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Daniel Ruiz was once a shy seventh-grader who didn’t like talking in front of classrooms at Tommie Kunst Middle School — until he enrolled in the school’s summer AVID Excel program.

“During the beginning of this class, I was a little bit scared. But now, I’ve faced my fears,” Daniel said.

The incoming eighth-grader is one of about 100 students participating in the Advancement via Individual Determination, or AVID, program at Tommie Kunst this month.

Along with developing public speaking abilities, the program teaches communication, leadership and how to take responsibility in an effort to prepare students for college and beyond. 

July sessions will be held at El Camino and Fesler junior highs through the Santa Maria-Bonita Unified School District.

As part of the program, two AVID classes are geared specifically toward English language learners, one of which Ruiz is attending for incoming eighth-graders. 

On this Wednesday, Ruiz is inside Room L105 with his fellow classmates and Diane Cabrera, a seventh-grade English teacher and an AVID program leader.

The group spends four hours each morning learning new leadership techniques and growing more confident in themselves, which includes overcoming their fright of public speaking. 

Cabrera is in her first year of helping teach the summer program.

“This is a quick little introduction to AVID Excel for the students,” Cabrera said. "And the AVID Excel program, specifically, is for [English language development] students who need that extra assistance with their language skills."

Cabrera, who has taught at Tommie Kunst for four years, has seen each student in her room come out of their shell.

“I would say they’re motivated to come, they have perseverance because this is new for me and new to the school and they are courageous,” Cabrera said.

“I told them from day one that this is about speaking in public, and we’re all scared to death the first day," she said. "This, right now, is amazing because they didn’t want to talk the first day.”  

Cabrera guides her students through team-building exercises in her room, from getting them to analyze a quote for the day or a picture or, during one sequence, using candy to get students to speak in front of each other.

“We did a Skittles thing: They got a handful of it, and each color represented a question,” Cabrera explained. "Purple meant, ‘What is your favorite animal?’ and orange meant, ‘What is your goal for the school year?’ and they answered each one.” 

Cabrera has received assistance from Karla Zarate, who is a volunteer aide inside the classroom. Zarate also has seen a spike in personal development among the students.

“I’ve actually seen a good amount of growth,” Zarate said. “Some of them came in not wanting to talk to their partner. But now in the past couple of days, they do seem to be interacting more.”

Daniel concluded he’s glad he’s spending time participating in the AVID Excel program: “It’s very nice. I would much rather do this then be at home.”

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