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Parkrose goes all-in with AVID

Designed to increase learning and college readiness, the Parkrose School District has wholeheartedly embraced the Advancement Via Individual Determination, or AVID, instructional system in its schools


Parkrose High Senior Laura Sanchez, middle, and her cousins Jasmine and Xavier Cardenas eat dinner fare at the Multicultural Festival held at the school last month. Sanchez, a four-year AVID student who wants to be a nurse, said AVID help prepare her for college.
Mid-county Memo photos/Tim E. Curran
At the Multicultural Fair at Parkrose High School last month, Fabiola Dormezio and Kevin Herare go bowling. Dormezio is a seventh-grader at Parkrose Middle School and AVID student.
Gianella Velazquez-Pacheco, left and CáBrea Haynie, are both in the seventh grade at Parkrose Middle School and big fans of AVID. In her second year in the AVID program, Velazquez, said she wants to be a pediatrician, while first year AVID student Haynie said she wants to be an engineer.
At the Multicultural Festival held last month at Parkrose High School, sophomore Kenny Bui, Victor Yongchu, Cody Rowley and sophomore Thomas Hudson sample the menu. Except for Bui, all are AVID adherents. Rowley and Hudson are big fans of the program. Both said it surprised them how much instructors care and that AVID is helping them decide what career paths to follow.
According to the US Department of Labor, workers who obtain a bachelor's degree in college average $1,066 in weekly income versus the $652 weekly income earned by those with only a high school diploma. High school dropouts averaged $471 in the same period.

According to the US Department of Education statistics, only 68 percent of Oregon high school students graduate. The rate falls to 61 percent for low-income students, 54 percent for African-American students, and 52 percent for students who come from non-English speaking families.

This actually represents an accomplishment, since, in 8th grade, only 64 percent of all Oregon students are considered proficient in Math. The number sinks to 53 percent for low-income students, 38 percent for African-American students and 23 percent for English Language Learners.

While 72 percent of 8th graders are considered proficient in reading, that population drops to 61 percent for low income students, 52 percent for African-American students and 18 percent for ELL students.

Educators have long sought techniques to transcend this achievement gap.

The US Department of Education established Title I funds to provide grants to schools with high populations of children from low income families. The federal Gear-up grant specifically aims to improve college readiness in these populations. Schools use these funds to in-state programs, usually administered by non-profit organizations, aimed to increase the eligibility and diversity of students pursuing higher education.

One such organization, Advancement Via Individual Determination, or AVID, has steadily increased its presence in Portland schools, most specifically in the Parkrose School District, which aims to employ AVID's teaching strategies in all classes starting as young as kindergarten.

Devised in 1980 to accommodate under-served inner city students integrated into a suburban San Diego school, AVID operates on the philosophy that students rise to the challenge of high standards if afforded ample support. Most well known as a college prep elective class, AVID builds its support structure teaching educators and administrators techniques AVID asserts creates a college-ready culture if employed in all classes throughout the school and district, if and only if, the entire school and district embraces the specific tenets of AVID and adheres to their recommendations.

The dual role that AVID plays in public schools has inspired critics to question the time and expense invested in a program whose record of success rely on a subset of students while the positive effects on the majority of students remains unsubstantiated.

Approximately 4,900 schools nationally and internationally offer the AVID elective, and of that number, AVID has designated 120 as demonstration schools, a title awarded to schools that embrace AVID methodologies in both the elective class and school-wide. This spring, Parkrose Middle School joined Gresham's Clear Creek Middle School to become AVID's second demonstration school in Oregon.

“People say a rising tide raises all boats, and with AVID it raises the expectations of the student body, and somehow, everybody starts to get the message, so the high [achievers] go higher, the low [achievers] get higher and the kid in the middle just takes off ” said Karen Fischer Gray, Parkrose Superintendent. It's doing good things for kids and we have the research behind it; we're soaked in AVIDness.”

These schools serve the greater AVID organization by staging open house events and inviting other districts to witness AVID strategies first-hand, marketing AVID's philosophy by example.

Lebanon and Corvallis School Districts adopted AVID after visiting such an open house at Parkrose Middle School last November.

The techniques that AVID employs to bolster performance follow a strict methodology that transforms the traditional classroom from a teacher/lecture structure, to a more collaborative student-driven conversation that aims to elicit inquiry to improve understanding.

“AVID is about changing beliefs and changing your systems and combing through your institutional practices to make sure that we aren't creating barriers for certain students,” said Michelle Markle, Director of School Improvement for Parkrose School District. “It addresses systems, leadership, instruction and culture and that is really a tenet of everything that we do with AVID.”

Yet since the greater AVID organization, entitled AVID Center, maintains the rights over their intellectual property, schools wishing to employ AVID must pay an annual membership fee for the rights to use AVID materials and methodology. They also sign a contract pledging to uphold the methodology without deviation in both the elective and other subject area classes. Schools must demonstrate their adherence to these strategies in order to receive AVID certification starting their second year. Schools that do not meet the quality standards for certification receive improvement recommendations and coaching from AVID Center. The contract stipulates that AVID may request that a school discontinue the program for persistent non-compliance, but thus far, no Oregon schools have failed to make the grade.

AVID elective students are also asked to sign a contract when they enroll. The contract commits them to attend the elective for one year and clarifies that they will only remain eligible for the class if they maintain good grades, attend regularly, complete all their assignments and enroll in college preparatory courses. The contract also stipulates that the student take individual responsibility for their success.

The AVID elective applies to a very specific type of student. It does not serve struggling students or act as a remedial program. It targets students who possess the ambition to attend college but underperform in school due to a range of factors, none of which includes the lack of initiative.

Students interested in the AVID elective must submit an application and undergo an interview. The application collects their background information and asks questions regarding their academic strengths, challenges, and their dedication to improve their performance. Generally, motivated students from low-income families who have a grade point average between 2.0 and 3.5, whose parents did not attend college, and who come from a non-European background earn first selection for entry into the elective. Some schools have the capacity to accept all who qualify; others have a wait list for the program and can only accept those who most embody the AVID target model.

Once accepted into the AVID elective, students are asked to enroll in the most rigorous courses that they qualify for in order to improve their eligibility for college. When they struggle, the AVID elective class provides a support session where students talk through their problems under the direction of an AVID trained elective teacher. An AVID class also employs tutors, but instead of assisting students with coursework like traditional tutors, AVID tutors help keep students' note taking, organization, and discussions on track.

The class structure aims to mimic a college study group, with the end goal intending to embed those independent study skills in students. AVID classes also attend field trips to visit local colleges, prepare students for standardized tests, and when the time comes, facilitate college applications and the financial aid process.

The college preparation help, advanced course requirements and grade requirements only apply to students accepted into the AVID elective; however, schools hosting the AVID elective are asked to execute the main tenets of AVID methodology throughout their subject area classes. AVID advocates the use of writing, inquiry, cooperation, organization and reading - referred to as the acronym WICOR - as tools for learning.

Specific AVID strategies include the use of 'interactive notebooks,' where students organize all their class work in a single binder, with one side serving as the 'in-box' and the opposing side as the 'out-box.' They are taught the Cornell method of note taking, which divides a page into notes, keywords, questions and a summary for improved comprehension and easy reference, and students participate in collaborative exercises intended to improve their understanding through inquiry and argument.

AVID curriculum employs the Socratic method of dialogue where students question the material from multiple perspectives, and play 'philosophical chairs' where students debate a topic in groups, applying what they learned on the subject in their arguments.

Since all schools annually submit their data reflecting their adherence to AVID protocols to AVID Center in order to maintain their certification, the organization has compiled a library of statistics on their program. The AVID website displays a number of graphs illustrating the positive results of their elective program.

For example, AVID asserts that they send one-third more students to four-year colleges than the national average. They also state that African-American AVID students, whether they participate in AVID for one or three years, take more advanced classes and enroll in college at rates higher than national average; that students who participate in AVID enroll in college more often than students who don't participate, and that number increases the longer students are enrolled in AVID. They also demonstrate that AVID students stay in college longer, with 89 percent of those who started, still in college two years later.

Potential AVID elective students sign an acknowledgement to these claims. A segment of their contract reads, “studies show that I will be most likely to demonstrate academic improvement if I remain in the program only if I meet the student responsibilities outlined above (grade and attendance requirements). I also understand that studies show that I will be most likely to demonstrate academic improvement if I remain in the program at least three years and most likely to meet my goal of four-year college enrollment if I remain in the AVID program in my senior year of high school.”

The AVID website offers third-party studies on its effectiveness, boasting, “In fact, the quality of our proof is so high, that AVID was one of eleven organizations to receive the highest praise for outstanding rigorous research by Building Engineering and Science Talent in an April 2004 report to Congress.”

On the contrary, the What Works Clearinghouse, a review institute from the US Department of Education, has dismissed 65 out of 66 studies on AVID effectiveness as unscientific, often on the basis that the results could not be attributed solely to the intervention. Some studies lacked a significant control group while others were disqualified as a secondary analysis or had no defined outcome.

Though AVID students have displayed higher college attendance rates than the national average for their demographic, since the studies do not seclude a comparative cohort of students with the same aptitude in the same school, they could not isolate AVID as the contributing factor for their success.

Moreover, almost all of the studies cited by AVID address the effectiveness of the elective, where the student selection process almost guarantees positive results. Students must maintain a C or better in all of their classes or they jeopardize their placement in the program. Critics argue that if AVID hand-selects only the most motivated students, and then disqualifies all those who fail to 'rise to the challenge,' their data will almost inevitably reflect a successful population at graduation.

Though AVID advocates implementing their strategies school-wide, they provide no statistics on its effectiveness on the wider student population because schools are not asked to submit data on students outside of the elective group. One AVID research study compared the general data of middle school students collected by demonstration schools, AVID-certified schools and schools offering the AVID elective that have yet to receive certification. The summary of the results found that schools “implementing AVID at the highest levels of fidelity evidenced significantly higher student achievement across all academic and course enrollment outcomes.”

Since it aims to evaluate the certification criteria, and measures the effects of the AVID program as demonstrated in different groups of implementation fidelity and does not specifically aim to qualify the achievements of non-AVID students taught with AVID strategies, this study suffers from the same shortcomings as other AVID studies reviewed by the What Works Clearinghouse.

That is a secondary analysis inference by the results. It makes no mention of the other factors at play among the general population in the schools mentioned, thus it is difficult to determine if the study compares apples to apples or if a few oranges are in the mix as it pertains to non-AVID elective student achievement.

According to AVID's Lewis, “The data is collected for all AVID students; the only AVID/School data comparisons are in ethnicity, gender, free and reduced lunch counts, teachers trained in the AVID strategies.”

Schools, however, often conduct their own internal comparisons. Portland Public Schools does collect data on the satisfactory marks accrued by subject matter of AVID versus non-AVID students and across the board, AVID students rated higher than non-AVID students.

However, Parkrose does not collect such data.

Though the value of AVID on the greater school population remains theoretical, local administrators of AVID do pledge to its effectiveness. “I know that when we look at the seniors as they graduate, many of them said they had no idea they would go to college,” said Teresa Ketelsen, Deputy Superintendent of Teaching and Learning for the Gresham-Barlow School District. “It gives hope to up-and-coming students.”

Kelley Duron, AVID district director for Portland Public Schools said, “What I have seen is the number of kids that I think traditionally might have been dismissed as not going to go to college are going to college and are getting the Gates scholarship and the Millennium scholarship and full rides to really good colleges.” She added, “Just to watch the kids and how proud they are and how they develop a family that supports them, they may not have that kind of structure at home; those elements really can change a kid's life. I also think it changes the adults' lives in terms of making them better teachers and making all of us better in how we are engaging kids, and how we are thinking of kids, and how they should all be given the tools to succeed.”
Jack Lundberg, who enrolled in the AVID elective during Parkrose's first year of implementation, graduated last year and attends Portland Community College. He attested to AVID's effectiveness for students not on the four-year college track. Though he believed he would have pursued college with or without AVID, “I definitely wouldn't have been prepared if I wasn't in the AVID program,” he said. He echoed AVID's assertion that it gives students the tools to succeed in college. “That is one thing I didn't have in high school, taking notes every day in class and then looking over the notes. Time management was a major issue as well and basically having that structural support during high school and then transitioning out of high school realizing that you didn't have that but they left you with the skills to be successful.”

Administrators contend that while an average of ten percent of AVID students drop the elective, they do so for a variety of reasons.

Only Reynolds High School's Assistant Principal Mayra Gomez attributed it to student failure to meet grade and attendance standards.

Ketelsen maintained that some students in the Gresham-Barlow School District drop the AVID elective after a few years because they no longer need the supports offered by it in order to attend advanced courses.

Duron cited other factors, “Usually because of schedule conflicts or they realize how rigorous it is and no longer want to put in the effort. The Madison coordinator says that it is sometimes difficult to retain between ninth and tenth grade because the kids tend to think they know it all, but often the same kids ask to return by eleventh grade.”

Lundberg confirmed that the elective best served students with the determination to attend college; however, he countered the view that students who fail to meet grade requirements automatically are kicked out of the program. “When I was taking AP US history, I actually got a D in the class while in AVID - but it prepared me to take the AP test where I got eight college credits. For me, AVID wasn't always about grades. I'm sure it is when you are going for academic scholarships; but for me it was the study skills that I needed to develop and mature. Also if you didn't do well you would have a chance to do credit recovery over the summer.”

Yet if AVID is so effective, what barriers discourage other schools from adopting it? Oregon has around 60 AVID sites, significantly fewer than Washington, with more than 200 schools.

California, its birth state and a population mammoth, has more than 1,500 sites.

However, bordering states have significantly fewer.

Idaho has only has 18 sites, and Nevada 15. Karen Lewis, the Western Divisional Director for AVID attributed it to funding issues.

AVID costs $30,000 per school to implement.

However, according to Markle, at Parkrose, “The costs after initial implementation are minimal and can be as low as $5,000 per school.” This sum comprises the $3,000-$4,000 annual membership fee, which covers the intellectual property, consultations, publications, worksheets, site certification, data collection, and web access. Materials and ongoing training add to the base price.

Training accounts for the majority of the implementation costs. The AVID contract with schools dictates, “In order to disseminate AVID effectively and to build a strong district AVID College Readiness System AVID center coordinates training and networking of district leaders known as AVID district directors. The primary role of the AVID district director is to coordinate support for AVID within the school system.” The four training sessions, material and support for the district director cost $15,000. Though small districts need not hire someone new for this position, AVID recommends that rural districts with ten or more AVID sites and urban districts with 20 or more sites employ a full-time or multiple district directors to devote their time solely to the program.

The district director oversees the program from a district level. On the school level, each school offering AVID forms and trains a 'site team' to foster leadership and school-wide cohesion of AVID strategies. This group of eight, which must include the principal, the AVID elective teacher, and other content area (math, science, etc.) teachers attend a three-day summer training institute, which costs $739 per person, though they do offer early registration discounts. This year AVID will conduct nine such institutes across the country; however, none of these will take place in the Northwest, necessitating that districts shoulder the expense of airfare and hotel reservations. This year, the closest secondary training session will take place in San Diego, and the hotels AVID suggests range in price from $152 to $170 per night.

“We ask for a team to attend so that it is not a fly-by-night (situation where) two people go to a conference and get all excited and that is the end of it,” said Lewis of AVID. “We actually have an institute where we train them and they meet together as a site team over those three days so they can develop their plan collectively.”

After instituting the AVID elective, schools must then hire additional tutors. Parkrose has employed student teachers for this purpose. “It is a win/win because the students get this amazing high-level training and we are also able to save some costs on the personnel side of AVID by using our student teachers,” said Markle.

Lundgren currently serves as a tutor at Parkrose Middle School.

According to Duron, some PPS schools have held off adding more AVID classes due to the cost of the tutors. “They are our potentially biggest cost,” she said. “Some schools would like to add but they are told to hold back until we have enough support because it doesn't work unless we have the tutors.”

Paid through federal funds Title 1 for low income students and Title 2a for teacher professional development among various other grants, Portland Public Schools employs the AVID elective in 10 schools. They recently obtained a Gear-up grant that will allow them to add AVID in two Roosevelt High School feeder schools next year.

Markle said that Parkrose funds AVID almost exclusively through federal Title 2a money with 80 percent to 90 percent of their Title 2a funds going to the AVID program. In addition, the Parkrose Educational Foundation chose the AVID program as the focus of their fundraiser this year, raising $9,800 for the program.

Still, some question its value relative to its price. Mary Lu Baetkey, a former Parkrose teacher who recently earned a seat on the school board, asked, “Does some of their methodology makes sense? Sure, but at what cost?”

David Douglas School district dropped AVID after two years due to its expense. “In the last three years we have reduced 130 teaching positions and continuing the AVID program would have required more reductions or loss of instructional days due to the cost of the program,” said Don Grotting, Superintendent of David Douglas School District. “Mr. Bier (Principal of David Douglas High School) and the district had some very difficult decisions to make, and I supported his priority to save jobs that would best serve all of our kids.”

Since the AVID elective target group is very specific, districts must decide how much they wish to invest on that population. This factor deterred Centennial School district from adopting AVID. “Centennial did take a look at AVID a while back. Our alternative school was the first school in the district to express some interest,” said Cheryl Williamson, director of curriculum and student learning. “When we looked more closely, however, we found that the population at CLC (Centennial Learning Center) and the population targeted by AVID was not a match. That sent us in a different direction, and we have since been working with a framework called Reading Apprenticeship. We have been pleased with our results thus far. In a smaller district and with limited resources, there are only so many initiatives one can take on and do well.”

Other schools consider the cost worth it. “There are so many initiatives and so many requirements coming out of the state that it is sometimes hard to get an audience to understand what works and what doesn't,” said Duron from PPS. “AVID strategies really match the smarter balanced assessments that are coming out of the state and AVID does a really good job to show how their strategies align with the common core standards so I think we are moving in the direction of embracing more of the AVID strategies more broadly.”

At Parkrose and Madison High Schools, AVID elective students comprise only 14 percent of the student population. At Gresham-Barlow's two high schools the AVID elective serves around 10 percent and at Reynolds High School, approximately 6 percent of the student population participates. Some middle schools have a much higher percentage, for example, 50 percent of seventh and eighth graders at Jason Lee and Vestal Middle Schools are enrolled. Administrators attributed the higher enrollment at middle schools to a number of factors, specifically the facts that high schools offer a larger selection of more tempting electives and generally have a smaller number of available seats in the AVID classroom in proportion to the school population.

Duron of PPS also said, “We generally don't accept 'new' students to AVID after sophomore year. This is because the other students have had so much time to gain the background knowledge that's important to be a successful AVID elective student, and there is already a 'family' built.”

However, since AVID advocates institutionalization of their strategies throughout the school, they assert that the benefits extend beyond those enrolled. “We teach other teachers in content areas how to use our strategies so they are imparting that information to many more kids than just the AVID students who are in that elective class,” said Lewis of AVID.

After launching the elective at Parkrose High School in 2008-2009, Parkrose has steadily progressed to implement AVID strategies in all subject area classes school-wide. The demonstration school status earned by the Middle School this year recognized the successful implementation of AVID teaching methodology in all classes, not just the elective.

“The strategies around writing to learn, inquiry, collaboration, organization and reading to learn are really good strategies across all content areas,” said Markle, “so it provided a cohesive approach, a common language, and actually common behavioral expectations.”

It may seem strange that the middle school, the pre-pre-college school, would surpass the high school in its college readiness practices, but Markle commented that other factors accounted for the middle school's success. “It all comes down to leadership,” she said. “The principal has to have the vision for how AVID can help transform their school and be the driver…. Our high school principal is new this year.”

Parkrose started phasing AVID strategies into the elementary schools this year. “This is our first year in all four elementary schools and we implemented in fourth and fifth grade,” said Markle. “We chose one organizational strategy and one instructional strategy; so we chose planners and inquiry. And next year we will phase in to third and we will have planners and interactive notebooks in fourth and fifth. We are also going to move over into reading to learn and writing to learn as well. The AVID Center has a beginnings program under development. It is very philosophical at this point so we are waiting for them to come up with the curriculum that they use on all grade levels. When they are ready we will probably be ready.”

Not offered as an elective, AVID elementary examines learning strategies at a foundational level. According to Lewis from AVID, the elementary program helps kids “understand how to be a student, how to organize, how to take notes, how to behave in a group and how to ask questions.”

For a successful school-wide program, AVID Center recommends that 50 percent of the teachers in a school receive AVID training through a combination of Summer Institute and the 2-day AVID Path trainings offered for teachers in AVID established districts. The Path trainings cost $430, but like the Summer Institute, take place at fixed locations and entail travel expenses.

Unlike high school or college, AVID training does not earn the teachers a credential that they can then use as proof of their achievement for years to come. AVID recommends that their elective teachers attend the Summer Institute annually, and that other key teacher leaders attend over a number of years so they are prepared to become AVID staff developers on site.

In Parkrose, about 30 percent of staff district-wide has attended off-site AVID training, but those staff members have trained all of the Middle and High School staff. Additionally, all fourth and fifth grade teachers have received either off-site or local training this year to introduce the elementary school program. In the Gresham-Barlow School District, 80 percent of staff have received AVID training, including all of the administrators. Currently, 20-32 percent of teachers at the schools offering AVID in the Madison cluster have undergone training.

Leadership considerations account for why Madison High School came near to demonstration school status but relented. “We seem to have more turnover than I have heard from other districts,” said Duron of PPS. “We want to make sure that it is really well set so that anybody coming into that building can pick up responsibility on that site team.”

To follow AVID policies to the letter, that would involve more training. “Training at Summer Institute is expensive and it is a subject we tackle annually,” said Duron. “We have found that, to get the best foundation in AVID strategies and really understand AVID practices, going to Summer Institute is essential. However, we can't sustain folks going year after year. This year, we're taking predominantly staff who will be new elective teachers - critical to a successful implementation. We continue to work with AVID to provide us with train-the-trainer models. Their criteria for fidelity to the program is very strict and both PPS and AVID want to make sure we're communicating the foundation consistently. My hope is that we can move toward train the trainer model in the next year.”

Lewis admitted that the Summer Institute training accounts for the bulk of AVID's expense, “We encourage schools to send as many people as they can afford to continue to follow their professional development. Our whole goal is to be intentionally focused on professional development for all teachers on the staff to give them a deepened understanding of the strategies we use to help all kids.”

“I think a big challenge is implementation with fidelity because the kids that are in AVID are higher risk kids in a lot of respects, so we have to hold those kids to standards that they may not have been held to previously . . . That is a work in progress all times,” Duron said. “AVID is a great set of strategies but you really have to continue teacher development and teacher selection and site team selection to make sure that that mix is going to be the best to engage the kids.”

“It is problematic when districts implement something, then move on to something different or new every few years, resulting in a term coined 'initiative burn-out,'” said Markle of Parkrose. “The AVID Center advocates for slow and steady implementation, and is on the forefront of current research, designing high-level professional development for schools and districts based on that.”

In addition to the elementary program, the AVID Center has applied their strategies to other specific avenues of education, from higher education programs - that Mt. Hood Community College recently adopted - to summer programs, to culturally specific programs, such as the Excel program, designed for English Language Learners.

Parkrose, Portland Public Schools and Gresham-Barlow school districts have designs to implement AVID Excel in the future.

Though the statistics of its effectiveness on the larger school population remains questionable, AVID sells itself via word of mouth and first-hand demonstration of its practices in action.

Proponents of the program generate enthusiasm for it, and some former skeptics are now the program's biggest fans.

“I was as a special education teacher in the high school,” said Markle. “I had heard about AVID being a college prep program and I thought, 'Great, this is another program that is not going to apply to my students.' But, it surprised me in that it is actually opposite, because it is so structured, and it explicitly teaches organization, and it explicitly scaffolds and gives intellect first and opinion first and writing and reading for a purpose instead of just because it is an assignment. I saw before my eyes students who wouldn't typically be motivated and engaged become motivated and engaged. I think a lot of the AVID framework is really about changing adult beliefs that every student can do this, and so the more that the adult understands about speaking that language and living that belief, students definitely respond to it.”

Enough educators share this belief to earn AVID nationwide and local accolades from administrators.

The concern regarding the best allocation of public funds remains in debate among the greater population.

While college graduates earn more on average than high school graduates, the price tag of that education has risen exponentially over the past 30 years, a harsh reality to low-income AVID students who strive to achieve the dream of a college education.

In turn, AVID is not the only college prep program to receive scrutiny for its cost.

The most recognized college preparatory organization, the College Board, which operates the near-universal college qualifying test, the SAT, as well as AP classes, has come under fire recently for the $720 million of revenue they accrue in part by charging students $49 each to take a test required for entry into most colleges.

In 2011, AVID reported $28,533,252 in earnings for their program services. Of that sum, $28,135,147 went to program expenses.
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