Advisories limp along without pay, prep time

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Almost a year after the student advisory mandate went out from central office, counselors in Chicago’s public high schools are still in love with the idea, but they and teachers are frustrated with the reality.

“I want this to work,” declares Deborah Dunleavy, a teacher/advisor at Von Steuben High. “I feel that it is not—not because it is a bad idea, but because the necessary conditions aren’t there for the outcome.”

Pioneered by New Trier Township High School, advisory brings a small group of students together with a teacher/advisor—ideally for four years—to give students a home base and help them with study habits, course and career planning and typical teenage challenges.

In response to a November survey, all 89 of Chicago’s public high schools and transition centers said they were conducting advisories. However, conversations with teachers at a number of schools suggest the term is being used to cover a wide range of programs—from a typical “division,” which deals with announcements and housekeeping, to attempts, like those at Von Steuben, to carry out and even go beyond the board’s advisory curriculum.

“Some places are doing a lot with it, some are not doing very much at all,” says Chuck Pistorio, an advisory consultant from Northeastern Illinois University.

In the survey, 34 schools reported “insufficient materials/resources,” while most said advisory activities were being done in standard, 30-student division classes.

Central office is writing and producing booklets of materials as the school year progresses. However, it is not paying teachers for the extra work or providing additional preparation time or staff development. Nine schools reported using their own discretionary funds to pay teachers for taking on advisory.

“Compensation is the major issue” affecting success, says Girod Walker, the administration’s advisory project manager. “If we can get that, I think things will settle down.”

Jackie Gallagher, spokesperson for the Chicago Teachers Union, says the union will continue to raise the pay issue in “strategic negotiations,” but that no formal agreement is in sight.

Since the survey, at least one school, Schurz, has dropped advisory completely. Last June, Schurz teachers rejected a contract waiver that would have created a daily advisory. (See Chronicles, June 1997.) In September, they filed a grievance after being told to use the board’s advisory materials weekly, during a built-in long division period. In late January, the grievance was resolved in the teachers’ favor, and the materials were recalled.

“[The grievance] had nothing to do with the question of whether advisory is a good idea,” says union delegate Debby Pope. “We were being asked to teach something we’re not familiar with, without an increase in either preparation time or pay.”

Walker agrees with teachers’ call for preparation time. “I don’t want anyone just going into a classroom and opening up the book,” he says. “There needs to be some kind of preparation time for teachers to read the material, make copies and so forth.”

Dunleavy would like more flexibility, too. She thinks the pressure to complete prescribed activities makes it harder to connect with students. “I regret that I’m creating a barrier between me and my division kids,” she says. “I’m spending more time making them do things they don’t want to do than dealing with something real. It’s real tempting to just say, ‘bring your homework and talk to me if you have a problem.'”

Dunleavy is the kind of teacher who naturally gravitates toward mentoring. “Some of us are by nature touchy-feely. Come, tell us your problems. Weep on me,” she says, her voice a mixture of irony and real enthusiasm. During one two-minute trip through the hall, she stopped or was stopped by four students.

Opinion divided

But in early February, Dunleavy must beg her students to give advisory a chance. “Guys, sit in a group with people you are willing to talk with, so we can do this assignment—please?”

During the 20-minute period, they discuss how and where to make new friends in school. The bell rings in the middle of the discussion, but not before Dunleavy points out, “As much as you guys make fun of division, 18 of you said you made a friend in division.”

Asked how they like advisory, two Von Steuben freshmen offer striking contrasts.

“It’s boring,” declares Alla Trakhtengarts. “We sit and do nothing.” Alla says she did not make friends faster in division than in her academic classes. She says she has not participated in any advisory-type activities in division.

But Joanna Wegrzynowicz says she had. “I like it,” she says. “We get into groups and discuss whatever topic they give us, once, twice a week.” She says she did make friends faster in division than in other classes.

Morgan Park scheduled advisories for freshmen and sophomores outside of division; it also asked teachers to volunteer for the duty; and it decided to tap state Chapter 1 funds and a junior academy grant from the board to pay teachers at their regular hourly rate.

Delores Walker, for example, conducts advisory with one of her sophomore English classes. One day in February, 24 students break into small groups to discuss the hypothetical case of a teen who stole an art book. To save time, Walker assigns a different possible response to each group and asks it to find supporting evidence in the case study.

The groups focus intently—there’s little clowning around. Two groups reject the solutions they were assigned and create persuasive arguments against them.

After class, Tenille Medley raves about advisory. “I really enjoy it,” she says. “I don’t know where my life would be if we didn’t have it.” She credits the lessons on study techniques with raising her history grade and praises the career exploration component.

Despite their successes, Morgan Park teachers and counselors have gripes, too. According to an in-house survey of 18 advisors, top concerns are motivating students to participate in activities when advisory does not carry credit, and building connections between advisor and students when the advisor is not one of their classroom teachers.

Gale Williams, the school’s advisory coordinator, wants the board to put its money where its mouth is. “People at the board say advisory is very important, but they don’t give [students] credit for it,” she observes. “They don’t pay teachers for it. They’re contradicting themselves.”

New Trier: heaven on earth

At New Trier High School in Winnetka, home of the nation’s first advisory program, a deep and longstanding investment in teachers as advisors appears to be paying off.

Although only two out of five faculty members serve as advisors at any given time, New Trier evaluates all prospective teachers on their potential to be good advisors. Teachers volunteer for the job, and advisory counts as one of the five classes in a normal workload.

“It takes easily as much time, more time, than a class,” says Jeff Markham, an English teacher and advisor, who adds that he spends “an immense amount of time” on the phone with parents. He also meets informally with students throughout the day—he briefly interrupted his conversation with a reporter to check in with an advisee who was passing by in the hallway.

Advisors perform many functions done by guidance counselors at other schools, such as registering students for classes and acting as their advocates with classroom teachers. “It’s hard for advisors to stay boxed up within their own discipline,” says Jon White, assistant principal for student services. “They’re constantly going to advisees’ other teachers. They have to learn the curriculum for the whole school, not just their department.”

They also see sides of their advisees that might never appear if they merely taught them an academic subject. Every advisor Catalyst spoke with volunteered stories about their advisees.

“I had a kid who came in cowboy boots and put his feet on the desk every day for four years,” recalls Chip Carpenter, who shepherded six consecutive groups of advisees through four years of high school. The boy’s grades “were on a roller coaster” and Carpenter felt he had failed to make a connection.

“The summer before [his] senior year,” he continues, “I got a call around 1:30 a.m. The kid was hysterical—his father had just died. Here’s a kid I thought just hated my guts. … I jumped in the car and went over. We walked around the block until 3 or 4 in the morning. He never really sought me out again.”

Carpenter now is the supervisor of sophomore boys’ advisors.

The most obvious duty an advisor takes on is the advisor room—a single-sex group of 24 students who meet for 25 minutes every morning. Although there are activities and field trips for advisor rooms, there are also days when little seems to be happening, at least on the surface.

But unlike most schools, New Trier takes special care in assigning students to their rooms, grouping students across academic levels and interests to make each room a microcosm of the school. “We’re trying to get them out beyond their cliques,” says White.

In Janet Springer’s sophomore advisory, some girls aren’t sure the program helps them break out of cliques, but they enjoy its more obvious benefits. Today they breakfast on bagels and orange juice while Springer takes attendance and makes announcements.

Sophomore Victoria Carlson likes advisory and thinks it’s especially valuable for freshmen. She got to know people in advisory better than fellow students in her academic courses last year. “I think [cutting advisory] is more upperclass. I don’t know why you would want to not come. I think it’s fun.” She adds that she would talk with Springer about a “school-oriented” problem, but would talk with friends about interpersonal problems.

Springer attributes the success of New Trier’s advisory to “backup.” Each grade level has two “advisor chairs,” veteran advisors who act as dean of girls and dean of boys. They assist with discipline and mentor the advisors for their grade level. Advisors attend weekly meetings with the chairs, a school social worker, the “post high school” counselor and a special education teacher.

“You shouldn’t make decisions without backup,” says Springer. “That’s the key to making this system work.”

Evanston in transition

Meanwhile, Evanston Township High School’s advisory program is about to undergo radical changes, changing from a freshmen-only course to a New Trier-like system. A preliminary proposal called for teachers to take on their new roles without pay, but at press time, the school board was reconsidering in the face of stiff faculty opposition.

The school’s current advisory is a one-semester course required for freshmen. Teachers volunteer, and are paid an overtime stipend of $3,000 for teaching a sixth class—during second semester they supervise study hall or take on a similar duty.

English and humanities teacher Gay Berardi doubles as advisory coordinator. She prepares weekly plans for teachers, who receive an extensive curriculum combining videos on teenage problems with an introduction to the school, plus the academic work to fulfill the state’s required course in consumer education.

“I do the preparation for everybody,” she says, including scheduling the VCRs on video days so teachers won’t be caught short. “It takes some preparation [for the individual teacher], but not as much as a class.”

Counselors drop by three times a week to meet with students individually.

In the cafeteria, freshmen from different advisory classes debate the program’s merits. “I love it, actually,” raves Katie Birks, “because I get to watch ‘Degrassi High.'” The video series, created for public television in the 1980s, presents teen dilemmas.

“The discussions we have explain stuff you need to know,” adds Dan Whiteley.

Matt Lewis disagrees. “It’s pointless,” he argues. “We really don’t do very much. All we do is watch videos. I don’t think anybody really takes it seriously. I don’t take it seriously.”

Katie and Dan don’t see what’s so terrible about watching videos. “I mean, you get a grade for it, so why not?” asks Dan. He also claims there’s more to advisory than TV time. His class has discussions “almost every day,” and he likes his advisory teacher.

Whatever the merits of the current system, it is about to be scrapped in favor of a “home base” program somewhat like New Trier’s advisory. Berardi, who will coordinate the new program, says teachers will spend 18 minutes daily with a group of no more than 16 students. Teacher and students will interact without a specific curriculum and stay together until the students graduate.

A proposal allowing advisory teachers to choose between extra pay or release from a supervisory duty has been submitted for action at the March 9 meeting of the School Board.

“To ask [teachers] to do 18 minutes extra with 15 more students, no, it’s not fair,” says Berardi. “The faculty just said no. They [the board] listened, as far as we can tell.”