Advisory programs in high schools are not a new concept. In fact, they have been popular in schools for more than two decades. They were born out of an early movement to personalize an individual school for each student and ensure that schools connect every student with at least one adult who can understand and advocate for them as needed.

Schools employ a variety of advisory models in their schools today. Programs are often modeled after best practice research, state requirements or standards set by regional school accreditation intuitions.

The New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC), the accreditation institution for the Northeast, never calls out the need for an advisory program directly in their standards. Rather, they state: "There shall be a formal, ongoing program through which each student has an adult member of the school community in addition to the school guidance counselor who personalizes each student's educational experience, knows the student well, and assists the student in achieving the school-wide expectations for student learning."

It is up to member schools to interpret this NEASC standard and incorporate it into the organizational structure of their school. The last two decades have provided school administrators with a wealth of research and practical knowledge on how to implement an advisory program. Education Northwest did a great job summarizing some of that work in their 2011 article "What the Research Says (or Doesn't Say): Advisory Program."

Still, after 20 years of implementation in schools nationwide, the question remains: What have we learned about how to make the most of the advisory model in the high school setting?

Earlier this spring, Tom Vander Ark, Mary Ryerse and Bonnie Lathram of Getting Smart explored the "Role of Advisory in Personalizing the Secondary Experience." With the rise of personalized learning, competency education and digital learning, now more than ever schools need to find ways to be able to connect their adults with students.

"An advisory is a key component of a distributed student guidance strategy that includes regular meetings between an advisor and a group of students, that meets at regular intervals, has a clear focus, and is something in which all students and staff participate in," the trio wrote.

From there they identified five core elements that all advisory programs must have:

  1. Weekly academic monitoring, connections to academic support services
  2. Connection to youth and family services
  3. Support for positive school culture
  4. Support for career awareness
  5. Support for postsecondary education awareness and decision making

Vander Ark, Ryerse and Lathram go on to recommend that the ideal advisory is between 18-22 students that meet 1-5 times per week for 20-30 minutes. Advisories should focus on topics such as college and career preparation, academic support, social and emotional learning, and character development.

"A strong advisory program has adults who ask students lots of questions, and adults that show a genuine interest in listening to students' responses, helps them create a vision for their futures, and then helps them enact strong goals to help them meet their goals — for college, career and life," they wrote. "An advisor's job is to help students plan for that life through visioning, goal setting, asking questions, being an advocate and simply being there for students."

As schools move to more personalized educational models, the role of advisory has evolved. At my school, for example, a school that is a national leader in the competency education movement, advisory groups are structured by grade level.

Our ninth grade advisories are closely tied to our Freshman Learning Community model and focus on transition to high school and character development. Our 10th grade groups are tied to our Sophomore Learning Community and focus on a variety of high school appropriate character, social/emotional and college/career readiness skills.

In the 11th and 12th grades, we group students by a career pathway interest, and we build in opportunities for our students to explore their post-secondary plans in more detail. At all levels, we incorporate a flexible academic component that allows students on certain days to take advantage of intervention, re-teaching and enrichment opportunities with their academic teachers as needed.

Our advisory model has evolved over the last five years as our personalized learning model developed. It is the backbone of our student support system to help all of our students be successful in school and beyond.