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Who's Afraid of Student Advisory?
August 2, 2012 | Volume 7 | Issue 22
Table of Contents
Is Advisory the New "Superman"?
Ruth Chaffee, Jeremy Landa, and Sarah Marchesi
This spring, Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times called New Haven "ground zero for school reform in America" (Feb. 16, 2012). Although his claim may be exaggerated, the New Haven School Change Initiative has created structures and provided tools to facilitate effective programming and organizational changes in schools. As a result, Cooperative Arts and Humanities Magnet High School (also known as Co-op), a 650-student arts magnet school in downtown New Haven, Conn., has designed and implemented an advisory program that builds strong, personal relationships between teachers and student with a focus on student achievement through goal-setting.
Our program was developed from an analysis of 2009–2010 school climate survey data that revealed that although students felt challenged academically, they didn't feel they had relationships with teachers where they could discuss obstacles to their achievement.
Figure 1: 2009–2010 Co-op School Learning Environment Survey Results
How comfortable are you talking to teachers and other adults at your school about:
An academic problem you are having in class?
A problem with another student or students?
Something else that is bothering you?
An idea you have for school?
Source: New Haven Public Schools
We reasoned that if we created and supported the development of student advisory groups with strong mentor relationships, then students would have a better opportunity to build at least one strong relationship with an adult in the building. This adult could serve the typical role of a mentor by nurturing the academic and social development of the student, inspiring the student to think about education from different perspectives, and even serving as a liaison between the school and the student's family. Our advisory program builds the student-mentor relationships through regular performance reflection and goal-setting in academic and social aspects of high school.
The success of our advisory program is not something that can be measured on a test, but we have sought to quantify it in some way. The clearest quantitative indicator of the program's success is Co-op's low freshman failure rate, which is among the best in the district and stands first in comparison to other schools with similarly enrolled schools. These schools are racially mixed, and more than 50 percent of the student population comes from a low-income background. As an interdistrict magnet school, about 65 percent of Co-op students are from urban New Haven, with roughly 35 percent from the surrounding suburbs. The results of the pilot program are significant when considering that the Co-op's junior class, with no advisory exposure, had a failure rate on par with the rest of the district.
Figure 2: 2011–12 – Students with at least one grade of F
Total # 9th Graders
# of 9th Graders with >1 F
% of 9th Graders with >1 F
In an education climate focused on testing data, the advisory program has improved relationships between the freshmen and faculty by providing a nonacademic space for interaction. Halfway through the school year, a 9th grade teacher who is also an advisor conducted an informal survey on the program with his students. Of the 88 students surveyed, more than 60 percent responded positively to the statement, "Do you have a personal relationship with your advisor? Could you go to them if you had a problem?"
As coordinators, we observed advisors modeling a reflective technique for their advisees. For example, a classically trained band teacher shared her difficulty with learning to improvise on the clarinet and then learning to teach improvisation to students. A new high school English teacher reflected on his struggle to implement the high school curriculum after years of teaching middle school. These are the kind of humanizing moments that the advisory program provides to build personal relationships.
As we piloted the advisory program for our 9th grade students, we reflected throughout the year with advisors and administrators. With those reflections, we developed some key lessons to any school thinking about implementing a new advisory program.
The program needs to meet regularly.
This may draw from precious instruction time, but if the program is about building relationships, that requires time. Our pilot's advisory sessions occurred about every two weeks, which did not allow for optimal continuity of the relationship between advisor and advisee. For the upcoming school year, Co-op is adjusting the schedule to allow for weekly advisory sessions every Monday to foster advisor-advisee relationships and provide consistency.
Provide clear guidelines for teacher advisors.
We wanted to ensure that volunteering as an advisor would not be an additional burden on already overextended teachers, so we provide them with a prescribed lesson plan and student materials. The advisory curriculum has students analyze their performance and then, in concert with important events in the academic calendar, develop individualized academic and social goals. The advisees also share their progress and obstacles to achieving their goals with their group mates. Although there is flexibility in the curriculum, there is also a standard and consistency for what freshman advisory students receive. This is especially important as we look to expand the program to sophomore, junior, and senior years. By vertical planning across grade levels, the goal-setting and self-advocacy skills we introduced in the 9th grade year can be reinforced and further developed in 10th, 11th, and 12th grade programming.
Parents must be involved.
Parental involvement has been the biggest struggle for our program. Parents were involved in the initial analysis and structural planning of the program, but we have been less successful engaging them afterward. Our design incorporated a parent volunteer for each advisory group who would attend sessions intermittently and act as a liaison to our school's Parent Team. Barriers to carrying this out included the program's rotating advisory schedule, a lack of parking, and long commutes to the school for interdistrict parents. Yet without parent involvement, the reflective goal-setting skills we are teaching in the advisory program may not get reinforced at home.
In reality, an advisory program cannot be your school's "Superman" that's going to solve every student or school crisis, but a focused program can go a long way toward establishing the types of relationships with students that allow for a school to better personalize learning. With that type of personalization and reflection, one can hope that students not only learn how to overcome adversity that comes their way, but also build the responsibility and self-advocacy skills that are necessary for success—and are not typically specifically developed during the school day.
In planning an advisory program, keep in mind that it simply cannot supply everything that the general curriculum might lack (e.g., college preparation, sex and health education, academic goal setting, current events, and grade monitoring). Using data from our school learning environment survey, we developed our advisory program with the strong focal point of building adult-student relationships and helping students develop the ability to set goals and reflect upon the progression or regression to those goals. While we hit that mark, it is still clear from the lessons above that we can make changes to keep our focus narrow and still achieve the types of student outcomes our school desires. As you develop your own advisory program, be clear and focused in your purpose to achieve the best possible outcome for students.
Special education teacher Ruth Chaffee and social studies teacher Jeremy Landa teach at the Cooperative Arts and Humanities Magnet High School in New Haven, Conn. Sarah Marchesi teaches social studies at Roberto Clemente Leadership Academy, also in New Haven.
ASCD Express, Vol. 7, No. 22. Copyright 2012 by ASCD. All rights reserved. Visit www.ascd.org/ascdexpress.
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