AVATAR: A Statewide Vertical Alignment

February 2014 | Denton, Texas
BY: Mary Harris & Jean Keller

This is the first in a series of articles that will share the successes, lessons learned, and resources that have evolved as P-16 Councils, secondary institutions, two- and four-year institutions of higher education (IHE), and in some cases, businesses and industries have worked together to create pipelines of student success in college and career readiness across the state of Texas.

Academic Vertical Alignment Training and Renew, better known as AVATAR, began in 2010 through a Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board grant to the North Texas Regional P-16 Council. AVATAR is administered by the University of North Texas (UNT). Using the Texas College and Career Readiness Standards (CCRS) as a foundation, the model is disseminated statewide using a “train the trainer” approach with regional Education Service Centers (ESC), and it aligns the core curriculum across secondary and postsecondary education.  AVATAR aims to create better aligned educational systems that allow students to progress successfully. Over the last three years, the AVATAR project has developed vertical alignment teams (VATs) in 13 Texas Education Agency-defined (TEA) regions in an effort to aid students on their journeys to the Texas workforce.

In the 2011-12 school year, VATs in Regions 10 and 11 piloted development of the AVATAR model.  The Region 10 team included chemistry and mathematics educators from Dallas ISD, Brookhaven College in the Dallas County Community College District, and UNT.  The Region 11 team included chemistry and English language arts educators from Fort Worth ISD, Tarrant County College District, and UNT. The project defined processes for developing common knowledge bases and facilitated critical conversations between secondary and postsecondary educators. 

After engaging in critical conversations, regional VATS developed action plans that led to changes in instruction, course and campus policies and procedures, counseling practices, and/or expectations for students as they negotiated regional pipelines more strategically. 

One pillar of AVATAR is the importance of getting the appropriate people around the table for the critical conversations.  An AVATAR partnership includes participation of:  a regional P-16 Council, a regional ESC, at least one school district,  at least one two-year IHE and at least one four-year IHE; together, these five entities constitute a genuine educational feeder pattern for students.  Team planners have learned to use the THECB data website in determining the extent to which potential partners send and receive students from other partners.  Another pillar of AVATAR is to make a difference for students as quickly as possible. Of most importance is the selection of VAT members who are knowledgeable about the core curriculum and who have the ability to influence other discipline faculty in implementing recommendations related to action plans. Also important is the commitment of academic leaders in the school district and IHEs to participate and support recommendations for action that may call for changes in curriculum, instruction, instructional materials, policies, assessment, technology, and/or professional development.

In 2013-14, eleven AVATAR partnerships are active across the state of Texas. Most began their work in 2012-13 by forming VATs that studied and filed action plans that pertained to one academic discipline. In their second year of work, some regional partners focused on continuing the prior year’s work, while others formed a second VAT to continue or reshape the first-year work. Locations of the partnerships are grouped in the table below, according to the content field(s) in which they are vertically aligning courses and curriculum.  

Evaluation of AVATAR in June 2013 demonstrated that team members from secondary and postsecondary institutions most valued the opportunity to meet and frankly discuss their discipline content, students’ successes, and instructional practices. While it might seem obvious that secondary and postsecondary educators should have these critical conversations, most had never met with counterparts. Becoming friends, sharing resources, considering the implications of local student achievement data, visiting classrooms and listening to students who were part of a common regional pipeline led to eye-opening conversations.  Some college faculty did not know about the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS). Some high school faculty did know about the Texas Success Initiative (TSI) as defined in higher education. By June 2013, all could see that these conversations would be influenced by the new directions of HB5. AVATAR provides a structure for thinking across educational levels to support vital to student college and career readiness.

Visit them today and take a look at all resources available thus far: