Photo-39-1By Sarah Novick

Advisory can be a great vehicle to implement character education. 

I recently had the privilege of getting to know students, teachers, teacher-advisors, and administrators involved with revamping an advisory program at San Francisco University High School (SFUHS).

For about 20 years SFUHS had an advisory period in its schedule. When I got to know the school a few years ago, students described advisory “a chill out time,” “a time to eat really good snack,” and a place where they could “hang out with friends.” While this non-academic break during a busy Friday after a stressful week is useful, especially for high achieving, stressed-out students at a rigorous high school, administrators wanted to create the infrastructure to better support students’ character, social, and emotional development. In this post I want to take this opportunity to share some of my insights into their successes as they revised their program. 

In their article in Principal Leadership magazine, DiMartino and Clarke indicate that successful advisory programs share common elements:

  1. There is a stated purpose for advisory that addresses the needs of the students, advisors, and school.

  2. This purpose guides all decisions made regarding the program and advisory is organized to meet that purpose (i.e. advisory structure: number of students in each group, frequency of meeting, etc.).

  3. Content and environmental/cultural guidance regarding the routines and activities that take place in advisory are clearly communicated to advisors.

  4. School leaders prioritize the program so necessary and appropriate resources are allocated to the advisory program’s implementation, including the training and professional development of advisors.

Stated Purpose:

Prior to revitalizing the advisory program, SFUHS delineated their values and the core competencies they wanted their students to have developed by graduation. They identified those competencies as community, communication, self-awareness, self-care, integrity, and scholarship and described the habits they aimed to develop in their students. Then they created the goals for the new advisory program–now called the “mentoring program”–to support students’ growth of those identified skills and abilities. 

Today, SFUHS’s mentoring program goals are:

  • To create an environment in which students feel connected, engaged, and known.

  • To support students’ academic achievement.

  • To support students’ capacities for self-awareness, compassion, self-care, and citizenship. 

When considering creating or improving your school’s advisory program, these questions may be useful as a guide:

  • What are the school’s values?

  • What competencies, skills, and/or abilities would you like to see your graduating students exhibit?

  • What are some grade-level goals that would lead to the demonstration of those proficiencies?

Structure:

San Francisco University High School had advisory in its schedule for almost two decades. Thirteen to 14 students and their advisor met once per week on Friday mornings for approximately 40 minutes. Now with a clear purpose and defined goals, the school’s administrators decided the size of the groups in the mentoring program should stay the same but that it needed to meet more regularly. The mentoring program meets three times every week for about 40 minutes, on Monday and Wednesday at the end of the school day and on Friday morning.

No advisory program is the same. What structure would work for your school? It’s important to take into consideration factors such as the daily schedule, whether shaving off some time from each period is possible to make an advisory period, the arrival/departure of buses, staffing availability, and how big to make the advisory groups. 

Clearly Communicated Content and Culture Guidance:

Prior to revamping the program, SFUHS’s advisors did not receive a written, or otherwise communicated, set of guidelines or expectations. The decisions they made about what to do in advisory and how to help their students were based on what they thought they were supposed to do, what fellow advisors said they were doing with their advisees, and what they had time for. In order to get out of this advisory rut, administrators and school staff created a compelling program that garnered the advisors’ interests and respected their desires for a plan that could be implemented in the amount of time and with the resources to which they already had access. 

In the mentoring program, advisors are given a scope and sequence for the school year based on the school’s core competencies in September. They are also provided with a detailed series of recommended lessons and activities for the first six weeks of school. SFUHS decided they wanted the advisory “curriculum” to be flexible and adaptive, so program administrators and advisors together develop the rest of the year’s content around the core competencies, but with their particular students in mind. Additionally, advisors’ culture-related goals are to develop positive individual relationships with their advisees, create comfortable advisory environments that supported the development of peer relationships, and provide social, emotional, and academic support to their students. Advisors play group games with their advisees to aid the development of those connections. They also share “Highs and Lows” weekly, in which students and advisors offered the highlights and lowlights from their week.

SFUHS advisors appreciated many aspects of the mentoring program. One advisor, Cecily, shared her positive impression of her advisory’s environment:

It’s fun to watch [my advisees] and to watch the way they are with each other and the way they are just comfortable in that group. I think that’s a really unique experience in high school — to have a group that you can be comfortable with for no reason except that…someone put you there and you have to go. And yet it’s created this really comfortable, warm vibe for those kids.

Another advisor, Jennifer, described the impact she and the other advisors had on their advisees upon communicating their high expectations:

I think that we, as sort of a mentoring cohort, have set a tone with the ninth graders that it seems to really have an effect with just their presence at this school, and how they’re perceived by the rest of the school. I think we really have been clear to them about our expectations in terms of how they should present themselves at this school and what we would want them to be like as community members and responsible citizens of this community. So, I think that’s been a really valuable piece.

Finally, another advisor, Madeline, spoke about how being an advisor in the mentoring program has benefitted her ability to support students:

The [teaching] role [at SFUHS] is very much focused on academics and focused on time in the classroom and focused on instruction in one’s discipline and area of expertise. But when you think about what it means to be a high school teacher, I think many people feel that it’s much more than just instructing in your area of expertise. And that it’s really being a role model and you know teaching life skills, and just really supporting this immense period of growth in a child’s life. And so I think that not only is this program supporting the students in that, but really supporting the adults to be the best presence that they can during that period of growth in the child’s life.

There are a lot of resources out there to help teachers and school leaders intentionally develop their advisory curriculum and environment:

New Visions for Public Schools – Student Advisory Publication (http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED521692.pdf)

Ryan Champeau’s article Great Relationships, Great Education (http://www.nassp.org/leading_success/readings/M8R1_PLmar11_pp38-40.pdf)

Claire Cole’s guide Nurturing a Teacher Advisory Program (http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED360078.pdf) 

Training and Professional Development

Advisors in the mentoring program at SFUHS attend advisor training before the school year starts. This training provides the opportunity for the advisors to get to know each other as well as learn how to be advisors of adolescents. They cover topics such as expectations of the advisory program, advisor roles, adolescent development, communication with advisee teachers and families, systems for keeping track of students, and counseling skills for non-counselors. 

Advisors also receive support throughout the school year. By grade level, advisors meet regularly to discuss themes and issues they are noticing across the grade and to troubleshoot challenges specific students are experiencing. Advisors have a dedicated grade-level mentor coach (another school teacher) who gets course relief to provide advisors with support. They also participate in professional development on topics such as adolescent substance use/abuse and effective strategies for communicating with parents. One of SFUHS’s key principles is that advisors should receive as much support as they are expected to give. 

Advisory should not be stressful or anxiety producing for the advisors. And because teachers are trained in their content area and not in advising, it is vital to provide learning and growth opportunities.

Like the development and implementation of any program or curriculum in a school, creating a successful advisory is not for the faint of heart. As DiMartino and Clarke have stated, “Strong, committed leadership is essential to the establishment of a successful advisory program.” With that commitment, and attention to the advisory’s purpose and goals, well-defined structure, clearly communicated content, and training for advisors, advisory can be an effective tool to leverage students’ character, social, and emotional capacities and skills.

Sarah Novick began her career as a special education teacher before completing her doctorate in Curriculum & Teaching at Boston University, where she worked alongside character education advocate, Scott Seider.