using the same approach that the AVID tutors are using with their students, just at a different level. “Building relationships is more natural in person, so every online class period, we start with something regarding mindfulness, or checking in about things they are grateful for or have surprised them. We also talk about structures they could put in place to then do this as a when they become teachers. When our candidates are learning to teach, there has to be a lot of structure. And that’s one of the benefits of AVID – it prepares our candidates by teaching them how to create consistent structures for students.”

Overcoming Social Distancing

COVID-19 has flipped the script in terms of how many kids feel about school.

“I don’t think I’ve ever heard kids say ‘I miss school’ more than in our first couple of weeks of tutoring,” recalled Rhodes. “But it’s been really encouraging because our tutors have really stepped up, taken command, and they are there for the kids. Our tutors have worked outside of their normal hours to help students get caught up – they have been incredible.”

Tatyana Barrett, a UNC Asheville junior and who served alongside Rhodes as an AVID tutor leader, agrees about the tutors’ dedication, and their impact. “I am so proud of our students and all they have accomplished this semester despite their hardships. I am so thankful for our AVID teachers and tutors who have worked together to create a safe virtual space for the students that they may not have had otherwise,” said Barrett. “The work we do in this program to build a tight-knit community makes all the difference in the way in which the students get to experience education (and more importantly the way we are experiencing education right now). I am just so proud to be a part of such an amazing program with so many extraordinary people.”

Asheville High and SILSA seniors who have completed their required academic work still continued to come to the tutoring sessions, which focused on how to make a successful transition to college. They’ve developed special relationships with their tutors, the UNC Asheville students. “There’s almost a peer-to-peer relationship because there’s not a lot of age difference,” said Rhodes. “They will sometimes tell you things they’ve never told any of their teachers and you can advocate for them. A lot of our tutors have done that.”

And the social aspect has been important at the middle school level as well, says Kessaris. “The other day, the eighth graders didn’t want to get off the chat – they wanted to just stay on, but their college student tutors have to go to other classes, or jobs, so we’ve had to say, ‘OK, we have to go now.’ It’s an indicator that there’s a lot of emotional support happening, and some of the stresses come out – we hear some of their stories and worries, and ups and downs and try to provide support. We’re doing way more than academics now.”

And that feeling of support can be just as important for teachers as for students. “With some of the teachers at Asheville City Schools, we’ve been working together for 20 years,” said Kessaris, “and I’ve been working with some of the college students for three years. So there’s a lot of depth in the relationships and a feeling that we’ve come through something together – despite being physically isolated, I don’t think any of us feel isolated.”

To learn more about UNC Asheville’s teacher certification program, visit