Student Advisories:  Forging A Different Path Forward

August 13, 2018 no comments S

Today on the blog we have a guest post by friend of EdVisions, Dr. Nancy Allen Mastro. We hope you enjoy her thoughts on the benefits of multi-age advisories and how they work at Northwest Passage High School in Coon Rapids, Minnesota. Special thanks to NWPHS and Peter Wieczorek!

Dr. Allen-Mastro began her career in education as an elementary school teacher and later spent 26 years as a school administrator, serving in a variety of roles, including Principal, K-12 Director of Curriculum, Instruction, & Assessment, Assistant Superintendent, and Superintendent in rural and suburban schools in Minnesota.  She earned her Bachelor’s degree from Montana State University, a Master’s degree from Bemidji State University, and a Doctorate from the University of North Dakota.  She retired in 2017.  

 

Student Advisories:  Forging A Different Path Forward

By Dr. Nancy Allen-Mastro

 

What if schools in America had never been?  Imagine how they might be today if we were creating them for the first time.  Would they look very different?

It’s hard to say.  Tradition wields a mighty stranglehold in education.  But the fact is, our centuries-old approach to schooling falls short of what today’s world demands and is well-behind what research tells us we should be doing.  In the digital age, an unconventional, highly personalized journey is fast replacing an outdated curriculum that has been both time and space-bound. Despite annual school improvement efforts, schools find it hard to keep pace with change.  

Perhaps the future begs a different path.  Instead of trying to make the old model better, what if we set out to create the kind of schools kids need?       

Northwest Passage High School, a charter school in Coon Rapids, Minnesota did just that when they broke with tradition 15 years ago.  Originally designed as a school for credit-recovery, they could have stayed the course and did what many alternative schools do.  They could have dished out packets of work to complete while counting down seat time until students amassed enough credits to earn a diploma.  But they listened when their students told them why and how school had failed them.

Peter Wieczorek has been an employee at the school for 15 years.  For the first eight years, he was a biology advisor (teacher). For the last six, he has served as its director.  Having been there while the school experienced its transformation, he’s also part historian.

According to Wieczorek, when the school first opened, students said they loved its small environment and the intimate class sizes.  But most of all, they valued the connections they were making at the school. “Having someone who was looking out for them, someone who connected with them personally was what they had missed in previous settings.”  Students insisted that if they had experienced this type of program earlier in their school career, they would not have failed and would not have had to rely on credit recovery.   

Research supported what their students were telling them.  “Teenagers need strong mentors and role models besides their family,” notes Wieczorek.  “We knew and believed in the power of small groups, and we wanted to create that.”

To the staff, it has been a hero’s call to action ever since.  With an inspiring mission statement to guide them, bit by bit, they’ve built a project-based program where students take responsibility for their own educational plans.   

Student advisory groups serve as the foundation for keeping things up close and personal at Northwest.  Advisory groups are not a new concept in education. They’ve been around for decades. Unfortunately, in traditional secondary schools, most have devolved into brief study halls with little purpose.  Not so at Northwest Passage High School. At Northwest, students’ entire educational experience stems from their advisory program.

First, advisories are used to set the culture.  From the start, they were always multi-age. “We wanted to strip down the hierarchy of traditional school models,” says Wieczorek, “and get away from the idea we had to separate students by age and grade.  Instead, we wanted a learner-centered model.”

Second, staff knew they wanted to focus more on project-based learning, which is highly individualized.   They wanted students to earn credits based on their interests, not what grade they were in because of their age.  Advisories became a natural drive wheel for personalizing the curriculum.

One reason multi-age advisories work so well at Northwest Passage High School is that students can enroll at any time in their high school career.  In fact, roughly two-thirds of students enroll in 10th, 11th, or 12th grade. Grade levels no longer serve a purpose. There is no stigma of what grade a student is in.  If it takes less time or longer than four years to graduate, that’s okay.

“Our approach has freed students up to really focus on their goals,” says Wieczorek.  “Students are often surprised when they dig into it [the curriculum] and they aren’t labeled by grade.  And they look at each other as individuals, not around labels and grade-level stereotypes.”

How Northwest organizes their multi-age advisories is not left to chance.  Students new to the school are carefully placed to ensure a cross-section of experienced students are available to teach and mentor new students.  As the director, Wieczorek does an intake meeting with each student and family.  In it he listens for the student’s interests, their prior learning experience, what has gone well, and what has not so he can match the new student with the right advisor or group.  Students stay with the same advisor for the entire time they are enrolled, which further builds a sense of belonging within the school community.

One would think advisory is for a period of the day, but here again, Northwest Passage breaks with tradition.  After 45 minutes of schoolwide silent sustained reading every morning, advisories open with announcements and other routine check-ins, but from there it can go a variety of directions.  

Morning advisory sets the tone for the day.  Advisors intentionally engage students in the group experience, which never exceeds 15 students.  Seated in a circle, sharing begins. Questions may be asked, topics may be explored, or the conversation may go organic based on what’s on students’ minds.  Yet advisors carefully guide their group to ensure connections are made.

According to Wieczorek, “Advisors get students to talk about what’s going on in our kids’ world.  This approach really helps personalize and humanize everyone there. We’ve found it helps to reduce things like conflict and bullying.  Kids get to know the people in their advisory as a person.” Advisories also create an identity, something that ties the members together.  This further builds group cohesion.

Beyond their morning meeting, advisories are not defined by time.  Students could be in their advisory all day long working on their individual projects.  Or they move around the school as needed for projects that require certain spaces, such as a science lab.  There are also numerous student committees where students take an active role in democratic forms of student governance.  What better way to enlist the commitment of students?

It’s not only about forming relationships at Northwest Passage.  As of last year, the school converted fully to a project-based model.  The advisor plays a critical role in helping students create their individual projects.  “They are the front line,” Wieczorek says. “The student drives the process, but there is a lot of teamwork between the advisor and each content specialist to create the student’s personalized learning plans.”  This ensures state standards are met and competencies are formally assessed. A student’s advisor signs off on each project.

It’s easy to see that at Northwest Passage High School, advisors are more than a teacher.  Because advisory groups are kept small, advisors have the benefit of seeing the big picture in each student’s life and get to know them on a deep level.  They are their students’ advocate, their life coach, their cheerleader, and the one ready to deliver tough love when needed. The role comes naturally to staff, says Wieczorek, because they believe in what they are doing.   

When asked what advice he’d give to schools that want to deepen the advisory experience, Wieczorek becomes reflective.  “In too many large traditional high schools, the connection between adults and young people has been lost. There are too many classes and too many students.  The relational piece has gone missing. People who want to teach want those connections too. The best way to support kids,” he says, “is to build long-term relationships with them.”  

That’s good advice.  

What will your advisories look like come September?  

You can visit Northwest Passage’s website at http://nwphs.org.