Highlands Blog

Advisory by Design

Bo Garrett
What is Advisory?
Highlands Advisory program extends to all Middle School students and is a cross-grade program that gives students an opportunity to work with fellow students and an assigned faculty advisor on areas such as self-image, building on strengths, increasing confidence, risk-taking and other qualities central to Highlands’ whole-child philosophy. The program reinforces the concept of community throughout Highlands by giving students the opportunity to work with students across the Middle School student body, mentor students from lower grades, and identify opportunities for leadership and service learning within and outside of the Highlands campus.
Advising Day
Advisory groups meet to discuss specific topics, from study skills to current events. Students can talk through challenges, ideas or observations with each other and with their advisor and receive positive coaching related the development of various skills.

Design Day
Students are exposed to a variety of challenges requiring design thinking and problem solving skills. Students work through the process of ideation, prototyping and revision, learning to empathize with end users to solve problems and generate ideas from specific feedback.

Game Day
Game days focus on collegial competition and team building. Highlands five advisory groups compete against one another in student/faculty designed obstacle courses and challenges, strengthening communication and collaboration in a high-energy, active environment. 
Why is Advisory so important?
  • It allows for increased opportunities for Social-Emotional Learning and community building.
  • It allows time to discuss and navigate the new landscape of radically new, digital and virtual relationships.
  • Kids come to school to see their friends; they interact in class and co-curriculars like sports and clubs. Advisory is a distinctive time for sustained mandatory, direct, and purposeful face-to-face social interaction.
  • We are still learning more about the developmental variability among adolescents and the related emotional and social difficulties that most of them experience. Advisory allows for time to explore that variability.
Admittedly, we struggled over the last few years to develop an advisory program. What we came to realize was that what we needed more than anything else was time dedicated to Advisory.

Through the ISM scheduling process, the Middle School faculty was able express their desire and willingness to develop a much needed Advisory program and ISM responded by creating a schedule that gave us the time to do just that.
We worked with ISM over the summer to develop a mission-driven program. The Middle School faculty drafted an Advisory Mission Statement aligned with Mission, Strategic Plan, and the SAIS Self-Study.
Advisory Mission (using mission language -- Provide, Create, Instill, and Prepare):
  • Provide a safe, secure environment for students to develop socially and emotionally
  • Create strong relationships among the student body and throughout the school community
  • Instill advocacy for every student, cultivating a personal balance of academic and personal goals
  • Prepare students to be leaders and active members of their community, fostering a sense of social responsibility and a commitment to serve others
During a webinar with Roger Dillow, author of Mission-Based Advisory: A Professional Development Manual, we were able to discuss some essential elements to a successful Advisory program:
  • Establishing group norms and expectations for all groups -- the faculty, the Advisories, and even in our classrooms
  • Positive Coaching -- caring, demonstrating that we care to students and their parents
  • Building and sustaining relationships
  • Cultivating a routine for student-led discussions, “temperature readings”, facilitate difficult or challenging discussions
  • Once established can be instrumental in helping students through times of crisis -- real or perceived
Part of the Advisory experience is exemplifying the philosophy as faculty members. It is our duty to embody professional good faith, openness, collegiality and teamwork. We also focus on making Advisory ‘untouchable’. It is the last block of time to be sacrificed for other activities and the number one item on the agenda every morning. We have established Advisory group identities with mascots, flags, songs, chants, etc. Thus, adding to the teamwork theme of the program. Our Middle School faculty bought in to these Advisory responsibilities from the beginning, expressing a deep commitment to professional growth and constantly seeking help and input from advisees. It is crucial that we, as faculty members engage everyone in the experience.
The Highlands parents were also involved in the program from the beginning. We conducted goal-setting conferences during orientation and surveyed parents regarding students’ strengths and interests. During our conferences, we were able to establish a positive coaching structure, begin the goal setting process and emphasize constant, consistent communication as a key to success. As a continuation of this communication, we conducted Fall Advisory Conferences with the student, parent and advisor. In these conferences, students took the lead. They gave a temperature reading of their experience thus far, expressed how they are feeling about their performance and had the opportunity to discuss their progress and struggles. In the spring, we will conduct another round of student-led conferences in which we will discuss their portfolio of work and their progress toward year-end goals. We will also work to set goals for end of year, summer, and fall  2017
Throughout our progress in the Advisory program, we have learned that Advisory is, by nature, a constantly changing endeavor. Just as our students are going through a personal evolution, the Advisory program must also evolve in order to remain authentic to their experience. We still have a long way to go, but by all accounts we have had great success thus far and we anticipate continued growth. 
Highlands School, 4901 Old Leeds Road, Birmingham, AL 35213, (205) 956-9731
Highlands School's 'whole child' approach to education and commitment to academic excellence, creative expression, and leadership development prepare and motivate students in grades 4k through 8 to make a positive difference in an ever-changing world. Located in Birmingham, Alabama, Highlands School holds dual accrediation from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) and the Southern Associations of Independent Schools (SAIS).

For more information, visit www.highlandsschool.org.