EDINBURG The Michael and Susan Dell Foundation awarded The University of Texas-Pan American's Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness in Undergraduate Programs (GEAR UP) about $650,000 to expand a successful college readiness program to seven elementary schools and one middle school in the Edinburg area and two middle schools in La Joya.

Advancement Via Individual Determination, or AVID, provides students with strategies to become better prepared for the rigors of postsecondary education. At the secondary level, students are encouraged to take challenging classes and an elective course that teaches them skills in improving their note taking, organization and study habits. AVID also provides students with college tutors and other resources to make sure they are ready for college coursework.

UTPA GEAR UP has garnered funding for middle and high schools to implement the AVID college readiness program throughout the Rio Grande Valley for the past several years. Currently, there are more than 70 secondary schools in the Valley that use the AVID program.

Part of the recent Dell family foundation grant will fund a two-year pilot program at selected elementary schools in the Edinburg Consolidated Independent School District.

"The Michael and Susan Dell Foundation obviously believes in what UTPA is doing," said Cindy Valdez, co-director of UTPA GEAR UP.

Valdez said she and her co-director Joe Garcia asked the Dell family foundation to expand the college readiness program to the younger grades because of the success they saw in the secondary schools.

"The Dell Foundation believed in the value of starting AVID at the elementary level in a district that had an existing commitment to the program," Valdez said.

They chose to start the program in the Edinburg school district because all of its middle and high schools have the AVID program in place and have seen success. Two of its schools - Harwell Middle School and Economedes High School - are "national demonstration schools," which means they are administering the program so well that educators from across the nation come to visit them to see how they can implement the program at their institutions, Valdez said.

Micah Sagebiel, a program officer for the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation's urban education program, said the foundation is excited to provide the seed money for the AVID expansion to elementary schools.

"Even at a young age you can start setting expectations for students that they can graduate high school both college and campus ready," Sagebiel said. "AVID provides meaningful professional development to help teachers fulfill this vision. We consider our eight years supporting AVID in the Rio Grande Valley as money well spent."

Twelve local districts now support the program at 65 schools where the program started with a seed investment and support from UTPA. Edinburg will be one of the first districts in the country with an elementary through college AVID pipeline, Sagebiel said.

"We consider our investments in the Valley very important to us, and we think very highly of our strong partners at UTPA," he said.

The AVID elementary program focuses on having students learn organizational, note taking and other skills to set them up for success at the secondary and post-secondary levels.

At John F. Kennedy Elementary School in San Carlos, students receive a daily reminder of the importance of going to college every time they walk through the school's hallways - which are each named after a four-year university and lined with banners of higher education institutions - and eat at the "Harvard Cafe" cafeteria, named after the alma mater of the school's namesake.

Students keep a planner in which they write down homework assignments and other important information and participate in activities that help them develop their analytical skills. One such activity is "snowball fight," where students write down a fact about a topic they are learning in school, crumple up the paper into a ball and toss it on the ground. Another student picks up the paper and reads it aloud in class and begins a discussion on the information just read.

Students also learn about what is required of them to get into college: earning good grades and taking rigorous courses and entrance exams such as the SAT or ACT.

"It gives students a heads-up on what college is all about; it plants that seed at a very young age that college is attainable, that college is something that everybody should go to," said Rosa Gonzalez, principal of John F. Kennedy Elementary School.

Gonzalez, who earned her bachelor's and master's degrees from UTPA, said she is grateful that her alma mater is helping her students prepare for a successful future.

"These kids are very fortunate through the Dell foundation, through UTPA, and through the Edinburg school district to be given these opportunities, and they're taking full advantage of these opportunities," Gonzalez said.

Students at JFK Elementary said they like the AVID program because it helps them get ready for the future.

"AVID has changed my life because it has made me more organized and knowing what days I have which homework (assignments)," said Kassandra Franco, a fifth-grade student. "It makes me be a successful student."

JFK Elementary will be featured in AVID's Year in Review 2011 publication, which features successful programs at schools throughout the world.