"The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2009) recommends school climate reform as a data driven strategy that promotes healthy relationships, school connectedness, and dropout prevention" (Thapa et. al. 2012).
According to the latest National School Climate Study (2012) "A growing number of State Depart¬ments of Education are focusing on school climate reform as an essential component of school improvement and/or bully prevention" (page. 2). Schools are often looking for quality ways to create a safe atmosphere for students. Using advisory groups is one way to promote a healthier and more nurturing school climate.
Student advisory groups are not what you are probably thinking. This doesn't just mean that school social workers and school psychologists work with groups of students who are in need. Advisory groups are small groups of students that span the grades in the school system and every staff member has a part in it. It can help make a large school feel a little bit smaller.
Student advisory groups allow for a couple of students from each grade level to get to know peers in other grade levels. It also encourages students from upper grades to be role models for the younger students in the school. Older students need to learn to be role models and understand the responsibility that comes with being the oldest students in the school. Establishing advisory groups is one way that many schools are creating a community of learners and showing students that they have an important part in their own educational process.
In the school district where I am principal we have advisory groups at all of the elementary schools. The one in our particular school has been in existence since the year before I became principal while the other schools have created their groups over the past few years. We call our advisory group Kids Club but one school calls their group Peace Groups and the last school calls their advisory time together Tiger Talk (their mascot is a tiger). Kids Club was based on an idea that staff got from reading the book The Big Picture: Education is Everyone's Business by Dennis Littky.
Advisory groups are not simple to put together but the time it takes is well worth it when the kids meet with their advisory teacher. Typically, once or twice a month we meet with our groups for fifteen minutes and talk about what is going on in the school or at home. Sometimes they complete surveys on how much they enjoy the school lunch or other aspects of the school. When I first became principal the students had an opportunity to choose which playground equipment we could get for our new playground.
The advisory group that the principal has is not all the students who frequently get into trouble. They are an evenly balanced group of students just like every other staff member has. I have about 10 students from kindergarten through fifth grade. One of the great things that happens is when a child transfers from our school to one of the other elementary schools, they understand the concept of advisory groups already and feel comfortable contributing to the group because they know the process.
"There is extensive research that shows school climate having a profound impact on students' mental and physical health" (Thapa et. al. 2012).
I have not always been a promoter of character education programs. It's not that I don't believe in character education because I do. I just believe that if the program doesn't become a part of the culture of a school it is harder to see if it is effective. Advisory groups offer schools the opportunity to really delve down deeper into the topic of character education because the groups are the venue that help build the culture. In the words of Todd Whitaker, "It's people not programs." Advisory groups will be successful if the people in the school believe in them.
In New York State we have the Dignity for All Students Act (DASA). All schools in New York State are required to "include classroom instruction that supports the development of a school environment free of discrimination and harassment, including but not limited to, instruction that raises awareness and sensitivity to discrimination and harassment based on a person's actual or perceived race, color, weight, national origin, ethnic group, religion, religious practice, disability, sexual orientation, and gender" (N.Y. State Commissioner Regulation 100.2 (c)). Our schools are using our advisory groups as one way to meet this very important mandate.
In the End
Advisory groups can be beneficial to creating a safe and nurturing school climate. In addition, they help all students, even those who are new to the school, an opportunity to feel like a valued member of the educational community. Many students feel a special connection to their advisory teacher because they may be in the same group with them for up to six years.
School culture is so important to the educational process. It's through a positive school culture that we meet the social and emotional needs of our students so they will feel safe and learn. We want our students to leave us feeling that we listened to their needs, and our advisory groups is just one of the ways that schools can meet that need.
Creating an Advisory Group:
• 3 or 4 teachers work together with a list of all staff members.
• Add one or two students (depending on size of school) from each grade level into a group
• Each group stays with the same staff member year after year. This is clearly harder to do with schools that have high teacher turnover or in schools that have experienced many budget cuts
• Put together monthly topics that each staff member should discuss. Remember that not every staff member knows what to talk to kids about
• Use character education words. For example, every staff member in the district is talking about "Respect" with their advisory groups
• Each staff member should get a plastic organizer that has crayons, pencils, scissors and other supplies.
• Organization is key. School days are busy and the more the planning group can do some of the thinking for each teacher the better. Teachers need to be prepared on the morning or afternoon of the advisory group in the event that something comes up that morning that prevents them from having everything they need for the group.
• Advisory groups should last no more than twenty minutes
• The principal or secretary uses the loudspeaker to announce the beginning and end.
• All staff members stand in the hallway to welcome students and make sure they are being polite in the hallway as they individually walk to their advisory group.
• Grades 1 through 4 students walk on their own to their Kids Club.
• Grade 5 students pick up their kindergarten Kids Club peer and walks them to their destination.
• Every Kids Club group has a plastic organizer that holds different ideas for meetings, as well as crayons, scissors, and other items needed for crafts and projects.
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Peter is the author of Dignity for All: Safeguarding LGBT Students (Corwin Press).
Thapa, Amrit, Jonathan Cohen, Ann Higgins-D'Alessandro & Shawn Guffey (2012). School Climate Research Summary: August 2012. National School Climate Center. New York, N.Y.
Littky, Dennis (2004) The Big Picture: Education is Everyone's Business. ASCD. Alexandria, VA.