Mary Catherine Swanson a Catalyst for Change by Alejandro Lopez

Who was Mary Catherine Swanson

Mary Catherine Swanson was a young woman that change part of the education in public schools. She was put through the challenges of teaching underprivileged children that seem to society as if they were not going to accomplish much. As a teacher she knew it was her job to help all students especially the ones who wanted to go to college.

Swanson was the daughter of Ed and Corrine Jacobs. Ed was a publisher/editor of the Kingsburg Recorder which he ran all of his life. Her grandfather was a former college professor and president of a mid western college. With the history of her family's reputation she was expected to do well in school and college. Her father would tease about her grades saying "zero, zero, zero" and she would respond "No, daddy, A, A, A, A!"

She went to college at San Francisco State University and took English classes at UC Berkeley. The dream she had was to follow the footsteps of her dad in news papering, but she had a passion of literature and world of ideas, between these two things she decided to follow her passion which led her to be a teacher.

In 1954 the U.S Supreme Court ruled in a case that segregated schools violated students Constitutional rights and because of that certain case, the next couple of decades the schools would be the focal point of America's bitter racial, culture, and economic conflicts.

In 1978 a federal judge ordered the San Diego Unified School District to make a plan to end segregation in the public schools. The district created the so called "magnet schools" that offered auto shop, business and marketing programs which were actually remedial classes, that isolated the learning for minority's within a school.

In 1980 the the plan of desegregation came to Clairemont high school and so they decided to take 500 minority students into the school to show the courts they were following the order. But for years the school had a reputation of high academic standards for the kids (white Kids) and with the reputation they had, the teachers did not want to teach kids who could not follow up to the academic standards plus it would soil there teaching records of being the best, which led to the district's version of desegregation of putting minority kids in remedial classes.

What she believed in and the story of changing the school system from within

Mary Catherine believed in equality for everyone, especially kids who went to school. But she wanted to help the minority group more because she believed that they should have the same right to be taught in regular classes, so that they can be successful in college and beyond. And so she decided to create a class where students who barley could get C's in a class to follow her college prep class. This class was called AVID which stands for "Advancement Via Individual Determination" .

"Advancement Via Individual Determination"

She organized her class by making 2 days of class time for study sessions for those who were struggling in a particular subject. The other days were dedicated to learning how to take notes, organize work and understanding ones goal to get to college and why they were in school for.

The first AVID class was not the easiest time for Mrs. Swanson she dealt with different types of kids who had major history of struggle in their family's. A child name Angelina was part of her first class, this child was one of the reasons she was inspired to be a teacher. She was raised in a violent home with her 2 younger sisters and mother. Her step father would go into her room at night and do things to her. With most nights like this she would dream of going to college to get a well paying job, so she can take her family away from her step father. It took a while for Mrs. Swanson to figure out how to teach this girl but when she found out about Angelina life at home, she became more open in her work and to learning everything that Mrs. Swanson teaching.

In a classroom she wanted to work with everyone and yet work on their own problems in schools. She had such passion in her work that it led her classroom to success. In one major situation that had the AVID class nearly destroyed was when a Bio teacher named Mr. Brundage accused the AVID students of cheating because the kids got A's and B's on a test. In order to prove of their innocence they were giving a retake and were interrogated individually and after reviewing the analysis they were proven innocent.

The lack of faith in the AVID students was one of the major reasons why Mrs. Swanson created the class to show the school and district there is hope for children who are seen as underachievers. This is what she was fighting for equality among schools to give kids a chance in life. And not just the privilege or white children.

Skip to 7:17 in the video and stop at 9:22

Mary Catherine Swanson is giving a speech at a National conference on the history of AVID on the situations that occurred during her years at a teacher

Kids set up barriers and those become their excuses. It's a defense mechanism. They rationalize to themselves why they fail in school and they accept it. What we have to teach kids is that they aren't victims. -Mary Catherine Swanson

Mrs. Swanson had such confidence in her children she finally decided to change the ideas that teachers had at Clairemont High from within, starting with a meeting between the students and teachers. Early within the second semester her and the AVID class sent letters to throughout the school to talk about how to improve the education for struggling students. After school one day teachers came to a meeting in the AVID class, both students and teachers discuss what is the best way to help them. It was a success because the students showed the methods that Mrs.Swanson taught them for example the students explained about Cornell notes, which is a from of a notes that makes a student ask deeper questions in order to understand the concept of the subject. Eventually over the years this concept was slowly spread to other schools and brought many kids to college.

After the success she noticed that their was a gap between the University of California and high schools. She wanted to build a bridge between them, the solution was developing a new curriculum that helps kids be prepared for colleges curriculum. But attempting to make this was demolished by politicians because they did not like the ideas she had, this was the first of many setbacks she had that she had to overcome to help underprivileged children.

Play through to 1:47

A video of Mary Catherine Swanson at a National Conference talking about how she bridge the gap between schools and Universities

Later on a man named Dr. Virgil Sexton wanted Mrs.Swanson to join her program to help gifted children but declined his offer, but after a rude comment made by Sexton she reported him. But nothing happened and when that happened he threaten to end her teaching career forever. There was no clear way of showing what he did but in private he attempted to do some stuff.

AVID's future was on the line again. Even tho since 1980, 170 kids have been sent to universities it still was in the middle of a entrenched school system. In 1986 a new principal was running the school a young black woman named Mrs. Chipp who did not seem to care about what Mrs.Swanson did for the school and took credit for the success of her students. She did not appreciate her at all and forced her to do her work because if she didn't the AVID students would not receive college credit. The amount of support she had was low during this time with her helpful friend, Jim Grove a fellow teacher who help build AVID retired. AVID's funding was nearly depleted and with so much on her back she could not handle it. And so she typed her letter of resignation because for the first time in her life she could not see a future anymore.

A picture of Clairemont High during the 1980's

Her new assignment was to spread the AVID throughout the San Diego county from her new position at the County Office of Education. Her workstation or office was an old trailer outside the county office. This is where she would learn to overcome future obstacles and where she found determination and creativity. The task she had was to establish 12 new AVID classes for the fall of 1986, so in order to this she had set up meetings with teachers from the county that would give the pitch of getting the program known and spread.

With more schools seeing the program improve the lives of kids the administration of the San Diego City Schools still were questioning the methods of AVID. But Mrs. Swanson was determined to get their approval even at the end of a meeting with them they still disproved the ideas to help the some schools. But after a while she received a phone call from the president of the district's board of education and stated to her there was senior staffers that opposed her program because it was the only one that was giving results to minority and since she was no longer a teacher and in a higher position the president of the districts board of education supported her.

Following the victory of gaining support from the the board of education found another ally within the Ed center it was the director of curriculum Kermeen Punky. he became the godfather and protector of AVID. In 1987-88 grew the program doubled to 36 schools thus leading to creating a summer institute for teachers to be taught of how to run AVID through the schools.

In 1991 she received a letter informing her that she is being recognized as one of America's premier education foundations which was considered a great honor that barley any teacher has received. with this recognition an outside party called the Department of Defense Dependents school or "DoDDS" heard of the AVID's kids being sent to college while providing academic support for children is what they were looking for. But what Mrs.Swanson didn't know was that this would spread AVID throughout the world in different country's.

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