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.