The Simple Complexity of Advisories

Years ago, I shadowed a student through an all-day school visit. Marius was confident and happy, engaged in his classes, bristling with energy and full of comments on the teachers and the connections he was discovering in the school’s interdisciplinary block-scheduled program. I was pleased, of course, to be having such a wonderful day with this bright young man at this thoughtful school. Eleven o’clock arrived: advisory time. I accompanied Marius to his advisor’s classroom where, for the first time in my presence, he slumped in his chair, legs sprawled, face blank. Other students filed in. No greeting from the teacher. Some did schoolwork, some played cards, some gossiped. One seemed to nap. The teacher pulled aside a few, one by one, and conferred about matters mysterious to the rest of us. It was a deadly, jarring interruption in an otherwise vibrant day.

Later in the day, the principal confirmed what was obvious enough: the quality of advisories varied wildly at this school, and I happened upon a bad day in one of the weaker advisories. No, there wasn’t any professional development for advisories yet. Yes, most of the teachers had been at the school prior to the implementation of the advisory program, and not a few were resistant. There was a goal-academic support-but no particular design to support it. Believing in advisories, the principal carved out the time in the day to make advisories happen, but he soon realized that they weren’t going to happen on their own. And yes, he believed that until the school could do more than just make time for advisories, it wasn’t going to be able to reach its goal to become an equitable place for learning, not for students and not for professionals.

Denise Wolk, Program Associate at the Education Alliance and co-author of The Power of Advisories notes that my experience with the dead zone advisory wasn’t unique. “Advisories have become the reform du jour,” says Wolk. “A few years ago advisories became one of those things that a lot of schools and districts wrote into federal Small Learning Communities grant applications.” Sold on the idea of advisories, many schools are realizing that they require the commitments of appropriate structures aligned to specific goals, connection to the school’s mission and culture, and ongoing professional development.

Form Follows Function

Those commitments produce an evolving range of advisory forms. Some Essential schools hold advisories in fifteen-minute increments at the start and close of the day. Others meet every other day for an hour. And elsewhere, much of the on-site learning and teaching happens in advisories that serve as a home base for students’ personalized learning, providing a setting that replaces traditional classes.

Some advisories gather students together as ninth graders, and together they stay until they graduate. Others intentionally combine age groups. Some create all-male and all-female advisories; still others are carefully considered combinations of students and adults, as diverse as possible. Some have space devoted solely to the advisory; others meet in classrooms, closets, lunchrooms, or courtyards.

While too frequently prompted by circumstances-a lack of time, a lack of space, a lack of a plan-this advisory diversity is often the result of varied goals. A school that wants to create mentoring among older and younger students will value a different advisory group composition than a school that regards advisory as the main place to focus on progress toward grade-level exhibitions. When their goals are well-defined and organized to support the students’ overall school and life experience, schools report, advisories gain traction and become sacred. (For pointers to much more information on and help with goal-setting and choosing complimentary advisory structures, see “Resources: Workshops and Publications to Help Schools Plan and Strengthen Advisories.”)

Connection to the Core

Mark Rush, English teacher and CES coordinator at Brooklyn’s Bushwick School for Social Justice (BSSJ), knew how not to do advisories. “I came from a school at which advisories had been whittled away to once a week and were set up for failure.” As its 2003 opening approached, BSSJ was committed to including advisories done right. “I didn’t stop believing in what I thought advisories could be,” said Rush. “What that meant was close personal relationships between students and staff. It would be a place for kids to interact with other kids in a safe way to talk about issues that don’t get talked about. We wanted teachers to be go-to person for parents.” As time for planning dwindled and the school’s opening approached, however, new circumstances tightened its goals for advisories. “We were facing new mandates from the Board of Education that seemed to limit our ability to write creative curriculum,” Rush reports, “We realized that we could use advisories to emphasize our social justice curriculum.” BSSJ’s advisories meet daily, mid-day, for fifty minutes, with fifteen students per teacher, serving as the locus of students’ efforts to synthesize their evolving learning about equity. This connection to the core mission of the school got advisories at BSSJ off to a powerful start.

In addition to providing a forum for focusing on essential, unifying curriculum, advisories create the fundamental conditions for personalization. Advisories are the time, location, and social organization that ensure that each student is known well by at least one adult in the school, that the child is for at least a part of the day, personally recognized. This focus can-and should-take academic form. Breaking Ranks II, the National Association of Secondary School Principals’ strategic plan for high school reform, recommends that all students have personalized learning plans. Advisory is the home for the assessment that such plans demand; it’s the place where students, families, teachers, counselors, and community converge to create, demonstrate progress toward, and update each student’s unique plan for learning and growth.

And advisories are the best place to create connections with the students’ wider world. Mary Ann Pitcher, co-director of Chicago’s Young Women’s Leadership Charter School (YWLCS) says, “It’s really about creating relationships with families.” As it happens at many other Essential schools, family interaction with the school is largely mediated through advisories, which serve as the nerve center for informal communication, scheduled conferences, and parent leadership. At the same time, notes Pitcher, teachers need the most support in the area of family communication. “It’s where a lot of teachers struggle. Teachers are often younger than parents, or from different cultural or economic backgrounds. This inhibits their ability to reach out and pick up the phone at the drop of a hat.” Addressing this challenge via role-plays, colleague observations, readings, and discussion, YWLCS has located the work of building connections between teachers and families at the center of its professional development.

Professional Development

For many teachers, discomfort with advisories extends further. The teacher who sees herself as “a science teacher, not a guidance counselor” sounds a legitimate alarm: she needs support to help her use advisory as a place to focus on goals and deepen relationships with students. She needs to know she has the ability to call on counselors, social service providers, and other specialists, to assist her in the work of knowing young people’s whole worlds. But she shouldn’t feel that she must respond front-line to all crises. Mara Benitez, former advisor and school leader at the Arturo Schomburg Satellite Academy High School and current co-director of CES National’s Small Schools Project observes, “Investment in advisory pays off schoolwide, creating the kind of teachers that really can do intense personalized work with students. Advisories are the micrcosom of what the bigger school should look like.”

It’s also crucial to include advisories in a school’s cycle of inquiry and self-examination. Denise Wolk suggests, “Look at indicators that can affect student achievement such as attendance data, disciplinary referrals, and minor suspensions.” Using action research to demonstrate the positive effects of advisories on these phenomena provides data that sells advisories to doubters throughout the school’s community.

Sacred Time with the Kids

In A New Kind of Science, Stephen Wolfram observes, “Remarkably simple programs seem to capture the essential mechanisms responsible for all sorts of important phenomena that in the past have always seemed far too complex to allow any simple explanation.” Advisories may well be described as one such simple program. Advisories allow schools-necessarily intricate and complex-a simple, reliable way to teach and emphasize the best qualities of their cultures, nurture their students’ resilience, confidence, and personal power, center themselves around meaningful teaching and learning, involve parents and community, create professional and personal growth for teachers, and become personalized, equitable, safe, and joyous places for learning. Advisories provide an inviolable time and space to pause, collaborate, breathe, reconnect, mend, learn, work, and then relaunch into the world.

Ultimately, the power of advisories comes from relationships and connections: a simple concept that allows the complexity of a vibrant, intellectually challenging, equitable school to flourish. “It’s sacred time with the kids,” says Mary Ann Pitcher. “Ultimately, you have to give yourself up to them and talk about their lives, their jobs, their families. It might not seem like productive time but it sure is; it’s how we establish relationships.”

Works Cited

National Association of Secondary School Principals (2004). Breaking Ranks II: Strategies for Leading High School Reform. Reston, VA: National Association of Secondary School Principals.

Wolfram, Stephen (2002). A New Kind of Science. Champaign, IL: Wolfram Media.

A New Kind of Science is available online in its entirety at


Horace 7.1, “Are Advisory Groups ‘Essential’? What They Do, How They Work?” is a 1990 look at advisories in Essential schools. Among its contents is “Some Advisory Group Models,” a useful collection of various forms of advisories in CES settings.

Horace 19.1, “Making Great Teachers into Great Advisors: Advisory Training at Parker Charter Essential School,” describes the Parker staff members’ collaborative inquiry into improving their skills as advisors.