Movies and TV shows about high school may not be the most accurate depictions of reality, but they dramatize a singular truth: High schools, especially big ones, have an anonymity problem. It’s easy for students to feel lost in the shuffle from class to class and from grade to grade as they wrestle with academic and social challenges. Without help, it’s easy to graduate from high school without discovering a passion or figuring out a path to the future. And in many high schools, counselors are too busy supporting hundreds of students to get to know individual students on a personal level. That’s the challenge advisory programs are designed to solve.

What is Advisory?

Advisory programs go by many different names. The way they’re structured varies from school to school. But generally, an advisory program consists of small groups of students meeting regularly with a teacher or staff member during a dedicated class period. Often the same group of students will stay together with that adult throughout all four years of high school.

Advisory is not synonymous with homeroom or study hall. A good advisory program provides students with structured academic, social-emotional, and future-planning support. Critically, advisory is also an opportunity for students to develop a relationship with a trusted adult — something research shows makes a significant difference in how well students do in high school. “Advisory is really the backbone of the secondary experience,” says education consultant Tom Vander Ark, the CEO of Getting Smart, a Washington organization focused on school design, coaching, and professional learning.

So much so that as seniors at the Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia planned their graduation ceremony, they asked to be called to the stage to receive their diplomas with their advisory groups — rather than singly in alphabetical order — flanked by the faculty member who had been their advisory teacher for the preceding 4 years. The request, says Principal Chris Lehmann, shows how much a strong advisory program can become “part of a school’s culture and DNA.”

Why Advisory matters

At the heart of advisory is a simple, research-based concept: that students are more likely to thrive when they have stronger relationships — especially with at least one adult in the school building. One study found that students who developed strong relationships with their advisor performed better academically and socially.

That relationship helps students find their way, Vander Ark says, and guides their decisions about the future, from what courses they’ll sign up for next semester to what they’ll do after graduation. “The questions [advisory] helps students answer ‘What are my interests, what does the world need, and where do those two areas meet?’ are more important than any class you could take,” Vander Ark says.

What to look for

A good advisory program has clear objectives and (some) structure.
Advisories should meet at least weekly, with activities focusing on one or more of the following: Study skills and academic support; character development and social and emotional learning; and goal setting and college and career preparation.

Unlike in academic classes, where the curriculum dictates what is covered, advisory should be flexible enough to meet the current needs of each group of students, says education consultant Rachel Poliner, author of The Advisory Guide: Designing and Implementing Effective Advisory Programs in Secondary Schools — whether that’s working on study skills or brainstorming ideas for life after high school.

“The focus of advisory is the kids, not a curriculum,” Poliner says. But just putting students together with a teacher during a free period isn’t enough. “Advisory should feel like this middle ground — not as unstructured as hangout time and not as structured as class,” she says.

Every school is unique; good advisory programs should be, too.
While advisory models such as Project Wayfinder and CREW have been adopted by many high schools, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach. This means that educators can build programs that are specifically tailored to the needs of their students — and continue to fine-tune the program as those needs evolve.

Advisory programs won’t work without a positive school culture.
If a school has bullying or other school climate problems, advisory alone isn’t going to create a culture of kind and caring students. Likewise, if teachers are known for harsh or arbitrary punishments outside of the advisory classroom, it’s unlikely that students will suddenly trust them with their hopes and dreams when it comes time for advisory.

Advisory teachers need time and training to be able to support students.
Leading an advisory class is not something teachers can jump in and do without support. It’s essential that the school provide them with training, adequate time to prepare, and the opportunity to collaborate with the other advisory teachers.

Advisory should give students the chance to have an impact on their peers.
Some schools incorporate student leadership and government, but all programs should allow students the opportunity to mentor or support each other or plan activities that impact the broader school. Well-developed programs include regular elements that allow students to “have a voice and take the lead,” Poliner says.

Key takeaways

For parents: When looking for a high school, ask if they have an advisory class. If so, find out how it’s structured and what’s covered during that time. A school should be able to articulate what they’re doing with that time and why. Good advisory classes include support with academics, social and emotional issues, and plans for students’ post-graduate plans.

For educators: To explore more about what it takes to run a good advisory class, check out: Five Tips for Teaching Advisory Classes at Your School. It may help with informal mentoring of your students in other classes, too.

For administrators: Are you interested in introducing an advisory program at your school? Consider sharing this guide with your principal or fellow faculty: The Advisory Guide: Designing and Implementing Effective Advisory Programs in Secondary Schools.

This article is part of our Transforming High School series, a collection of stories, videos, and podcasts exploring the practices that prepare students for success in college and beyond.

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Updated: May 3, 2021