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The Rev. Thomas E. Johnson, Jr., Co-Founder and Head of School, The Neighborhood Academy

Rev Thomas Johnson.jpbIn the December 2010 edition of this publication, I described the outcome of a comprehensive review of our Advisory Program at The Neighborhood Academy, a college preparatory school, serving low income students, grades 8-12, from a cross section of Pittsburgh, PA neighborhoods.  That article focused on the necessity of an effective Advisory Program for a school that has as its mission serving low-income students as well as college admission and graduation in four years for all of its students.  The focus of this article is to detail the administrative changes in the Advisory Program, the expectations put in place for all advisors, and the advisory curriculum that has been developed over the past three years. 

Foundational to all that appears below is the idea that advisory is critical to the success of our school and that the goal of achieving a baseline quality of experience for students across the board must become a goal shared by all faculty and staff.  Finally, there is no substitute for intentionality; things do not happen as a matter of course or simply because we wish it so.  Advisory, like any other aspect of the life of a school, must be the product of shared vision and responsibility.

A critical moment in the journey of the program as it was to its present incarnation began with a comment made by a member of the faculty: “You realize, don’t you, that the only person worried about this is you?”  Point taken; advisory could only grow when it ceased to be the headmaster’s concern and became everyone’s concern.  That particular transition was marked by fits and starts.  Initially, in my enthusiasm there were attempts at professional development, inboxes filled with links on goal setting and the soft skills necessary to advisory, and faculty meeting discussions where it was a matter of luck   whether people were engaged or barely awake.  Finally, we formed a committee, I stepped out of the planning, and gave the group a short list of non-negotiable expectations, and they took over.  The structure of advisory that grew out of this three-year process is as follows:

  1. A focus on group advisory where eighth and ninth grades are grouped together, as are grades 10 and 11.  The college counselor remained, as he has all along, the 12th-grade Advisor.  In effect, each student stays with his or her advisor for two years.
  2. We focused on advisory as a part of enrollment management in that the committee matched particular faculty with particular grade levels based on preference and perceived strengths, paying special attention to the academic, social, and organizational needs and challenges of first-year students.  Simply put, we wanted first-year students to be able, as much as possible and appropriate, to become second-year students.
  3. The committee created an Advisor’s Handbook that includes clear description of the goals of the advisory program, the duties of the individual advisor, the distinction between advisory and counseling services, and resources.  This handbook is available on our website.
  4. The Advisory Committee established an Advisor’s Portfolio that all Advisors must submit to verify that they are attending to the themes and concerns of the Advisory Program and as a means of evaluating the quality of the program.

The advisory curriculum is based on the developmental needs of each grade.  For eighth and ninth grades, making sure their heads remain attached to their bodies and are not forgotten somewhere is a primary concern.  Advisors help clean lockers, organize notebooks, teach and demand social etiquette, and attempt to inculcate the values and culture of the school.  For the tenth- and eleventh-graders, there is still attention given to overall organization and time management skills and goal setting.  At the same time, the college counseling process begins for this group of Seniors focus on college selection and admissions, research for scholarships, the SAT, and the senior research project called Senior Seminar.  With the curriculum in place, clarity about expectations becomes essential.

All advisors are expected to be the primary liaison between school and parent.  Advisors meet with parents during Parents Orientation each fall and three times per year to distribute grades.  Advisors also generate a letter discussing the student’s holistic growth during that particular term and are present as much as possible at all parent conferences. While we stress that they are not counselors (and they are clear that they do not want to be), advisors are the first step in an extensive support service for students at The Neighborhood Academy.

Finally, intentionality has been critical to our journey to creating and executing a more effective advisory program.  Several factors have become important.  First, consistent with research, successful Advisory Programs have stable and consistent times for advisors and advisees to meet.  At The Neighborhood Academy, that time is Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, after lunch, for 40 minutes.  Another element of intentionality is time for planning and professional development.  We have day-long faculty meetings every eight weeks and part of the day is given to review of student progress and grade-level advisory planning meetings.  A third level of intentionality is that in all new hires, preference is given to candidates with experience in the role of advisor.  We have made it known to new hires and to our current faculty that decisions were made based on these criteria.  Finally, the fact that we have created an evaluation protocol for individual advisors and the program overall is indicative of the commitment and focus that we as a school bring to this initiative.

The steps detailed above have led to great improvement in the overall functioning of the program, as well as commensurate improvement in student performance and the culture of the school.  It is hoped that our journey may, in some way, assist you in your efforts.

The Rev. Thomas E. Johnson, Jr.
Co-Founder and Head of School
The Neighborhood Academy
Pittsburgh, PA
[email protected]


Johnson, T.E. (2010, December). Advising as teaching: A high school advisory program as the vehicle for student success. Academic Advising Today, 33(4). Retrieved from http://www.nacada.ksu.edu/Resources/Academic-Advising-Today/View-Articles/Advising-as-Teaching-A-High-School-Advisory-Program-as-the-Vehicle-for-Student-Success.aspx

Book, A., Krochka, D., Radkowski, P., Scott, J. & Williams, A. (2013). The Neighborhood Academy Advisory Handbook. Retrieved from http://www.theneighborhoodacademy.org/uploads/1/1/1/1/11112188/tna_advisory_handbook.pdf

Cite this article using APA style as: Johnson, T.E. (2014, March). The neighborhood academic advisory program. Academic Advising Today, 37(1). Retrieved from [insert url here] 

Posted in: 2014 March 37:1


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