May 09, 2007

Advisory Answer?

After a week of trying to figure out how to sell our SLC model to the staff of the high school where I work, and being stopped at ever turn by the realities of scheduling, facilities, and the challenge of teacher buy-in, I have come to a conclusion: what we have designed in committee may not work for our school. It could work, but the way I see it right now, we’ve created a structure that resembles a holy brick of Swiss cheese that is precariously perched upon a bed of sandstone. Sort of like the King of Swamp Castle (if you don’t get that one, don’t worry).

However, there is one element in our SLC design that I believe will work, can be scheduled, and that teachers will buy into. It is the idea of creating an advisory period where teachers will have a heterogeneous group of twenty students to meet with every day for the entire four years that the students are enrolled in high school. The concept comes from one of my colleagues who experienced a similar course while attending college.

A radical idea? I don’t think so (certainly not as radical as a whole-school transformation). The SLC goal is to create smaller learning communities, right? That could be done through complete school restructuring, moving teachers, and complicated scheduling, or it could be done a whole lot easier by simply leaving teachers in their own classrooms and adding a single class to the daily schedule. The students and teacher within this Advisory course would be their own smaller learning community that would last over a 4-year period of time. Teachers would be given a structured opportunity to get to know their students well, and for those students to connect with other students sharing a common identity.

What’s in it for the students? Students want to feel like they belong to something. Often times, a high school of 3400 students is just too big to feel like anything other than 1 of 3400 students. But being 1 of 20 students is very different. When you are 1 of 3400 students its easy to hide away or fall between the cracks. Impossible when you are 1 of 20. Also, if a student works closely with the same teacher for all four years of high school, and their teacher serves in the role of advocate for the student for four years in a row there’s a far better chance that that student is going to be successful.

What’s in it for the teachers? Teachers want to be effective, and yet there are always some students who get left behind. Having 20 students that a teacher can concentrate on make sure that those 20 students are never lost little sheep, but instead under constant supervision. If a student is struggling in a course, the course teacher can turn to the advisory teacher for assistance on how best to help the student in question. And how much fun would it be to announce on stage the names of your 20 very own advisory students when they graduate? Very rewarding indeed.

What’s in it for the administrators? The scheduling, facilities, and management nightmare that could be brought on by a whole school restructuring gone bad make me not even want to consider ever becoming an administrator. Administration is there to support the teachers who support the students. Adding one more class to the daily schedule and making minor changes to the bell schedule seem a whole lot easier than the alternatives, and even easier to undo if things were to not work out for everyone involved after a year or two. Our SLC design pretty much doubles the workload for administrators and counselors; adding a single advisory period to the day changes little or nothing to the administrative responsibilities.

Why is this a better idea then what’s already been decided on? It’s simpler and potentially more effective. My father taught me to always K.I.S.(S). If our goal is to get kids more connected to school, then the advisory period is enough to get it done without ravaging the current campus environment. While yes teachers would be given an additional class to teach each day, and yes it would mean fewer instructional minutes for other classes (if the advisory class met for 18 minutes daily it would mean deducting only 3 minutes from each of the currently scheduled six periods), the payoff is overwhelmingly more attractive in application to the alternative.

Is an advisory period the whole answer? No. While an advisory period addresses many of the goals of developing an effective SLC, it does not address them all. For example, it does not support teachers of a common set of students having classrooms in close proximity to each other. On our campus teachers are spread out all over the place in subject unalike buildings and zones where many feel isolated and detached. But even if we did move teachers of a common set of students to classrooms in closer proximity, that alone will do nothing. Moving teachers should encourage them to collaborate, but collaboration happens best with shared ideas and with individuals who enjoy working together and is not contingent upon location.

Isn’t the advisory period already part of our overall SLC design? It’s where I believe we should start. I plan on recommending to our principal that we at least start with the advisory period and then add on the rest of the plan over time as we see the need. I’m afraid that if we swing with the big bat, and we strike out, that we may not only never get another chance in the batter box, but that the resulting failure might do irreparable and long lasting damage to our school as a whole. No one wants that. This is an unbelievably great school that does not require major reform, just some tweaking here and there. Starting with the advisory period first gives us the opportunity to do reform right.

May 03, 2007


Soon I will sit down with my colleagues and explain to them why our high school is going to be transformed from one huge (3400 student/120 teacher) institution into four smaller (850 student/30 teacher) schools. We are making this transformation because the campus administrators and 25 teachers in a design team committee (of which I am one) have studied the available research on smaller learning communities, have looked carefully at the needs of our students, and have applied for and received a large sum of money in the form of a grant to follow the current trend in public education of downsizing. I honestly believe this transformation (if executed correctly) will be a positive change for the students and staff of this high school. Now I must convince the staff of teachers and support personnel that this change is necessary and will improve the current performance and long-term success of the students.

I’m struggling a little bit with the “necessary” part. Struggling because while I believe that this is the best course of action, my belief is stronger than my evidence. Teachers appreciate evidence over beliefs, so I feel like I need to come up with a concrete argument to make beyond “I think this is a great idea,” or, “we’re doing this because the principal said so.” The high school I work in already has a 735 API score, dominates the county in most athletic and academic competitions, and sends better than 80% of it’s students to higher education. I believe in “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” and so I am struggling to find a justification for change at a school that is already great. But of course, it’s not really “great” for EVERYONE involved. For every successful, engaged, enlightened student who is connected to Drama, football, or band, there is one or more who isn’t connected to anything on campus. For every teacher who feels like an effective educator and is crazy passionate about teaching, there’s one or more who feel exhausted, disenfranchised, and desperate for some form of adult interaction and collaboration to help them through their day.

There is a consensus of thought that believes that a smaller population of students taught by a smaller number of teachers will result in students who are better known by their teachers and teachers who will enjoy a more collegial relationship with each other. The key to collegiality here is building time into the Master Schedule for teachers to meet and work together. Seemingly impossible within the standard 6 period day model (5 preps and 1 conference), but the standard 6 period day model works very well for this campus and these teachers. I’m afraid my colleagues will not willingly give up their 6 periods in exchange for 7 or 8 periods (or dare I say, block scheduling) unless they are shown how a change to what works will make what works work far better. In addition, many believe that teachers who usually work in an environment without any adult interaction all day, can benefit from working in closer physical proximity to other teachers of either like subject, or in our model, same smaller school. That means that some teachers will have to move classrooms. I anticipate that this will be a very unpopular aspect of our transformation.

Our born in committee smaller 4-school model has been designed and approved, but the model itself is incomplete and untested. The division including in the model is based on the current administrative structure of the school: we have assigned one of the four assistant principals to manage the discipline of one of the four proposed schools. Our administrators will have to be effective on two tiers: the first as the dean of discipline of their own smaller school while at the same time attending to their more campus-wide responsibilities in areas like testing, facilities, activities, scheduling and the other behind-the-scene support mechanisms that assist teachers in teaching.

The counseling staff is comprised of nine counselors who currently divide up the population of students somewhat evenly. Its only somewhat even because this model gives all of the special education students to one counselor, all of the ELL students to another counselor, while the remaining seven counselors service the balance of the kids. This too will have to change. For some reason the counseling department at our school (and I understand this may be true at other schools as well) is a constant source of frustration for the teaching staff. While a wonderful group of individuals, the relationship between teacher and counselor seems forever frustrated by counselors who never seem fully aware of all of the program offerings and requirements of the teachers, and by teachers who struggle to comprehend the complexity of scheduling students into classes and balancing the number of students in sections. If any one issue holds up the transformation process it’s likely to come from the counseling department that may insist that our new 4-school plan “cannot be scheduled.”

Initially I though that the design team when presenting this transformation to staff would be forced to hard-sell our plan like a used car salesman trying to move an 86 Plymouth off the lot. But after sleeping on it, I think what we really need to do if we are going to be effective is act more like therapists. If I had developed a serious disease and my doctor was explaining his or her preferred course of treatment to save my life I certainly wouldn’t want to be shown charts and graphs along with a clown making balloon animals while listening to the score of Batman. No, I would want my doctor to patiently and carefully speak to me as a guide to my recovery and outline the steps we would need to take to not just save my life but to ultimately improve the quality of my life. I would want a collaborator, a helper, and the absolute reassurance that life would indeed get better for me over time.